Last Monday, at the UK in a Changing Europe released the first tranche of interviews for our Brexit Witness Archive.
Philip Hammond, Gisela Stuart, Chris Grayling, Philip Rycroft, Caroline Lucas and Paul Stephenson all consented to sit down with us (or at least sit down in front of zoom and talk to us) for ninety minutes or more to answer questions about their involvement in and recollections of the Brexit process.
It was utterly fascinating. And, more importantly, the transcripts we have published will provide an invaluable record for future generations of historians and social scientists interested in knowing what key players in one of the most momentous periods in our history had to say.
And yet, not everyone seems to agree. Social media, and indeed the actual media, exploded with people questioning our gall in publishing interviews with – wait for it – people they disagree with.
They are likely to be even more irritated today as we publish the accounts of three of those involved in the unofficial Leave campaign and the Brexit Party – Richard Tice, Gawain Towler and Claire Fox. Consequently, it seems worth taking time to explain what we are doing and what we are not.
The first complaint is that this is called a ‘witness archive’ – yet most of these people were players not bystanders. One person, for instance, claims that we shouldn’t ‘cast someone like Stuart who chaired Vote Leave … as a witness’.
Of course, it is possible to argue that Stuart is not a neutral assessor of what Brexit meant. And perhaps the concern here is simply with the word ‘witness’ – though the practice of capturing this sort of input at ‘witness seminars’ is well established.
There are those, clearly, who might prefer to see Gisela Stuart in the dock rather than on the stand.
But this is not a trial nor a public inquiry. The people we want to hear from were involved in the process of campaigning about, arguing over, and deciding on the process of the UK’s departure from the European Union. Lady Stuart was one of the few committed Labour Leavers. What she has to say is worth reading.
There are other complaints about this interview. That she gives a bland answer to a question about what she thought would happen after the vote and we should have pressed her.
Nick Timothy seems miffed that we didn’t challenge Philip Hammond more on what he has said is a rewriting of history. But, again, that misses the point.
This is not an Andrew Neil inquisition or even a bad day on the Today programme. It is about letting people give their best answers in their own words.
Sometimes it is the contradictions that are interesting – Chris Grayling accusing Hammond of blocking no deal preparations, Hammond denying it.
And of course, everyone reading will have their own list of questions they wished we ask – indeed sometimes at the end of an interview we thought that too.
Our interviews were not intended to be debates or discussions (we’ve done enough of those in our time). The point of the archive is simply to present the recollections of participants in the Brexit process.
We believe these unvarnished (and in most cases unchecked and unresearched) memories have a value in their own right. The things that senior politicians choose to remember or have in fact forgotten speaks volumes about their priorities.
The differences between the recollections of different participants, that the attentive reader will pick up on, are equally fascinating.
Which brings us to perhaps the fundamental point. We trust the judgement of our readers. It is for them to read the accounts we have gathered and to make of them what they will. Claims can be checked against the historical record.
Conclusions can be drawn about whether disagreements about specifics reflect different experiences or ex post facto attempts at self-justification. It is up to the reader to decide for herself. We are providing an archive, not an interpretive guide.
The historical record would clearly make for far more pleasant reading if it were made up solely of the voices of people we agree with. At that point, however, it would cease to be the historical record.
In constructing the Brexit Witness Archive, we are aiming simply to provide a service for historians and social scientists. The testimonies we are collecting should be read carefully and with the appropriate amount of suspicion.
The fact that they are on the record make them easier to assess than the off the record sources that are the lifeblood of journalistic accounts of what happened.
The task of understanding what happened and why falls to generations of future scholars. What we are hoping to do is to give those without ready access to key figures on speed dial a chance to analyse and ultimately to make sense of a dramatic period in British political history.
Please keep reading, apply your judgment and use the material.