Island Stories: Britain and Its History in the Age of Brexit by David Reynolds - review by Bernard Porter

Bernard Porter

The Past is Another Country

Island Stories: Britain and Its History in the Age of Brexit


William Collins 294pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

It’s probably too much to hope that anyone on either side of the Brexit debate will have a proper grasp of the history that many of them claim backs up their positions on the issue. This is despite the fact that a number of leading Brexiteers have themselves dabbled in British history, and even written books about it, most notably Boris Johnson with his fairly well-received The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History (2014) and Jacob Rees-Mogg with The Victorians: Twelve Titans Who Forged Britain (2019), which was – it is fair to say – not so well received, at least by academic historians (‘clichéd’, ‘lazy’ and ‘mind-bogglingly banal’ were just three of the terms used to describe it). One of the many problems of these books is indicated by their subtitles, which imply a view of how history is ‘made’ that not many academic historians would share. Both authors regard history as essentially moulded by ‘great men’. Most reviewers of Johnson’s book saw it as an attempt on his part to acquire at least a patina of Churchill’s ‘greatness’ (it has been called an ‘auto-biography’). Very few academics, of course, can claim to be ‘great men’, even in the making, or would want to be seen as such, which may be one of the less reputable reasons why they were so rude about Johnson and Rees-Mogg trespassing into their territory.

Another is that they disagreed with the emphasis on Britain’s past national ‘greatness’ that these two authors clearly felt their ‘great men’ had contributed to. This scepticism could be attributed to a simple lack of patriotism, such as one might expect of ‘liberal elitists’, but it is also,

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