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  • Movement of Trade and Movement of PeopleThe Year in The Uk
  • Tom Overton (bio)

In the Brexit referendum of June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom voted in favor of leaving the European Union. The margin of victory was narrow—52 to 48 percent—and the search for broader sociological and political explanations for the result has been no less contentious. The right-wing historian Andrew Roberts called it “a more impressive achievement than the French Revolution,” a triumphant decision to “take back control” from foreign and domestic elites. For disillusioned Remain voters, it seems merely one last, self-destructively xenophobic tantrum from the deluded center of an old empire.

The decision to call the referendum itself, however, can be discussed in terms of individual biography. The Conservative Party, part of a ruling coalition with the Liberal Democrats from 2010 to 2015 and a majority government thereafter, has long been divided over Europe. Much of the relevant history is rehearsed in Charles Moore’s book on an “extraordinary woman who was too driven ever to examine herself” (xvi). David Cameron, the Conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 2010 to 2015, called the referendum in an attempt to settle this party disciplinary issue, and the boundaries of a survey of life writing in Great Britain between mid-2015 and mid-2016 are roughly demarcated by the first and second editions of the two major recent attempts at his biography. Contextualizing these books’ very different approaches opens a broader perspective onto British life writing production in the period. The August 2015 introduction to the hardback of Anthony Seldon and Peter Snowdon’s Cameron at 10: The Inside Story 2010–2015, asserts that the premiership “will be seen as one of significant historical importance” (xxix). By the paperback introduction in July 2016, this significance was clarified, and the authors predicted that Cameron “will forever be remembered as the prime minister who precipitated the country’s most momentous decision in fifty years” (xxix). [End Page 667]

Cameron staked his reputation on campaigning for the Remain side of the argument. Though Seldon and Snowdon conclude that the Prime Minister had no choice but to call the referendum, not least because of the rise of the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party under its leader Nigel Farage,1 they think he could still have won by playing his hand better, holding out for better terms from his European partners, and fighting “a more positive, authoritative campaign” (xxxix).

As an individual who impacted the course of events in precisely the opposite direction to that which they had intended, Cameron inverts the “great man” theory of history, which his close friend Andrew Roberts discusses in Napoleon the Great:

Napoleon’s life and career stand as a rebuke to determinist analyses of history which explain events in terms of vast impersonal forces and minimize the part played by individuals … as George Home, that midshipman on board HMS Bellepheron, put it in his memoirs, “He showed us what one little human creature like ourselves could accomplish in a span so short.”


Earlier in the book, Roberts meticulously charts Napoleon’s rise through the gaps in the officer class that the French Revolution created, and explains how economics forced him to establish the Continental System for trade and then, disastrously, to fight Britain and Russia. A more determinist reader might be inclined to recall Karl Marx’s argument in “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.


The period under survey closes with the publication of Gareth StedmanJones’s Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion, a book that attempts to reinsert its subject into a nineteenth-century context. For Stedman-Jones, the “Eighteenth Brumaire” misses something important in its famous opening contrast between Napoleon Bonaparte and his nephew as respective representatives of history repeating itself first as tragedy, and then as farce.

The idea that not only...