Thursday 7 May 2020

Must we mention the war?

There’s relatively little happening as regards Brexit developments this week (although the increasing row over the Northern Ireland Protocol is important), and little new to say about such developments as there are (but see Dr Katy Hayward and Professor David Phinnemore’s analysis of the background to the row). As regards the current situation overall, Katya Adler, the BBC’s excellent Europe Editor, has provided a clear summary.

So instead of writing a new post, I am ‘re-upping’ one from 28 September 2018 on Brexit Britain’s war fixation. It seems appropriate since Britain is having a public holiday for VE Day. That was decided last year, to reflect that this will be the 75th anniversary (the same happened for the 50th) but perhaps also reflects, precisely, a fixation with the Second World War which is growing rather than diminishing with time, even as those who still remember it diminish in number. (For further, interesting, reflections on this do take a look at an excellent blog post by Miles King)

And, indeed, since writing that post it does seem as if war obsession is growing and coarsening, with the behaviour of pantomime oaf Mark Francois a prime, even paradigmatic, case. That could be seen as harmless enough, but it does carry dangers as the post points out. These have come into even sharper relief during the coronavirus. For as discussed in my post of a couple of weeks ago dubious comparisons with Spitfire production or the Blitz have undoubtedly adversely affected Britain’s response to the pandemic.

Despite the post being about 18 months old, there is not much that I want to change or add (and I haven’t edited it apart from expunging one, now legally superseded, phrase), except for two things. One is that my point in the third footnote that people might not be sanguine if faced with disruptions to supplies in the event of no-deal Brexit seems borne out by the panic buying at the start of the pandemic crisis. The no-deal Brexit under discussion at the time was that of there being no Withdrawal Agreement at all, but similar disruptions can be envisaged if, at the end of December, we leave the transition period with no trade deal in place and, actually, even with such a deal there will be a need for new customs processes which will disrupt established supply chains. Also of note is that the coronavirus shortages were caused by a short-term demand spike; those at the end of the transition period will be driven by supply shortages, and may be of longer duration.

The second additional point is that, in response to the original post, I received several messages saying that I was ‘showing disrespect’ for those who fought in the war, or failed to understand its significance. This is nonsense. I spent eight years researching and writing a history of Bletchley Park, Britain’s wartime codebreaking organization. That history is itself often mythologized or misunderstood and as I wrote in the book it shows no lack of respect to those who worked there “to avoid sanitization and sentimentality … most of them would have regarded an attempt at analytical rigour as a more fitting tribute” (p.32).

That same idea matters in the current context, where there is sometimes a mood of almost authoritarian insistence upon jingoistic celebration. It would have seemed odd, I imagine, to those who were engaged in fighting authoritarianism and for individual freedom.

At all events, it is a strange historical irony that, in the long-run, it has proved more difficult for Britain – or perhaps England – to ‘get over’ winning than it has for other countries to get over defeat and occupation. And perhaps an even stranger and grimmer one that this has been partly responsible for Britain leaving the institution which embodies the successful attempt to provide the continent of Europe with an alternative to the horrors of both the war and its long, bleak, ‘cold’ aftermath. Happy Victory in Europe Day.

The September 2018 post follows.

Brexit Britain’s wartime fixation

In the run up to the referendum, it was widely remarked upon that one significant strand of the leave campaign channelled the British fixation with, and often mythologization of, World War Two (WW2). How big a part it played in the outcome of the vote is impossible to say, but it seems plausible that it was a factor amongst the demographic that voted most strongly for Brexit, the over 50s. This would be not so much people who remember WW2 – now a relatively small number – but the generation or two who grew up, as I did, in its shadow. It was a time when every other film and TV series was set in the war, when children made models of Spitfires and Lancasters, and teachers and parents spoke of ‘the war’ both routinely and as the defining event of their lives.

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 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 Hargraves - 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, 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’ 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.

*Indeed some already have. See in particular the excellent chapter by Robert Eaglestone, ‘Cruel Nostalgia and the Memory of the Second World War’ in Eagelstone, R. (Ed) Brexit and Literature. Critical and Cultural Responses. Routledge, 2018.

**It is noteworthy that even pointing this out was enough to enrage Brexiters, with the Daily Express railing against the comments for ‘mocking’ them.

***The relative numbers in these different camps will become politically significant if a no deal Brexit were to happen. Brexiters are likely to find much less appetite than they think for massive disruption to the amenities of everyday life, even amongst those who currently appear relaxed about the prospect.

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