Brexit from an Historical Perspective: An Interview with Robert Tombs

Alex Manzoor 23 June 2020

Along with being an Emeritus Professor of French History at Cambridge and a fellow at St John’s, Robert Tombs founded, and is co-editor of the online Briefings for Brexit site. Briefings for Brexit hosts academics who provide scholarly articles in favour of Brexit. In his writings on the subject he utilises his academic knowledge and training to discuss the historical parallels and questions that the Brexit debate brings up. As one of the few prominent openly Brexit supporting academics, Tombs is well positioned to discuss the issue at a deep level in a way that is not always compatible with the media’s desire for simple arguments on both sides.

In many ways the incredibly divisive aftermath of the referendum was one of its most shocking features because, until 2019, it meant that the question of whether the referendum was going to be enacted was up in the air. Tombs was ‘surprised by that as I think most people were’ because if Scotland had voted for independence, ‘I don’t think anyone would have tried to reverse the vote’, nor for that matter would anyone had done so had the Remain campaign won the referendum. As to the reason why so many refused to accept the result in this case, Tombs suggests that it was due to the personal and material attachment that many in the ‘establishment’ had to the EU. This includes ‘many academics, especially those who get research funding from the EU’ and other elites whose careers are defined, often in a large way, by attachment to the EU from so-called ‘elder statesmen’ like Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke. Though it may be a stretch on my part, Tombs’ use of the term ‘elder statesmen’ sounds somewhat ironic, an understandable inflection considering the way in which the media often elevated the opinions of such to figures to a kind of divine injunction that could only be ignored at one’s peril.

In Tombs’ mind these types are ‘professional Remainers’ but they obviously do not make up the entirety of the Remain coalition. He further subdivides the coalition into ‘ideological Remainers’ like the under-25s in general and students specifically, who had a real allegiance to the ideals of the European Union and ‘worried Remainers’, who were ‘certainly the majority’. As a staunch supporter of Brexit, Tombs’ classification of the Remainer coalition occasionally seems stereotypical as it allows little room for pragmatism, instead suggesting fear, self-interest or dogma were the driving forces behind 48% of the population. Tombs makes it clear that he believes ‘project fear’ to have been a ‘deliberate attempt to frighten the electorate’, which he also suggests happened in the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, except this time it did not work.

Tombs is consistently, however, incredibly charitable towards those individuals on the other side of the debate and admits that there was a tendency on his own side to suggest those who wanted to remain were all ‘the elite’, ‘the deep state’ and those ‘who don’t want to accept democracy and despise their fellow citizens’. His careful attempts to properly characterise those who opposed his point of view is rarer than one would perhaps want it to be. Though this interview took place months after the Conservatives won a majority that left no doubt Brexit would take place, a charitable interpretation of the other side, on the Brexit question more than perhaps any other, was still surprising.

Back to the question of why such an effort was made to stop the result of the referendum being implemented once it occurred, Tombs is clear that there was an element of culture war involved. This included those on the side of Remain who, after the referendum, created a ‘largely imaginary’ group of people who were behind Brexit and were supported by ‘fascists’ and ‘racists’. Though he accepts that anecdotes ‘do not tell a great deal’, he does relay a few from the Cambridge area that suggest there was ‘a certain degree of snobbery about this’ where some people suggested that Brexit voters were ‘too ignorant’ or ‘stupid’ to know how to judge complex questions like that of whether the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union. Although it might be due to the fact that he works in Cambridge, one of the most heavily pro-Remain cities in the nation, his experience, and dismay, at hearing the questioning of democracy by people who were dissatisfied with the referendum’s result does mirror the experiences of many who were so frustrated with Parliament’s obstructionism that they granted the Conservatives a stark majority in exchange for what no one else was offering to do: “Get Brexit Done”.

Though he accepts that anecdotes ‘do not tell a great deal’, he does relay a few from the Cambridge area that suggest there was ‘a certain degree of snobbery about this’ where some people suggested that Brexit voters were ‘too ignorant’ or ‘stupid’ to know how to judge complex questions like that of whether the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union.

As a History Professor, he provides a striking parallel from the mid-nineteenth century when the Liberal MP Robert Lowe, speaking in opposition to the extension of the franchise to some working men, snorted “you should prevail upon our future masters to learn their letters”.

A hyperbolic example perhaps, were it not for the fact that prominent Remainers like Richard Dawkins suggested that the lack of an economics or history degree made one, in fairness himself included, unable to decide on an issue like Brexit and suggested that perhaps a practical threshold other than age could be used to decide who is allowed to vote.

‘There has become a sort of divide between people who see the EU as they would like it to be and people who see the EU as it really is’.

On historical parallels generally, the favourite of journalists and commentators, he is generally supportive accepting that ‘it helps one to think of it [the past]’. He was worried about the way in which certain ahistorical assertions became popular during the Brexit debate. For instance, the suggestion that the Brexit-era was one of the most divided when even a cursory look over periods in the twentieth century, from the 1930s to the 1980s, show greater examples of bitter social tension.

He accepts the traditionally left-Eurosceptic, in the vein of Tony Benn, premise that the EU is a ‘largely neoliberal construct’. He is also suspicious about the ‘attempt to create a kind of Euro-nationalism’ wondering why pro-EU campaigners do not worry about this kind of argument being ‘a little bit racist’, or at the very least problematic.

As an expert in French history and the author of a general history on France in the nineteenth century, he is concerned about the ‘very serious malaise in France’, under Macron. Something which has set in due to ‘the sort of thing that here has produced Brexit’. Namely, ‘the sense that large parts of the country have been neglected because they are not really needed’. He notes that the Economist once suggested that post-industrial northern towns and cities should be allowed to be depopulated and that such similar condescension in France has led to an anger amongst many in the provinces in France. This is a European wide problem as you get ‘the same thing in Germany, in Southern Italy and in provincial France’.

He notes that the Economist once suggested that post-industrial northern towns and cities should be allowed to be depopulated and that such similar condescension in France has led to an anger amongst many in the provinces in France.

In all his answers, Tombs’ consistently references those people who have been neglected by politicians throughout Brexit debate, despite them making up a significant proportion of the demographic who voted for it. Likewise, in his historical work and contemporary articles, Tombs imparts historically informed and readable analysis. Such an approach can feel increasingly rare, and refreshing, at a time when figures in higher education often appear to be only writing and speaking to each other.