No doubt future analysts will have much to say about this*. For now, what matters most urgently is to understand how that same fixation and mythologization is impacting upon the ongoing politics of Brexit. As the outgoing German Ambassador to Britain remarked earlier this year, it has two components**. One is the idea of Britain ‘standing alone’, the other a narrative that links, as Boris Johnson has explicitly done, Nazi Germany’s attempt to subjugate Europe with the present-day EU. Perhaps we could add (at least) a third aspect, quite often seen on social media, that Europe owes Britain a debt of gratitude from the war that ought to be repaid by accepting all Britain’s negotiating demands.
These and similar sentiments constantly re-appear almost every day, and, possibly, with increasing regularity as the negotiations grind, stutter and stall. Just today there was a report of the views of Conservative Party members on these negotiations. One said: “I’d rather have no deal than a bad deal … if this country had a chance and an opportunity it could look after itself. In the second world war we were feeding ourselves”.
This is obviously historically inaccurate (much food was brought to Britain, at huge cost in human life and suffering, by Atlantic convoys) but the real point is that it seems to have been said not as a worst case scenario, but as something desirable, part of the opportunities of Brexit, not as a calamity or as Project Fear hyperbole. It is revealing of the quite different ways that people may react to things like the appointment this week of a Food Supplies Minister as part of no deal planning. Many will think it extraordinary that a rich country in peacetime could even be entertaining such a possibility but others may feel not just sanguine but enthusiastic about it***.
A national quirk takes centre stage
We’re no longer in the situation where this longstanding quirk of the British psyche can just be dismissed as an amusing eccentricity. It has somehow come to occupy centre stage in the politics of Brexit. The Brexit Cabinet sub-committee is routinely described as the ‘war cabinet’. Boris Johnson constantly attempts – and fails – to cultivate a Churchillian image.
Peter Hargreaves - the businessman who donated millions to the leave campaign, funding a leaflet to every household in the country - celebrates the insecurity Brexit will bring: “it will be like Dunkirk again”, he enthuses. Liam Fox announces his support for a round-the-world flight of a restored Spitfire to drum up exports for post-Brexit Britain.
Nor is war fever the preserve of crusty oldsters. Darren Grimes, the 22-year old Brexit activist fined for breaking electoral funding rules during the referendum, recently pronounced that “we’re a proud island nation that survived a world war – despite blockades in the Atlantic that tried to starve our country into submission. I don’t think we’re about to be bullied by a French egomaniac [i.e. Macron]”.
There’s a certain bathos in all this. Brexit, sold to the voters as a sunny upland of national pride and prosperity, reduced to the glum promise by Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab that the government will ensure “there is adequate food supply”. Slogans like ‘it won’t be too bad’, 'it won't be the end of the world' or ‘you won’t actually starve’ would probably not have had much traction, no matter how shiny and red a bus they were written on.
The dangers of war fixation
But there is far more danger than humour in it. The underlying sentiment of confrontational antagonism has permeated the Brexit negotiations from the beginning. Brexiters, having won their great prize, and having assured us how easy it would be, immediately adopted a stance not of confident optimism but of sullen suspicion punctuated with bellicosity.
Recall one of the early moments that the complexities of Brexit became clear – in relation to Gibraltar – and former Conservative leader Michael Howard immediately started talking about war. Or, more low-key but showing how permeated with hostility the approach has been, Johnson’s ‘go whistle’ jibe or Davis’s ‘row of the summer’ bluster.
That’s one danger, and it has already done its damage. The far greater one is the now ingrained and sure to become worse narrative of EU ‘bullying’ and ‘punishment’. This is almost invariably accompanied by invocations of WW2, of standing alone, of German aggression and French duplicity. It is dangerous not so much because it often invokes a highly partial picture of the war but because it always invokes an entirely unrealistic picture of Brexit.
Britain, through its vote and its government’s actions, has chosen to leave and to do so in the form that it has. That entails losing all of the benefits of membership of the EU and of the single market. It is not bullying or punishment to be expected to face the consequences of that choice. Britain has not been forced by foreign aggression to ‘stand alone’: it has chosen to do so. It has backed itself into a corner, through lies and fantasies about the practical realities of what Brexit would mean. It is now in danger of telling itself lies and fantasies about why that has happened.
Britain’s wartime history is something we can justly feel proud of. For that matter there are plenty of people - older people, now, inevitably - in countries like France, Belgium and Holland who continue to feel gratitude for it. But pride should not mean truculence, bellicosity, entitlement and self-pity. Above all, Dunkirk was almost 80 years ago. There is also plenty to feel proud of since and, in any case, that one desperate moment in our history should not and does not define us forever.