Ashby Lectures

Since 1985, Clare Hall has hosted the Ashby Lectures, a widely acclaimed summer event in Cambridge.

Named after one of the founders of Clare Hall, the lectures focus on the presentation and discussion of ideas that inspire human values in a wider sense: values that relate, in compelling and contemporary ways, to philosophical questioning about the nature of life and society.

Our guest speaker for 2019 was Professor Norman Davies - CMG, FBA, FLSW, FRSL, FRHistS, Honorary Fellow at Clare Hall, St Antony’s College Oxford and Professor Emeritus of UCL-SSEES. Professor Davies lecture was entitled From D-Day to Brexit: The Strange Case Of British Views On Europe.

Lecture Report

David L. Gosling, Life Member and former Spalding Fellow Clare Hall

Professor Norman Davies, Honorary Fellow at Clare Hall and St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and Professor Emeritus of University College, London, gave the 2019 Ashby lecture on the theme: “From D-Day to Brexit: the strange case of British attitudes to Europe”. Explaining to a packed and enthusiastic audience in the Law Faculty that he had initially declined the invitation to give the lecture on the grounds that “everyone was sick to death with Brexit”, Professor Davies presented a brilliant analysis of events in Europe leading up to and following the Second World War, putting them into a psychological, historical and cultural framework.

Professor Davies began by challenging English stereotypes of snobbery and superiority, citing Shakespeare (“this sceptred isle”), nomenclature such as the “English” Channel and the idea of “taking back control” of borders which, by definition, are shared. He noted that in 2016 during the Referendum campaign, the only leading politician who said anything about the impact of Brexit on the British Isles in general or the Irish border, in particular, was Nicola Sturgeon.

Offering some common-sense remarks on the background to events which will shape the future of the United Kingdom, Professor Davies singled out Remembrance Day services, a series of protests from Moscow about British misconceptions of the Second World War, and reports about the disorderly behaviour of English football fans (a  word derived from “fanatic”) at a match in Portugal.

Reflections on Remembrance Day services prompted consideration of why these are more assiduously observed in Britain than in other formerly combatant countries, some of which sustained far greater losses during the Second World War. It is important to recognise that Britain was as stained by military atrocities as other countries. The Moscow critique of the War calls for an honest recognition of the huge numbers of casualties which occurred on the Eastern Front; in absolute terms, the Ukraine, Poland and Belarus sustained enormous losses. In view of these and other considerations, “claims of “Good” triumphing over “Evil” are.....specious”. However, the two principal combatants of the War, the Third Reich and the Soviet Union, were both run by totalitarian, mass-murdering tyrannies. Neither of them was capable of bringing liberation to anyone. The dominant picture of the War should portray one evil beast fighting to the death with another evil beast.

The international sporting fraternity has become a colossal industry and is a principal driver of national identity. English football fans are fiercely attached to their Englishness and the red-on-white flag of St. George. They present themselves in warrior-mode, often stripped to the waist or dressed in crusader outfits. One of their favourite calls to attention on the terraces is “stand up if you won the War”.

The Brexit syndrome, which grew out of a milder trend of Euroscepticism, shares many aspects of the militant attitude of the English football fans – their truculent mood, their sense of permanent grievance and their view of England as an embattled nation under threat.

As the British imperial identity faded after 1945 the nationalisms of the UK’s constituent parts revived – first in Scotland, then in Wales, Northern Ireland and, finally, in England. The SNP and Plaid Cymru became part of Westminster, with Sinn Fein refusing to take up the seven seats it had won. Euroscepticism began on the Bennite left-wing of the Labour Party, a trend still represented by Jeremy Corbyn, and the political right gathered around Nigel Farage.

Professor Davies concluded his lecture by identifying the source of Boris Johnson’s “do or die” rhetoric in Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” in which a brave but hopelessly misled cavalry brigade were slaughtered by the Russian military – a Brexit parable for our times!


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