Historian Simon Schama Describes Brexit Vote As 'Turning Point' For Britain NPR's Robert Siegel talks with historian Simon Schama about what the United Kingdom's vote to leave the European Union means for both Britain and Europe.

Historian Simon Schama Describes Brexit Vote As 'Turning Point' For Britain

Historian Simon Schama Describes Brexit Vote As 'Turning Point' For Britain

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NPR's Robert Siegel talks with historian Simon Schama about what the United Kingdom's vote to leave the European Union means for both Britain and Europe.


It is irresistible to call yesterday's referendum historic. It marks a shift in British policy, it's an answer to a question that has beleaguered the U.K. for decades - the question of whether to be in or out of Europe. How historic is that? Well, we're going to ask a historian. And joining me in London is the English historian Simon Schama.

Welcome to the program.

SIMON SCHAMA: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Well, is it a turning point of historic proportions?

SCHAMA: Well, I think it's certainly a turning point for the fate of the United Kingdom, which looks to be inevitably a lot less united. And we've heard about the Scots voting in enormous numbers to stay in. That now represents a problem. There was a slogan for the Brexiters, which was, take our country back. The Scots are about to say exactly the same thing, and it's going to be very hard if not impossible to deny the Scots a second referendum.

At the same time, what's happened - extraordinary kind of explosion of anger in most of Britain has given heart to nationalists in Europe who want to see off the end of the European Union. It's not accidental that those celebrating it were Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders, the Dutch nationalist.

SIEGEL: This was a national referendum. That's not a common thing to witness. And it was one in which people - one grievance people voted on was that their relationship to the European Union, to Brussels, was not a democratic one. They couldn't - they couldn't vote out the people who were passing laws of them. Is it some kind of landmark in the development or how we think of democracy as being?

SCHAMA: Yes, I think so. I think what's extremely telling was that it wouldn't take long for people to familiarize themselves with the way laws are actually passed in the European Union, which is the case that a bureaucratic organization proposes laws but they cannot be passed except through the elected European Parliament and the council of ministers, which are accountable to representative governments.

But even as I say that, you can't actually say those sentences without people getting bored. So it's much easier for them to believe that those who are not elected are ruling us, and that's what caught fire.

SIEGEL: You're getting at a core point here, which is that European integration as being the stuff of journalism and public conversation is one of the most boring subjects in the world.

SCHAMA: But, Robert, the point of the European Union was to be dull and boring rather than violent and aggressive and bellicose, which it have been for most of its history.

One of the things that went terribly wrong with those who were campaigning for remain was to find a passionate way to defend the European Union. It was defended in those terms by Gordon Brown...

SIEGEL: Former prime minister.

SCHAMA: Former prime minister and a few others. But people were fumbling about ways in which to make people feel good about being European.

SIEGEL: I suppose the least boring movements in Europe of the 20th century are the ones that - drew the most excited crowds - are the ones that we most regret in hindsight, the ones that...


SIEGEL: ...Promised the workers of the world uniting or the master race taking over the world.

SCHAMA: Yes. If you want passion then go for violent, narrow-minded, tribal nationalism. But Democracy depends on passion being diluted by reason.

SIEGEL: Culturally, there is a generation of educated young Europeans - and I include Brits in that - who think of themselves at some level as being European. Maybe it's not their only identity. Do you think that goes away in Britain and does a different identity take shape, or do those people grow up and change in this country?

SCHAMA: No, I think they're in distress. I mean, I'm sure you've said, it's very striking that the 18 to 24s voted something like 75 percent to stay in. And I suppose it depends where you are in London. We have more immigrants than anywhere else, and we're least bothered by it. And I think when the shock subsides a bit, the young may well fight to be at least as European as they've been led to believe they are. That's my hope, actually.

SIEGEL: If you can imagine a historian 50 years hence writing the sentence that will sum up what happened on this day, what do you think it'll be?

SCHAMA: The greatest act of unforced national self-harm yet known in modern history.

SIEGEL: Simon Schama, thanks for talking with us today. Simon Schama, a university professor of history and art history at Columbia University in New York City, spoke with us in London.

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