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Brexit and the Mirth of Historians

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Written by Monty Naylor

The nation’s most celebrated historians are chortling again. They become euphoric when any indication of Britain’s post-Brexit decline appears. Now, the elation comes as London loses its position as the most valuable European stock market and inflation ticks higher. As always, their mirth is doubly misplaced.

Dan Snow, the most recognised of our ‘popular historians’, claimed that an ‘epochal reverse’ had taken place when the City lost its financial dominance this week, per Bloomberg.[1] As the combined value of British shares on the London Stock Exchange slumped against the CAC-40, Snow chose to draw some absurd historical allusions to emphasise how Brexit Britain had fallen behind its rivals insulated in the European Union. Among the most trite was the claim that ‘the Luftwaffe set fire to the London Stock Exchange in 1940 and then blasted it with the shockwave of a supersonic missile in 1945 and still did less damage to it than we did.’[2]

This banal historical comparison is very much suited to Twitter and the superficial kind of debate that it is home to. Throgmorton Street did take a battering from Hitler’s bombers in WW2, but the damage was symbolic. Of course Snow knew this when he sent out his ‘Tweet’. Appealing to his ‘FBPE’ (standing for ‘Follow Back Pro EU’) crowd was at the top of his agenda. But it would be a mistake to ascribe an ounce of merit to his statement. The City’s historical dominance can be attributed to the preponderance of huge oil, mineral and financial companies that are based in Britain.[3] In the irresponsible zero-interest rate environment Europe has cocooned itself in since 2008, it is no surprise that companies listed on the London Stock Exchange – most obviously banks – have struggled to perform against their rivals in Paris. Dull utility giants such as Centrica simply cannot compete against empires of luxury goods such as Bernard Arnault’s LVMH, supported by the unusually strong dollar.[4]

Snow ignores all of this context. He also ignores the salient fact that the City was again rated second only to New York as the best financial centre in the world in March.[5] The stagnation of Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt persisted as they failed to even breach the top ten in Z/Yen’s index. Project Fear’s prediction in 2016 that Brexit would signal the end of London’s financial dominance has been proven to be – so far – nothing more than delirium.

As one of the nation’s most recognised historians, we should at least hold Snow to the low standard of not making ridiculous comparisons. Yet he continued to stoop low in a series of anti-Brexit follow-ups, cherry-picking evidence to dish out smug servings to his awaiting virtual echo-chamber. As one example, Snow derided the ‘Take Back Control’ slogan with a proclamation that Dublin could ‘smell the cash’ as Barclays became Ireland’s largest bank.[6] The European Union does not constitute the financial cornucopia that Snow implies, however. In fact, this year British banks made more profit than French rivals for the first time since 2015 – despite desperate efforts by the European Central Bank to shift jobs out of London.[7]

Self-satisfied opining does not end with Snow. In the wake of the high Consumer Price Index (CPI) report, Sir Simon Schama posed that ‘core drivers of inflation are not just energy prices but food prices – latter directly impacted by Brexit’.[8] This is an example of wonderfully lazy linkage between Brexit and an unrelated global issue. Indeed, food inflation in the CPI stands at 16.2%[9] in the United Kingdom, compared to 13.5%[10] in Italy and 20.3%[11] in Germany. The gargantuan German figure is almost double their overall inflation rate, far surpassing an equivalent comparison in Britain. Patently, Brexit is not at fault for what has been caused in large part by the Ukraine War.[12]

Two interesting questions arise from this Twitter chatter. Why are the vast bulk of British historians so determined to cling on to their Remainer credentials? And in kind, why are they so keen to blame every issue that faces the country on Brexit? To both, I offer a simple answer: immaturity. The liberal establishment cannot accept that Brexit may not have been a disaster – and God forbid – may even bring opportunities to Britain. Ever since their declaration in a letter to the Guardian that a vote to Leave would ‘condemn [us] to irrelevance’, British historians have had to lay aside their professional obligation to provide accurate depictions of events to ensure they do not lose face.[13]

Sadly, this is what characterises a large sect of historians in Britain today. Social media has enabled every academic to spout whatever unrefined opinion they may hold at any given time into the virtual stratosphere. Many historians have become no better than crude polemicists, jeopardising their reputation for intellectual rigour. And because this takes place on their chosen public platform of Twitter, the breadth of political debate itself is restricted. Every historian’s ‘prime mover’ should be a desire to illuminate different parts of the past to assist with humanity’s progress in the future. But a class of historians in Britain today – still unable to accept the reality of Brexit – have led themselves astray. If they are to regain integrity, they must complete the five stages of post-Brexit grief and move from depression to acceptance.

Monty Naylor is an undergraduate reading History at Cambridge.

[1] Twitter: Dan Snow Status 14th November 2022. https://twitter.com/thehistoryguy/status/1592219424249241601

Bloomberg, cited in ‘London loses position as most valuable European stock market’, BBC, 15th November 2022. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-63623502

[2] Twitter: Dan Snow Status 15th November 2022. https://twitter.com/thehistoryguy/status/1592473575654838272

[3] Per Russ Mould from AJ Bell investors, BBC, 15th November 2022.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-63623502

[4] Matthew Lynn, The Telegraph, 16th November 2022.

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2022/11/16/sorry-remoaners-london-still-beats-paris/

[5] Thirty-first edition of the Global Financial Centres Index, Z/Yen, 24th March, 2022. https://www.zyen.com/publications/public-reports/global-financial-centres-index-31/#:~:text=The%20thirty%2Dfirst%20edition%20of,policy%20and%20investment%20decision%2Dmakers

[6] Twitter: Dan Snow Retweet 18th November 2022. https://twitter.com/thehistoryguy/status/1055564186355486721

[7] Lucy Burton, The Telegraph, 4th July 2022.

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2022/07/04/city-banks-defy-brussels-out-earn-french-rivals/

[8] Twitter: Simon Schama Status 16th November 2022. https://twitter.com/simon_schama/status/1592818989453185024

[9] Consumer price inflation, UK: October 2022, Office for National Statistics.

https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/inflationandpriceindices/bulletins/consumerpriceinflation/october2022

[10] Italy Core Inflation Rate, Trading Economics.

https://tradingeconomics.com/italy/core-inflation-rate

[11] Consumer price index, Statistisches Bundesamt. https://www.destatis.de/EN/Themes/Economy/Prices/Consumer-Price-Index/_node.html

[12] Mark Sweney, The Guardian, 28th September 2022.

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2022/sep/28/uk-food-prices-soar-by-record-106-as-russia-ukraine-war-pushes-up-costs

[13] Heather Stewart, The Guardian, 25th May 2016.

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/may/25/vote-to-leave-eu-will-condemn-britain-to-irrelevance-say-historians

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Monty Naylor