The Uses of History in the Brexit Debate

20 06 2016

My primary research interests nowadays are on how economic actors such as entrepreneurs and managers use historical ideas to make sense of the present and to plan for the future. I am, therefore, fascinated by the ways in which historical analogy is being used in the debate leading up to our referendum on EU membership. The quality of the analogic-historical reasoning on display varies enormously, of course, (yesterday David Cameron was compared to Neville Chamberlain)  .but from my point of view the interesting thing is that businesspeople are having recourse to the heuristic of historical analogy to make sense of the EU debate. I suppose it isn’t surprising that they are using historical analogy, given the degree of Knightian uncertainty that the prospect of leaving the EU has created for UK firms. For instance, if you watch this video from the Financial Times, you will note that the antiques dealer interviewed by Robert Armstrong refers to the Anglo-Dutch trade wars of the 1650s in the course of explaining why he will vote to leave the EU. [The Armstrong video is a superb piece of videojournalism that explores complex cultural and economic issues in a thoughtful and understated way).

 

As as a British citizen, I hope that we vote to stay in the EU.  I don’t want GDP to contract 5% by 2020, which is the figure most frequently forecast by economists  who have been asked to predict the impact of leaving the EU. As a researcher who is constantly looking for data about how firms use history, however, I believe I would benefit from a Leave vote: in the resulting economic chaos, economic actors would likely use historical analogies to make sense of the new business environment, creating source material for me to use in future papers.