Island Stories

An Unconventional History of Britain


By David Reynolds

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This history of Britain set in a global context for our times offers a new perspective on how the rise and fall of an empire shaped modern European politics.

When the British voted to leave the European Union in 2016, the country’s future was thrown into doubt. So, too, was its past. The story of British history is no longer a triumphalist narrative of expanding global empire, nor one of ever-closer integration with Europe. What is it now?

In Island Stories, historian David Reynolds offers a multi-faceted new account of the last millennium to make sense of Britain’s turbulent present. With sharp analysis and vivid human detail, he examines how fears of decline have shaped national identity, probes Britain’s changing relations with Europe, considers the creation and erosion of the “United Kingdom,” and reassesses the rise and fall of the British Empire. Island Stories is essential reading for anyone interested in global history and politics in the era of Brexit.


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FOR MOST VISITORS from North America, the fascination of Britain lies in its sense of tradition. It’s a country of castles, palaces and country houses, of ancient churches and leafy lanes, prizing quaint institutions such as the monarchy, ‘trooping the colour’ and afternoon tea. Not to mention the arcane rituals of cricket. The British, in short, seem like a people who have done things the same way for centuries and can be relied on for stability and common sense.

That’s why Brexit has been such a shock. In a referendum on 23 June 2016 the British electorate voted to leave the European Union (EU) after nearly half a century of membership. The margin was narrow, yet decisive: nearly 52 per cent ‘Leave’ and just over 48 per cent ‘Remain’. No contingency planning for a vote to leave had been undertaken by David Cameron, the Prime Minister who called the referendum. And Theresa May, who succeeded Cameron after he abruptly resigned, never came up with a coherent and politically viable strategy for exiting an international organisation of which the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK) had been an integral part since 1973.

At the end of 2019—more than three years on from the referendum and after the hapless May had been supplanted by Boris Johnson—Britain had still not Brexited. The issue split the two main political parties, Conservative and Labour, and polarised the country as a whole. Public life was poisoned by Brexitoxicity. And whether the UK eventually left the EU or remained didn’t really matter, as far as most of the world was concerned. Those sensible, traditional Brits seemed to have gone ‘bonkers’.1

Yet was a historical thunderbolt like the Brexit vote such a uniquely British phenomenon?

A few months later, a whirlwind also hit the United States. The election of Donald J. Trump as the nation’s forty-fifth president signalled the start of a new American revolution. Inaugurated on 20 January 2017, the property tycoon and former reality TV host defied virtually every norm of political behaviour—refusing to disclose his tax returns, persistently making false or misleading claims and running a dysfunctional administration in which policy was set (and upset) by his daily tweets. Trumpeting ‘America First’, he has shaken the foundations of the NATO alliance, moved the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and attacked the European Union—all at odds with long-standing diplomatic policies espoused in the past by both Democrats and Republicans. Domestically, Trump has polarized the country—adored by his supporters, reviled by his critics—with his attitudes on race, immigration and climate change being particularly controversial. In his populist attack on traditional liberal verities, Trump even made a point of aligning himself with the earthquake in Britain, talking of his campaign as ‘Brexit plus plus plus’.

But it has become clear that the Trump presidency, however abrupt a break it might seem, has roots deep in American history. It echoes, for instance, earlier spasms of nativism—in the 1850s or the 1920s. It reflects a reaction against the country’s post-1945 commitments to European security and a backlash against the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, even—some might say—against the outcome of the Civil War in 1865. Making sense of America’s forty-fifth presidency requires examining much of what has come before.

In the same way, getting to grips with Brexit demands a long view. Not just tracing the United Kingdom’s contorted and awkward relationship with the European Community but going back much further, at least a thousand years. Because medieval England was for four centuries a continental empire, ruling much of what is now France. Because the United Kingdom is the product of centuries of English empire building across two islands: Britain and Ireland. Because, for centuries, statesmen in London had considered it imperative to manage the balance of power across Europe as a whole. And because Great Britain’s sense of greatness is rooted in a remarkable empire—forged in the era of sea power and slave power, commerce and colonies—whose legacies burnish and tarnish British life to the present day.

The rise and decline of Rome provided an enduring image of empire, as we shall see in chapter 1, but this book begins in earnest with 1066—a date that is familiar but not always properly understood. That year saw not one but two decisive battles. In the first, at Stamford Bridge near York on 25 September, the Anglo-Saxon army of King Harold Godwinson routed a Norwegian invasion. Despite a few further raids and Norse control of the Orkney and Shetland islands until the mid-fifteenth century, Stamford Bridge effectively brought to an end nearly three centuries of Viking presence and influence in England. Three weeks later, however, on 14 October Harold’s weakened army was in turn routed near Hastings by the invading forces of Duke William of Normandy, with Harold among the dead. William and his Norman elite rapidly took control of the country. These three weeks in the autumn of 1066 shifted Britain decisively out of the Nordic world and into its close and lasting entanglement with continental Europe.

So, in Britain, like America, the roots of present discontents often lie deep in the past. But the parallels should not be pushed too far, for there are many contrasts between the two countries. Perhaps the biggest is geography. The United States, like Canada, is a country the size of a continent. England and Wales together are comparable in area to Illinois—the twenty-fifth largest of the US fifty states. Scotland roughly matches South Carolina. Above all, Britain is an island, whose history has been shaped by its geography. Island Stories offers a fresh interpretation of Britain’s extrovert insularity.

THE NARRATIVE THAT a country tells about itself lies at the core of national identity. Americans revisit their sacred story every Fourth of July—the story of a people who broke away from what we might call the original ‘evil empire’, Great Britain, and won its independence thanks to the combined efforts of the founders, the minutemen and divine providence. Thereafter, the United States spread ‘from sea to shining sea’, impelled by its ‘manifest destiny’ to create a new empire—an empire of liberty.

For much of the twentieth century Britain had its own master narrative: about the country’s expansion into a global empire and its dissemination of parliamentary government. In 1902, the poet A. C. Benson added words to Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance ‘March No. 1’, extolling the ‘Land of Hope and Glory’:

Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set,

God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet

But after two world wars and rapid decolonisation, the ever-mightier imperial theme rang hollow. In 1962, Dean Acheson, the former US Secretary of State, declared that Britain had ‘lost an empire’ but ‘not yet found a role’.2 Over the next decade British leaders—Tory and Labour—tried to join what was then colloquially known as the Common Market. Yet two French vetoes from President Charles de Gaulle blocked their way and it was not until 1973 that the UK (together with Ireland and Denmark) eventually became a member of the European Community. Even though Britain was always an ‘awkward partner’3—protesting about the size of its budget contributions and the EC’s obsession with farm subsidies—for the next four decades or so the narrative did seem clear: the British had lost a global empire but found a European role.

Then, in 2016, that new role suddenly also seemed to be lost. During the EU referendum debate, various historical precedents were invoked to help frame Britain’s historical self-understanding as it planned to Brexit. Much cited was ‘Our Finest Hour’ in the Second World War. Leaving the EU ‘would be the biggest stimulus to get our butts in gear that we have ever had’, declared billionaire Peter Hargreaves, a financier of the Brexit campaign. ‘It will be like Dunkirk again… Insecurity is fantastic.’4 Developing the 1940 theme, Boris Johnson asserted in 2016 that the past two thousand years of European history had been characterised by repeated attempts to unify Europe under a single government in order to recover the continent’s lost ‘golden age’ under the Romans. ‘Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically,’ he asserted. ‘The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods.’ The villains of the piece, in Johnson’s view, were once again the Germans. ‘The Euro has become a means by which superior German productivity is able to gain an absolutely unbeatable advantage over the whole Eurozone.’ He depicted Brexit as ‘a chance for the British people to be the heroes of Europe and to act as a voice of moderation and common sense, and to stop something getting in my view out of control… It is time for someone—it’s almost always the British in European history—to say, “We think a different approach is called for”.’5

Also touted as a historical guide for Britain’s future was the idea of the ‘Anglosphere’—influenced by Winston Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples from the 1950s—and even by the concept of an ‘Imperial Federation’ with the British settler ‘Dominions’, as proposed by politician Joseph Chamberlain in the 1900s. In 2016 Churchill biographer Andrew Roberts was one of those advocating CANZUK—an Anglophone confederation of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK—as potentially ‘the third pillar of Western Civilisation’, closely aligned with the United States. He argued that ‘we must pick up where we left off in 1973’ when the ‘dream of the English-speaking peoples’ was ‘shattered by British entry into the EU’. Theresa May spoke in a similarly expansive vein when outlining her government’s vision of Brexit. ‘June the 23rd was not the moment Britain chose to step back from the world. It was the moment we chose to build a truly Global Britain.’ Although stating that she was ‘proud of our shared European heritage’, May insisted: ‘we are also a country that has always looked beyond Europe to the wider world. That is why we are one of the most racially diverse countries in Europe, one of the most multicultural members of the European Union.’6

These various proposals offered hints of how Brexit might be seen in historical perspective: as the latest attempt to resist a continental tyrant, or as the chance to resume a global role that had been rudely interrupted by joining the EU. But neat historical analogies are not adequate. Nor are simplified benchmarks like 1940 or 1973. We need to probe more deeply what many Brits still call ‘our island story’—and to do so with greater geographical breadth and over a longer time span than are covered in most histories. In short, what’s required is an unconventional perspective on the British past.

Our Island Story: A History of England for Boys and Girls was the title of Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall’s best-selling textbook, first published in 1905 and still in print today. Spanning nearly two millennia from the Romans to Queen Victoria, it was deliberately ‘not a history lesson, but a story-book’, written to entertain and inspire preteens, and she admitted that it included some stories ‘which wise people say are only fairy tales not history’. But Marshall’s concept of history as an uplifting narrative still has wide appeal. In 2010 the education secretary Michael Gove told the Tory Party Conference that he would ‘put British history at the heart of a revived national curriculum’, so that ‘all pupils will learn our island story’. In 2014 Prime Minister David Cameron lauded Marshall’s stirring account of the country’s inexorable progress towards liberty, law and parliamentary government.7

But today professional historians find such a simple, triumphalist narrative to be implausible. This, instead, is a book about ‘stories’, plural—about different ways in which to see Britain’s complicated past. In particular, about the need to move beyond the still widely held idea of a self-contained ‘island’, which has adopted various roles over the centuries—empire, Europe, the globe—as if these could be tried on and then taken off, like a suit of clothes. In reality, the United Kingdom has been made by empire, Europe and the world—as much as the other way around.

And the United Kingdom itself has been a shifting entity—a historically conflicted archipelago, comprising more than six thousand islands, and not a unitary space occupied by a people whom many in England still tend to call, interchangeably, English or British.8 Even more sensitive, the neat ‘island story’ narrative omits Ireland—John Bull’s Other Island as playwright George Bernard Shaw entitled his satirical comedy of 1904 about an English con man who duped Irish villagers into mortgaging their homes so he could turn the place into an amusement park. Ireland was brought under English rule in the Norman period but never really subdued, despite the Acts of Union in 1801. Its centuries of turmoil and tragedy, in turn, had a profound impact on the island of Britain.

This, then, is a book about history, framed by geography. But it is, as well, a book about ways of thinking because being ‘islanded’ is also a state of mind.9 The English Channel did not always seem a great divide: during the four centuries when the Anglo-Norman kings ruled a domain that straddled its two sides, they treated water as a bridge rather than a barrier. The sense of providential insularity came later, as a product of England’s Protestant Reformation and its salvation from Counter-Reformation Spain through the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot to blow up king and Parliament in 1605. There then ensued several centuries of war against a new continental Catholic ‘other’—France, from the days of Louis XIV to Napoleon Bonaparte. As the power of Protestantism waned in twentieth-century Britain, providential insularity was given a new lease on life by two wars against German militarism and especially by the way in which 1940—the story of Churchill’s Britain ‘standing alone’ after the fall of France—has become inscribed in national history and popular memory.

Nor would the island narrative have proved so enthralling had medieval English kings not created such a strong state, which they tried to impose by force on their neighbours across the two islands. The Welsh were eventually incorporated in the 1530s. But Scotland was a harder nut to crack. It was only after several centuries of on-off warfare that the two kingdoms were unified under the rule of one monarch: in 1603, James VI of Scotland also became James I of England. A century later, in 1707, the Act of Union abolished the Edinburgh parliament, gave the Scots seats in Houses of Commons and Lords at Westminster and created, in effect, a common market that proved an indispensable base for Britain’s industrial revolution and global empire. During the eighteenth, nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries, the London government effectively directed the whole of ‘our’ island of Britain.

But making the other island across the Irish Sea British as well proved a far more difficult task. Its Catholicism was tenaciously entrenched, despite the effort to plant Protestants from Scotland and England during the seventeenth century. The struggle ebbed and flowed for centuries, costing several million lives through war and famine. At points along the way the Irish Question also tested the unity of Britain itself—in the 1640s, for instance, when it was the catalyst for the English Civil War, and again in the Home Rule Crisis before 1914. In 1920, after the brutal war of independence and an even bloodier civil war, the island of Ireland was partitioned in two between an independent Catholic state and an embattled, Protestant-dominated Ulster, clinging to its Britishness within the UK.

In the mid-1960s, the rancorous issues of partition and sectarianism escalated into the three-decade-long Troubles in Northern Ireland, whose brutal violence was quelled only by the Good Friday agreement of 1998. This brought a ragged peace to Ulster and also redefined the political geometry of the whole island of Ireland, opening up the hard, militarised border between the two states. Yet during the EU referendum debate, the Tories—even though officially the Conservative and Unionist Party—closed their eyes to recent history. Only after the 2016 vote to leave the EU did the Tories start to grapple with the profound implications that Brexit would have for Northern Ireland, the peace process and the unity of the UK.

By then Britain itself was under strain. The sense of Britishness—sustained by united sacrifice in two world wars—began to wane in the late twentieth century amid decolonisation and industrial decline, and the Scots and the Welsh voted in referenda to have their own devolved parliaments and executives. Created in 1999, these governments were given extensive powers—particularly the one in Edinburgh. Devolution raised profound questions about the unity of the United Kingdom—highlighted by the close result of Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum, when 45 per cent of Scots wanted to become a separate country, and then in 2016 by the 62 per cent majority in Scotland to remain within the EU.

And so, by the twenty-first century, both the Good Friday agreement and the institution of devolved governments in Scotland and Wales presaged a different set of relationships between and within the two main islands. In England the apparent indifference of London to the socio-economic problems of the regions, especially in the north, played a significant part in the Leave victory in 2016. The failure of the Westminster Parliament to resolve—or even seriously address—the challenges of Brexit aggravated this sense of alienation. Yet the saga of Britishness—forged by war and polished by retelling—continues to exert immense power, whether deployed by politicians or dramatised in movies. Equally potent are the individual national stories of the Scots, Welsh and Irish—even of the English without the others10—all reinvigorated by the crisis of the Union. In a struggle for the future, the past really matters.

Yet not just the past of the two islands and their tangled relations with continental Europe. The global dimension is equally important.

Developing as a seafaring nation from the sixteenth century, the English used their relative security from the Continent as both a sanctuary and a springboard. Exploiting their growing naval reach, they were able to prey on foreign rivals, profit richly from the slave trade, open up markets and create settlements—first in the Caribbean and North America, later in the Indian sub-continent, Australasia and Africa. The wealth thereby generated played a critical part in Britain’s precocious industrial revolution; it also drew the country gradually and messily into a patchwork of formal empire that the British then struggled to rule on the cheap in the face of bigger and stronger international challengers. By the 1970s, after two world wars and an often-violent process of decolonisation, the British Empire had disappeared. But the UK remained a global economy, shaped by its commercial and financial past, and the stories of global greatness, now somehow disconnected from the empire project, still appealed to political and public nostalgia. More problematic legacies of empire, such as the slave trade or mass immigration, tended to be ignored in the grand narrative of ‘our island’ and its global outreach.

Those simple words—island and stories—are, therefore, worthy of close examination. To do so we need to engage with big history and the longue durée in ways that do justice to the English stamp on British history, without being narrowly Anglocentric. And although Island Stories has been prompted by the Brexit imbroglio, it reflects deeper concerns. There is now a profusion of innovative scholarly research, based on analysis of new sources and also fresh insights into old sources. But much of this work takes the form of microhistories, addressing narrow topics for an academic audience, and a good deal of it has been shaped by the cultural turn—which privileges matters such as food, dress and gender and often frowns on political history as being antiquated and irrelevant. As a result, big-picture narratives have been left to popular writers who tend to skim the surface or to politicians concerned mainly with advancing their own agenda. This book is an attempt by one professional historian to start filling this gap, at a time when political and international history really matter.

The four main chapters outline and probe four alternative, if overlapping, ways of narrating those island stories in the era of Brexit. In the process, they draw on some of the narratives that have been offered by political leaders from the past, such as Joseph Chamberlain, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, and by politicians of today, including Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Each main chapter addresses an overarching theme, going back over the past millennium. The first chapter, ‘Decline’, examines how and why Britain’s place in the world has changed in recent centuries and whether the turn to Europe represented realistic statesmanship or a failure of national will. I also reflect on the country’s assets—both hard and soft power—in the Brexit era and on the formidable grip of heritage on the national culture. The second chapter looks more closely at Britain’s engagement with Europe, going back beyond the Protestant Reformation to the Anglo-Norman kings and exploring that ambiguous role of the Channel as both barrier and bridge. The third chapter considers the long history of Britain, tracing the impact of English empire building on the archipelago and assessing the two acts of union in 1707 and 1801 that brought Scotland and then Ireland into the United Kingdom. The chapter also discusses the impacts of two world wars, 1990s devolution and the Brexit vote on the unity of the Union. The fourth chapter, ‘Empire’, emphasises the role of slave power as well as sea power in making Britain great but also considers how the ideology of freedom both promoted the empire and also eroded it. The final section of this chapter offers a historical context for the impassioned Brexit debate on immigration as the empire ‘came home’ and reflects on a postimperial country in which racist attitudes coexist with multiculturalism. In the concluding chapter, ‘Taking Control of Our Past’, I consider what the political feuds since 2016 reveal of Britain’s deeper problems in dealing with Brexit and also in coming to terms with its past.

This is, of course, a personal view of topics that are highly contested, for history has become an integral part of political argument in Brexit-era Britain. Island Stories is a contribution to that debate. And it may help to illuminate the traumas that other countries—not least the United States and Canada—have to confront when trying to live with their own history.



Of every reader, the attention will be excited by an history of the decline and fall of the Roman empire, the greatest, perhaps, and most awful scene in the history of mankind.


THUS BEGAN THE final paragraph of Edward Gibbon’s magnum opus The History of the Rise, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Volume one had appeared in 1776, just as the American colonies declared independence from Britain and proclaimed themselves a republic. The sixth and last volume was published in 1788, a year before ancien régime France was engulfed by revolution. Its fratricidal anarchy would spawn Napoleon’s continental empire.

Gibbon’s chronicle of the Pax Romana became a literary classic during the nineteenth century, as Britain saw off the Napoleonic challenge and grew into a global power—spanning the world from India to Africa, from the Near East to Australasia. By the end of the century the term Pax Britannica had entered the vernacular. But there were also creeping fears of imperial mortality—captured by Rudyard Kipling, the bard of empire, in his fin de siècle poem ‘Recessional’:

Far-called, our navies melt away;

On dune and headland sinks the fire:

Lo, all our pomp of yesterday

Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!2

Britain’s Victorian and Edwardian leaders sought strategies that might save their unlikely empire from a Roman fate. How best to deal with jealous rivals? By military confrontation, or selective appeasement? The first could sap the nation’s wealth and power; the latter risked letting in the barbarians by the back door. They also wrestled with the Roman tension between libertas and imperium, of civic virtues supposedly corrupted by militarism and luxury. Would British imperialism undermine political liberty at home? Conversely, would a freedom-loving people have the backbone to resist the jackals of the global jungle? These dilemmas became acute during the era of the two world wars.

On a larger canvas, Gibbon’s Rome has provided a template for telling the story of Britain’s changing place in the world over the past five centuries in terms of a great empire’s rise, decline and fall. This held a perennial, almost mesmeric fascination for a political class that modelled itself on imperial Rome. Under this narrative, however, lurk problematic notions of empire. Should it be understood as a clearly defined possession—eventually ‘lost’ or ‘surrendered’? Or was it like an increasingly outmoded and ill-fitting suit of clothes, which was finally tossed aside? This chapter looks more closely at Britain’s changing global role and at related shifts in the country’s power and prosperity—arguing that the Gibbonian concept of ‘decline’ is deeply misleading. In doing so, it also highlights a recurrent pattern of British political rhetoric from the late nineteenth century right up to the present. Politicians have frequently couched their campaigns to change national policy within a dramatic ‘declinist’ narrative of the recent past. Here are a few examples.3



  • "A concise, elegant, and lucid revisiting of key themes in British history in the light of Brexit."—Fintan O?Toole, Guardian
  • A witty and revealing look at long-term patterns in British history—Kirkus Reviews
  • "[An] incisive survey. . . . [Reynolds's] 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."—Financial Times
  • "This is a splendid book: a clear, well-written, and highly stimulating account of the flaws in our understanding of Britain's past."—Literary Review

On Sale
Mar 24, 2020
Page Count
304 pages
Basic Books

David Reynolds

About the Author

David Reynolds is emeritus professor of international history at Christ’s College, Cambridge. A fellow of the British Academy, he is the author of thirteen books, including In Command of History, which won the Wolfson Prize, Summits, Island Stories, and America, Empire of Liberty. He lives in Cambridge, England.

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