Reynolds has done his best, but the book is a dog’s dinner. He gives us a résumé of Britain and Europe seen through the eyes of a history teacher and ends up with a critique of Theresa May’s attempt to get through a compromise Brexit deal. What he writes is perfectly fair, but it has all been said a thousand times by the leader writers; no one needs a don from Cambridge to tell us that she made a hash of things.
This is a splendid book: a clear, well-written and highly stimulating account of the flaws in our understanding of Britain’s past that bedevilled the great debate over the country’s relations with the EU and helped produce the result it did. We could have done with it two or three years ago. But then real history, based on extensive reading, research and the wisdom of a true historian, takes a while to write.
Reynolds, professor of international history at Cambridge, deconstructs these “island stories”, the myths that underpin the narrative of British exceptionalism. He leaves no doubt that he regrets the 2016 referendum and its outcome (an unflattering image of Boris Johnson on the back cover sets the tone), but it would be wrong to read Island Stories as a Remainer’s lament. His tour de force through the centuries is aimed at one overarching question that both sides of the Brexit chasm would do well to address: what historical narrative might serve in future as a source of identity, suited to bring together a deeply divided country?
There is here not history but histories. The “island story” is neither; it pertains not to an island but to an archipelago and it contains multiple, shifting and sometimes competing narratives. Reynolds provides a very useful primer on the delusions of an English mentality in which, as John Pocock put it in a ground-breaking essay in 1974, the Welsh, Scots and Irish “appear as peripheral peoples when, and only when, their doings assume the power to disturb the tenor of English politics”.
Is there anybody in Britain, with the possible exception of Jacob Rees-Mogg, who seriously believes our history is a uniquely unsullied story of “global greatness”? Does any reasonable observer think that Britain and England are the same thing? Does anybody genuinely think we won the Second World War single-handed? Of course not. But as we have seen time and again since the referendum, there’s nothing academics like better than taking down a straw man.