History in the service of politics: Constructing narratives of history during the European refugee “crisis”

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It is common for politicians to refer to ‘our proud history of supporting refugees’, yet the historical record regarding responses to refugees is not straightforwardly positive. So how is history drawn upon in political debates regarding refugees? Applying discursive psychology, this article analyses the use of history in five United Kingdom parliamentary debates that took place from September 2015 to January 2016 on the European refugee ‘crisis’. The analysis identifies six ‘functions’ of the use of the history: resonance, continuity, reciprocity, posterity, responsibility and redemption. It shows how reference to historical events create narratives regarding the UK’s history of supporting refugees in order to construct the nation in particular ways, mobilise collective identities and legitimise or criticise political actions. Specifically, references to the UK’s role in providing refuge to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany functions as a hegemonic narrative that reinforces the UK’s ‘heroic’ position, constructs the Syrian conflict as involving an oppressive dictator and innocent refugees in need to help, thereby legitimising support for Syrian refugees. The analysis demonstrates the flexibility of historical narratives, reformulates the distinction between ‘psychological’ and ‘rhetorical’ uses of historical analogies and reflects on the social and political implications of such uses of history.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)297-313
Number of pages17
JournalPolitical Psychology
Issue number2
Early online date31 Aug 2018
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2019


  • refugees
  • asylum
  • history
  • discursive psychology
  • social representations


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