The German word Historikerstreit, meaning a quarrel between historians, gained popularity in the 1980s, to describe arguments over whether Nazism represented a continuity or rupture in the German story, or over the comparative evils of Fascism and Stalinism. Historical debates over questions bearing on political decision-taking – such as Greece’s debt to Germany (or vice versa), or whether Turkey is a European country – have kept the practice going in the 21st century. The British historical guild has been slow to emulate the European model, but the self-styled ‘Historians for Britain’ in October last year launched a manifesto using a selective reading of the past to argue for British uniqueness and superiority vis-à-vis the EU.
‘Where are all these East Europeans flocking from?’ That was the question Gillian Duffy asked Gordon Brown in 2010. Brown would have got into trouble if he’d answered ‘Eastern Europe’, though probably not as much as he got into for describing Duffy as ‘just a sort of bigoted woman’. Her prejudices, or fears, are widely shared. Nearly 150,000 people have signed a petition against the lifting of labour restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians next year. According to the petition, ‘there is currently an estimated 1.5 million people seeking work within the two countries.’ But how many of them might actually move to Britain?