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Angus Foster MA

PhD candidate


Area(s) of interest: European History, Memory Studies, Modern & Contemporary History, Political History

Cohort/Start PhD: 2023-2024

Collective memories of European Integration during the 1975 and 2016 UK referendums

Maastricht University
Supervisor(s): Aline Sierp, Kai Heidemann
Aanstelling: vanaf sept. 2022

It is undeniable that Brexit was a political earthquake, but it also sent shockwaves through academic work. As an event, Brexit defies easy categorisation. It was not a clear-cut case of left versus right on the national stage: there were strong proponents for leave and remain in all parties across the political spectrum. The issues raised during the campaign were to do with sovereignty, economics, the health service, and Britain’s place in the world – a broad cross-section of important considerations. The result was both a shock and unsurprising in many ways. Since the referendum, there have been a wealth of explanations; Brexit was a protest vote, a continuation of Britain’s historic ‘awkward partner’ role, or the last gasp of a dying imperial mindset.

In the field of memory studies, analysis and explanations of Brexit have predominantly focused on the role of imperial nostalgia (e.g Buettner, 2019; Cummings, 2020; Saunders, 2020; Ward & Rasch, 2019). Until recently, other aspects such as amnesia ( Saunders 2020) – i.e. intentional or unintentional forgetting, in this case relating to colonialism – and nationalism (Melhuish, 2022) have largely been ignored. Additionally, there has been a larger focus on the ‘Leave’ side of the debate, likely because 1) they were the winning side, and 2) nostalgic, nationalistic, and amnesic memory was more obvious in the narratives the campaign used. Beyond Brexit, European integration in Britain has been investigated in other contexts.

There is an increasingly wide body of literature on the 1975 in/out referendum (e.g. Aqui, 2020; Butler & Kitzinger, 1976; Gliddon, 2017; Rogstad & Martill, 2022; Saunders, 2018) that also recently includes some brief comparisons to 2016, highlighting similarities that require further research. Narratives of integration – crucial to memory studies and political campaigning – have also been researched, showing particularly that after the 1970s there was an increasing trend to justify Europe historically; to create a collective memory that legitimises integration (Calligaro, 2015). And, of course, Britain’s ‘difficult’ relationship with Europe has been a common topic over the decades (e.g. Gowland & Turner, 2000; Kaiser, 1996, 2022). Yet, despite recent additions to the literature and the wide body that exists, numerous
problems with our understanding of the 1975 and 2016 referendum remain within memory studies: generally speaking, there has been a general lack of investigation of the Remain side in 2016, and perhaps most importantly, the investigations of both the 1975 and 2016 referendum through the lens of memory have not yet considered the role the memory of European integration itself played in the 1975 and 2016 campaigns. Memory is, after all, a tool that can be used during campaigns to justify political choices and positions, and to provide political legitimacy – the idea of ‘never again’ being a prime example.

Thus, what collective memories of integration were used to support pro-membership positions? And how were these memories used during the campaigns? To fill these blank spots in our understanding of the 1975 and 2016 referendums, I investigate pro-European integration collective memory narratives during both. I focus specifically on collective memory narratives of European integration. In other words, I am looking for collective memory narratives that either 1) specifically refer to European integration, or 2) are used to explicitly justify integration itself. As an example, narratives about WWII would be considered narratives of integration because WWII has been a central piece of the narrative of European integration since its inception. Alternatively, narratives that invoke collective memory surrounding various European institutions, such as the European Coal and Steel Community, would fall under this category too. At the same time, narratives referring to Charlemagne, while possibly considered part of the collective memory of Europe, would not be considered a memory linked to integration unless invoked explicitly in such a context.