Skip to main content
British and European Union flags
News_

Why Brexit will last forever

19 June 2020
By Susan Wyndham, SSSHARC Journalist in Residence
Brexit, the word and the movement, are less than a decade old. But if you want to understand Britain’s split from Europe, Dr Marco Duranti argues that you need to know the history of Europeanism, Euroscepticism, populism and the role of British Conservatives in reuniting Europe after World War II.

As Senior Lecturer in Modern European and International History at the University of Sydney, Marco Duranti takes a long view of contemporary events and is not a “British politics junkie”. He was surprised that journalists asked him to comment on Britain’s vote to leave the European Union when he happened to be on sabbatical at Cambridge in 2016. He was also taken aback by the trauma Brexit caused among the British public.

“If you’d asked people before, ‘what do you think about the European Union?’, they might have said ‘it seems like a nice thing, we can travel’; a few might have said ‘it’s good not to have a war between France and Germany’,” he said. “Brexit struck at something much deeper than just the European Union, something deep about British identity and where they fit, on both sides. That’s why you can’t do international history without understanding places.”

He projects: “Fifty years from now some PhD student is writing about Brexit in the history department and they think, I’m doing diplomatic history so Brexit is about relations between Britain and the European Union. They would be totally off. Fifty years from now the PhD student would have to read about the social and cultural and political history of Britain at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century to understand Brexit.”

To understand Duranti’s perspective on European history, it helps to know something about his personal history, which he told with gusto in this interview for the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC).

Inspiration from his Italian grandparents

He spent the first year of his life in Canberra, where his parents, both American anthropologists, were based at the Australian National University and doing research in Samoa. Growing up in Los Angeles, he also spent time every year in Rome and at the seaside with his Italian grandparents.

Ivio Duranti during his university days dressed in the uniform of the Gruppi Universitari Fascisti.

Ivio Duranti during his university days dressed in the uniform of the Gruppi Universitari Fascisti. Credit: Marco Duranti.

His grandfather, Ivio Duranti, had been “an ardent young fascist” and the first person from his village to go to university, on a scholarship from a fascist youth organisation. As an officer in the Italian army he was taken prisoner by the Germans after Italy changed sides in the war, and treated badly because “traitors” were not accorded rights under the Geneva Convention. He joined the Italian police force but his wife’s parents were communists, and he was denounced by a neighbour who wanted his apartment and sent out of Rome.

He later bailed out the young communists in the family when they fought with police and raised a son, Duranti’s father, who was part of the 1968 generation of left-wing protestors in Rome. As a teenager Duranti argued with his grandfather about Mussolini, who “thought he was a pretty good guy until the Second World War”.

“Conversations with my grandparents definitely catalysed an interest in history on my part,” he said. “Both families have been part of some extreme movements, but when you see the human dimension you see the complexities involved in the choices people make and the way they narrate their own stories.”

The identification papers Ivio Duranti received from the Nazi regime as a prisoner of war after being taken captive by the Germans when Italy switched sides.

The identification papers Ivio Duranti received from the Nazi regime as a prisoner of war after being taken captive by the Germans when Italy switched sides. Credit: Marco Duranti.

As an undergraduate at Harvard, Duranti wrote his honours thesis on an Italian antifascist historian who fled Italy for the US and Yale. His own PhD at Yale was on his unexpected findings about the right-wing intellectuals, including Winston Churchill, who led the movement to reunify Europe and establish the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg after the war.

His doctoral thesis and book, The Conservative Human Rights Revolution  (Oxford University Press, 2017), described an effort to “rebrand” conservatism after decades of being discredited, and to push back against socialism.

“I argued that they really took the leadership in Western Europe on these fronts, even though the conventional wisdom is very different, that human rights were above all a progressive project…They saw it as a way of enshrining conservative values and interests in international law.”

The worldwide rise of populism

After postdoctoral research in Germany on Holocaust memory, Duranti’s post-global financial crisis job search brought him back to Australia for a position at the University of Sydney in 2011.

His work on the origins of Europeanism led him in recent years to think about its opposite, Euroscepticism, identifying moments when the European Union affected people’s daily lives and, in particular, aroused criticism of interference in British sovereignty.

In 2018 Duranti organised a Huddle supported by SSSHARC. Originally planning to focus on Euroscepticism, he broadened the topic to “Popular and Populist Resistance to the International Order” so the one-day discussion could be global in reach, interdisciplinary, and look at different methodologies from surveys to archival research and data mining.

Among the group of 12 were historians, legal scholars and political scientists. They included a German historian, Wolfram Kaiser, who is Professor of European Studies at the University of Portsmouth, and Francesco Bailo, an Australian expert in the use of digital and social media in politics.   

Duranti described the range of their interests: “people who looked at investment banks, economic institutions and world banks in the Asian context, or feminist movements in the Middle East and the Arab spring; experts on left-wing anti-globalisation movements in Spain and right-wing populist movements; people who looked at international law with respect to Latin America and attempts to preserve the sovereignty of Latin American states when faced with the International Monetary Fund in the case of Argentina, or with the United States and US imperialism. Some aren’t primarily interested in politics…but they have the tools to go beyond the elite perspective.”

With his attraction to complexity, Duranti shies away from a common definition of the term populism, “that there’s a monolithic entity called the people and there’s the will of the people and it’s usually expressed in a majoritarian way”. Just as he refused to condescend to the conservatives he studied, he dislikes the condescension towards populism he often sees from political scientists, journalists and others on the centre-left and centre-right.

“There’s this notion that populists are basically either demagogues if they’re the leaders, or people who follow populists are a deluded mob. This is part of a much longer history of liberal paternalism, since the 19th century at least, where liberals say ‘if only the working classes were more educated they would make the right choices’. That applied to the poor, to women, to people of other races, and to people in the empires.”

Unlike elites, ordinary people do not document their lives comprehensively, so other sources are needed. After a career of working in archives, Duranti has become interested in big data mining. Since 2018 he has coordinated an interdisciplinary team at the university working with ProQuest, a company that digitises historical newspapers, to develop methods useful to humanities researchers.

How Euroscepticism grew from the European Union

With his colleague Professor Chris Hilliard, a social historian with an expertise in 20th-century British working-class life and culture, Duranti applied in mid-2020 for Australian Research Council funding. The four-year project will trace the relationship between human rights and anti-Europe sentiment in Britain during its five decades of membership of the European Union.

This idea emerged from the Huddle, and Duranti and Hilliard intend to draw on that network to challenge their approach as historians and to set their research in a wider context. Data mining will help them refine their widespread archival research in Britain and Strasbourg.

Asked to explain the impulse for Brexit, Duranti refers to Antonio Gramsci’s view that Italian unification was driven by elites rather than a popular revolution and prepared the ground for the rise of fascism. Similarly, he said, the European project came from “on high” while in Britain “a bunch of out-of-touch elites” were reshaping the economy and creating “Blair’s Britain”. Many people who felt left out turned instead to a connection with the nation or their local community.

There are parallels in the election of President Trump and the weakening of the Democrats in the US, the Australian Labor Party and the Social Democrats in Europe, he said.

“Europe spent all this money on academics like me doing research projects on European identity, but it’s not getting the people involved. They invest money in local infrastructure projects but they’re out of touch and seen as frivolous. Gramsci said you need intellectuals who arise organically from the people and they have to generate the ideas for change and communicate those to the people. If you do the top-down thing you end up with Leninism and Stalinism on the left, or fascism when the capitalists get desperate and turn to the far right.”

Duranti argues that Brexit reaches back into British social, economic and cultural trends, such as debates over housing and a white backlash when immigrants arrived in Britain from the Caribbean in the 1960s and ’70s. For the same reason, he said, “I don’t think Brexit as a phenomenon is over. This is going to last forever now.”

The Huddle “Popular and Populist Resistance to the International World Order” was held in the RD Watt Building at the University of Sydney on December 7, 2018.  

This article is part of the 2020 SSSHARC series on how the humanities and social sciences can help us see the world in new ways.

Susan Wyndham

Susan Wyndham. Credit: Nicola Bailey.
Inaugural SSSHARC Journalist in Residence

Related articles