All nations have some form of “exceptional” narrative that extols their special place in the world. Creating such a narrative is simple. All you need to do is highlight the wonderful or unique contributions made by your nation, ignore any similar contributions from other nations, and sweep under the rug all embarrassing or negative events. Exceptionalism narratives are really a form of nationalism pretending not to be. Usually historians shun these types of distorted histories, but not always.
Currently a group of historians in Britain (Historians for Britain) are playing the exceptionalism card in order to mobilize the population in an effort to disengage from the European Union. In response, “Hundreds of British historians” are challenging the claims made by “Historians for Britain” in an open letter. They argue that “Britain’s past is neither so exalted nor so unique.” They “challenge this narrative, because it does not fit with the evidence we have encountered in our own research, and this approach, because it does not provoke debate but rather presents a foregone conclusion. We think that a history that emphasises Britain’s differences and separation from Europe (or elsewhere) narrows and diminishes our parameters, making our history not exceptional but undernourished. Britain’s past – and, therefore, its future – must be understood in the context of a complex, messy, exciting, and above all continuous interaction with European neighbours and indeed with the rest of the world.”
In The Guardian, Rebekah Higgit also challenges the narrative of British exceptionalism: “Historians and readers of history both need to be aware of the biases of our education and literature. Accounts of British exceptionalism, especially those that lump the rest of Europe or the world into an amorphous group of also-rans, are more the result of national tradition and wishful thinking than a careful reading of the sources.” The same could be said of American Exceptionalism narratives. These narratives tend to breed arrogance and undermine the benefits of historical perspective.
Whether or not Britain should remain in the European Union should be informed in light of the reality of Britain’s past, not the romanticized versions of British Exceptionalism. The stakes are too high.