This morning I was disappointed to see that the UK had voted to leave the EU. Disappointed, but not surprised. I say this not because I have any particular knowledge of modern UK politics or disillusionment about the opinions of the UK population–and it appears to have been fairly clearly divided between the older and younger generations, with the younger generations voting to Remain–but because England has nearly a thousand years of history of doing precisely what it just did.
I am an early modern scholar by training, which means I have spent a lot of quality time with the history of England from about 1500 to about 1660, and quite a bit of additional time with the history of England from about 1050 to 1500. A lot of time. And those thousand(ish) years of history tell me that Brexit is actually quite characteristic of England, not because of inflammatory anti-immigration rhetoric or reactionary conservatism (although both certainly play their part in this vote), but because of a kind of English Exceptionalism which is so deeply ingrained in the identity of both nation and people that it (in many ways) can’t help itself.
For many of those thousand years, by the way, that sense of Exceptionalism was actually quite justified. England has a long national history of being different, both geographically (the whole island thing) and politically, from everyone else on the Continent, and it’s hardly surprising that such an exceptional identity is a bit difficult to let go.
After all, adherence to a very specifically English identity–rooted, by the way, in an ancient and unwritten constitution which stipulated the supremacy of common law (which granted specific rights of property, inheritance, and due process to all citizens) and the limitation of monarchical authority–is what kept England sovereign from 1066 until, well, now. The common law roots of this identity stipulated rights to the common and noble people alike, and placed participatory political power in the hands of both commons and nobility–an arrangement based on Saxon tradition which kept the rulers of Anglo-Saxon England from enslaving their populations and which was used to justify rebellion against and even deposition of monarchs.
The first legal document which contained these rights was an eleventh century contract between the witan (a council of nobles) and Aethelred the Unready known (in modern days) as the Anglo-Saxon Magna Carta, which proclaimed the right of the witan to curtail the king’s power and to retain their own rights of property and inheritance. When William the Conqueror conquered England in 1066, he was functionally forced (although how one forces a conqueror I’m not quite sure) to subscribe to the tenets of common law, granting its rights to the populace and agreeing to functional limitations on his own power.
And the same thing happened with every foreign monarch who has assumed the English or British throne. In short, England has forced kings from other places and with other agendas to conform to the English standard of participatory monarchy and common law since before their foundation–if that doesn’t justify a sense of exceptionalism, I don’t know what does.
When you add to that the global supremacy of the Victorian British Empire (on which, by the way, the sun still never sets), we can hardly blame the UK for feeling as though it is a nation apart (especially since it is, physically, a nation apart).
I’m not arguing here that the UK should be leaving the EU. In fact, I would very much prefer the opposite. What I’m saying is that there are a thousand years of history which explain why the outcome of this vote isn’t surprising to me, and it’s also one of the major reasons I am terrified of the possible outcome of the November 2016 elections in the US.
The US is, for all intents and purposes, an offshoot of seventeenth-century England, which is when English Exceptionalism was at its height. The first English explorers and colonists came to this continent and established holdings (in a horrible and genocidal fashion) during the reign of James I (who was also, by the way, responsible for the existence of the UK, even if he couldn’t convince Parliament to ratify Union).
And that means that the US began already believing itself to be exceptional, because it began as a part of England. When, in the eighteenth century, we decided that we were too good–because that’s what it was, right or wrong–to pay higher taxes to England and rebelled, starting our own country, we not only confirmed that exceptionalism, we heightened it. American Exceptionalism is the product of the defeat of English Exceptionalism, an already-longstanding sense of superiority and entitlement that the new US made even more expansive (both geographically and ideologically) and toxic.
I had hope–until this morning–that the UK would manage to put aside its history and move forward in a global economy and society. I still have hope–although less so–that the US can manage to do the same, but the lessons of history are against us. It’s time to stop looking backward and start looking forward.
Trust me. I’m a historian.