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Dan Snow: My part in Britain’s downfall

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, 1851. Picture: Submitted - Credit: Archant

The TV historian talks about a missed opportunity and what you can and cannot learn from the past.

Waterloo. Couldn’t escape if I wanted to. Because there was a tree down on the line to Guildford. So I’m in a roof terrace overlooking the station, demanding Dan Snow tells me why he didn’t stop Brexit.

In the arse-backwards way I usually stumble through life, I’ve ended up working with Dan on HistoryHit.TV, his attempt to ‘fight fake news with real history’ through podcasts and online video. In the course of chatting about other things, he let slip that Brexit was, in all probability, his fault.

So, Dan, you could have stopped Brexit, but you failed to…

How did you do that?

For the four weeks before the vote I was in the Yukon, and in many ways that was a blessing. I assumed that the Brexit campaign would have been dead and buried. When I got back, though, I found out that it was level pegging, then they shot one of our MPs, it was insane.

The flotilla was my big missed moment. Three of my great passions came together in that flotilla. Remaining in Europe, boats, and doing things with an eye on their historic relevance. That boat thing was just screaming out for someone to take the helm.

I got off the plane and saw this they’d gone out on speedboats and almost rang my Remain friends to scream at them. Speedboats are not allowed to obstruct speedboats in the River Thames, but sailing boats are. Had they been in sailing dinghies, the Nigel Farage flotilla would have had to have given way.

How sailboaty would they have had to be to make it work? Could they have just put up a handkerchief?

They would have had to have been underway using sail. So, no handkerchiefs. Farage would have had no choice but to turn around. You could have blockaded the Thames.

And we’d still be in Europe.

Well, I’m sure it would have had no major effect, but it would have been a classic victory.

How big a role did historians play in the campaign?

Well, Historians For Brexit were very quick off the mark. They realised, quite cleverly, that history would be a battlefield. Perhaps they had looked at the Scottish campaign and were more attuned to the emotional importance of the heritage arguments. Whereas the Remain campaign focused on the economic argument, that it would hit people in the wallet, and I think we’ve learned that a campaign that ignores history is in trouble.

Shouldn’t historians have known that?

Well, historians did know that. The other side moved very quickly. I helped to gather some names on our side, but it clearly wasn’t enough.

I think the historical argument is pretty straightforward. Since the beginning of recorded history, which in Britain’s case is the arrival of the Romans, the question for British policy makers has been whether to try to change the course of events in Europe or to wait for those events to land on these shores. Because they will.

When almost all of our wars have been to influence the balance of power in Europe, retreating from it seems, historically, like a… poor choice?

What happens in Europe affects Britain whether we like it or not. The plague, physics, Protestantism, all came from Europe. And those are just the things that begin with ‘p’.

If you’re a policy-maker in Britain, you know those things are coming. Whether it’s technology, or ideology, or disease, or religion, you know those things are coming to Britain. Do you try to change it in Europe, and you’re probably going to be outvoted, and you’re probably going to be ignored and it will be annoying and frustrating, but you have a better chance of success than you do waiting on the white cliffs of Dover.

It’s the first policy dilemma ever faced in recorded British history. We hear about the Celtic chieftains learning of Julius Caesar rampaging through Gaul, and they have to decide whether to help their kinspeople in Gaul against Julius Caesar and possibly bring the wrath of Rome down on us, or just hope for the best and hide behind the English Channel and hope he doesn’t notice that there’s an island across there.

In the end, they did seem to help their Gallic friends, and Julius Caesar did come over. The Channel has been a very, very, very bad insulator of Britain.

It just so happens that the one time in British history when the Channel was an impregnable barrier is the period which most Brexiteers look to for their intellectual succour: the 18th and 19th centuries. That wasn’t for reasons of geography, though, that was because we spent a lot of money on the Royal Navy.

Before that, and up to 1688, people crossed the Channel the whole time. Britain has been invaded and raided hundreds of times since 1066.

A French-German, French-German-Dutch, or French-German-Dutch-Spanish alliance from which Britain is excluded would have been a disaster at any other time in history. People say that the EU is becoming more closely aligned, but isn’t that an argument to remain in it, if only to cause as much internal dissension as possible?

The least successful war in British history was the American War of Independence, when, by a disastrous set of circumstances, Britain found itself fighting alone against all European and North American powers. It was a disaster for Britain.

In every Great Power war, Britain has had at least one key European ally, about whom we like to forget. We think about Nelson at Trafalgar. What we don’t think about is that without the Austrians and other allies Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar wouldn’t have had the importance that it does.

There’s an 18th century saying that the British Empire in North America was conquered on the battlefields of Germany, by Frederick the Great. He defeated all of Britain’s continental enemies, and then we were free to go and conquer America.

So are Historians For Brexit just bad historians?

Of course they’re not, because they’re far more distinguished than I am in many ways, but they have a very different view of it. They regard the development of common law, and Magna Carta, and of certain distinct features in the British archipelago as being sufficiently important as to make us a fundamentally different culture to the continent. I guess I just disagree with them about those things.

It’s abundantly clear that it’s foolish to raise a glass to continental turbulence. Those who said: ‘Ha ha! Look at the French Revolution!’ were, a year-and-a-half later plunged into a generational war with this French Revolutionary government.

Those people who regard continental instability with glee are wrong, because we. largely, prosper when Europe prospers. The evidence for that is found in the 1930s. When societies collapse, or fall to fascism or communism it is, in the end, British boys from Wiltshire or Glasgow who end up fighting and dying in a foreign field.

Is there an irony in those historians who claim to love free trade cheering a retreat from the biggest free trading bloc in the world? Is it just a secret desire to return to the unfree trade of the Empire?

I can’t answer for these very distinguished scholars, but I feel I was brought up in that milieu. My journey into history was very conventional. It was reading G.A. Henty. It was being descended from a line of imperial administrators and warriors and soldiers and bishops who had thrived with the empire.

I’m Anglo-Canadian, you don’t need to tell me about the importance of North America. I also know that Canadians regard Britain much as they would regard Japan today. We’re not a kneejerk Most Favoured Nation trading partner candidate today.

I’ve written books about the 18th century. It is a very intoxicating vision when this tiny island that had played a very peripheral role in world affairs until about 1600 suddenly conquered the entire world. By the 19th century it controlled the world in a way far beyond the imperial boundaries.

The British Empire was great not because it dominated chunks of Africa, but because it dominated global trading, finance, and the sea. Even parts of the world that weren’t technically painted pink on the map, that weren’t part of the Empire, were enthralled by it. That’s intoxicating, and for a generation that was brought up steeped in that in all the textbooks, the milieu in which they grew up must have had an effect.

Is that a milieu of bad history? Of history as propaganda?

I think it is history as propaganda, but it’s also history that we stand absolutely no chance of replicating. We’re not going to MABA. No. Mugba. [reasonably long discussion of how to pronounce an acronym for Make Britain Great Again. We settled on M-Bugger.]

Why not? What’s changed?

We had an astonishing, first-mover advantage, that all sorts of people have covered, going from the wind tending to blow from the south west, which meant we were upwind of Europe. We had easily-accessible, high-yield coal. We had deep-water harbours on the south coast near abundant food supplies, and we could keep big fleets in operation.

The reasons for our success in the 18th century are peculiar to the 17th and 18th centuries. If you invent everything first, you reap the benefits of that. I can’t see that as a particularly useful model for the 21st century.

More importantly, it may be – it may be – that in 20 years’ time our GDP is slightly higher than it otherwise would have been, but at what cost in the short- to medium-term?

We are one of the most prosperous countries in the world, we punch way above our weight, we are the sixth-largest economy in the world and we’ve only gone down three or four places since the beginning of the 20th century. We talk about British decline, but actually we’ve done pretty well.

And yet, for uncertain and fairly ambiguous future benefits, we’ve threatened that.

The idea of a global Britain is very interesting. I’ve talked to senior members of the armed forces and I’ve talked to senior diplomats, and they all agree that behind all of the rhetoric of a Global Britain – and some of these people did vote for Brexit – there is not one concrete idea behind that.

Not once has a major politician said: ‘now that we’re a global Britain, let’s tweak our navy, so that we’ve got a better force projection.’ It’s totally, totally meaningless.

The fact that the USA is not in Europe has not prevented America from flooding Europe with its Levi’s and iPhones. I can’t accept the argument that we’re being prevented from being a great economic power by Europe. First of all, we are a great economic power, and second, how can it make us a better one if we sabotage our relationship with the greatest free trading bloc in the world?

If historians disagree about something as fundamental as whether or not Brexit is a good or bad idea, what use is there in using history to inform our decisions at all? It’s very difficult for historians to agree about anything, but it’s very important for people to hear both sides of an historical argument. It’s for historians to provide context.

What does history tell us about the role of the nation state?

In France, a minority of people spoke modern-day French in 1800. The French created a nation of Frenchmen out of the people that lived in that space. It was a mammoth task, but it’s been quite a successful one, because you could argue that most of those people now identify as French.

I’m not as attached to the nation state as many people are, but many powerful interests are. It’s easy to mobilise people behind the nation state, and the idea that you can pool sovereignty is a very unpopular one. That’s madness, because Britain is the greatest example of the polling of sovereignty of all times. Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and England are all greater because we have come together in a union.

We accept that in the UK. We understand that we’re better together. Yet, for some reason, we couldn’t make that argument when it applied to Europe, and I think that’s because of our history and our national story and because Brussels is an unlovable entity.

In 200 years time, do I think that there will still be states called Belgium, and the Netherlands, and Luxembourg and Britain? I think I probably don’t, really.

That will cause a democratic deficit, but what’s the alternative?

Are you hopeful for the future?

In one way I’m hopeful, in that it does seem like we’ll end up with the most almighty fudge. We technically leave, which will allow the politicians to say we’ve left, but we have a transitional arrangement which is easy to continue indefinitely, and that the transitional arrangement is effectively what we’ve got at the moment. We’ll end up in a sort of Norway situation.

And the nutters will scream that we haven’t properly left, to which Theresa May will be able to say: we did. We left the EU. Here’s a piece of paper saying so. What do you want? You got your blue passports back, we’re not in the EU.

One last, hopeful, thing, are we now back in the 1930s? Are we a decade from a global economic crisis seeing the rise of authoritarian, populist nationalism?

Yes. People say we should be very careful when choosing examples from history, but surely the point of history is to learn from the past. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, we do know what happened in the past.

We can identify things that our mad species has done before, and we know that after economic decline, people look for extreme solutions. Where problems are complex, they look for simple solutions.

And that, I’m afraid, is exactly what happened in the 1930s, and has happened many times in history. I’m think the buffers are more resilient than they were in the 1930s, but if you look at what’s happening in Eastern Europe I think it’s deeply disturbing. However, just because it looks like the 1930s doesn’t mean we’re going to have to have a land war in continental Europe.

I can only imagine that this populist surge will, like all movements in history, peak, flood, and then ebb away, because we, the people, will become sick of their snake oil and their easy solutions, and their absurd manner, and we’ll start once again to yearn for the grey men and women to return.

• Nathaniel Tapley is an award-winning comedy writer-performer, who has worked on Have I Got News For You, The Revolution Will Be Televised, The News Quiz, Tonightly, Gigglebiz and Dick & Dom. Follow him on Twitter @Natt

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