Brexit: Don’t Mention the War
- May 19, 2019
Badly-remembered history tends to produce bad politics, and bad politics often results in misremembered or mythologised versions of history. In the case of Brexit, both tendencies have been borne out repeatedly by the obsessive references to World War 2 to which Leavers are prone.
Suggest that a ‘no deal’ Brexit may be a disaster for the country, or that we might experience food and medicine shortages, and they spring out of the woods, all dressed up in their helmets and home guard uniforms and wearing camouflage, to remind us that World War 2 was worse, and hey! we got through that.
This refrain crops up again and again, whether it’s the Question Time audience member reminding how merchant ships were once being shot out of the ocean, and we survived that so no deal shouldn’t be a problem. And over their to the right. Atten-shun! It’s little Darren Grimes, the fashion student-turned-dodgy Leave campaigner, striking an equally patriotic and heroic pose :
A reminder that this country survived Nazi Germany and blockades in the Atlantic, but there are folk out there that genuinely believe not being part of a supranational political bloc will literally destroy us
— Darren Grimes (@darrengrimes_) 23 August 2018
Or Piers Morgan, the overpaid and overfed celebrity loudmouth, telling Gary Lineker:
Britain prevailed over two World Wars during the last century.
I’m sure we can prevail over Brexit, however it unravels. https://t.co/6GWPiSMTma
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) 20 July 2018
With such resilience on display it’s enough to make any patriot choke up, were it not for the stiff upper lip that is part of our national character. And it’s not just the men waving their ration cards in the air. Just this month the Brexit Party harridan Ann Widdecombe told Radio 4 that Brexit:
… is as nothing compared to the sacrifice that we asked a previous generation to make in order to ensure Britain’s freedom. My granny was bombed out in Plymouth. People lost sons and husbands and fathers and they did this because they wanted freedom.
Brexit is presented primarily as a matter of economics rather than a struggle for the freedom from bondage! Bondage from a dictatorial continental oligarchy. We have been given a picture of a negotiation between friends, and partners. We are in fact at war! We are incapable of bringing ourselves to understand a deadly threat to our freedom, indeed a threat to our very existence as a nation.
For ex-army colonel Richard Kemp, Brexit isn’t just about us. Once again we’re saving Europe, but this time we’re saving it from the EU:
(1) Europe is very important to Britain. That is why we made such immense sacrifices to save the continent in two world wars. That is why we must Brexit and again save Europe, this time from the clutches of the EU which also operates against its interests. pic.twitter.com/FgxpZ4fpbV
— Rɪᴄʜᴀʀᴅ Kᴇᴍᴘ ⋁ (@COLRICHARDKEMP) 29 March 2019
Europe seems curiously ungrateful to us for saving it from those ‘clutches’ – except for the Europeans on the populist and fascist right who are looking to create a ‘Europe of nations’ in the next European Parliamentary elections.
This is definitely the tradition that Aaron Banks, the insurance salesman-cum-spiv who has funded Nigel Farage belongs to, and Banks is another one who never stops talking about the war. Just this week he was at it again, mocking MEP Seb Dance, whose grandmother lost half her family because one of its members was involved in the plot to kill Hitler:
Added to which , two generations of Brits gave their lives bailing out Europe and your German granny! They didn’t fight two world wars to be a branch office of Brussels & have democracy subverted and ignored. We want to be a free independent democrat nation state & we will be !! https://t.co/RmpBxmdsIb
— Arron Banks (@Arron_banks) 14 May 2019
There is a lot more of this about. The most charitable thing that could be said about this Brexit war chatter is that it reflects a nostalgic yearning for a more heroic national episode – even if such nostalgia tends to be expressed by people who did not live through the war, and tends to leave out a great deal about how we ‘prevailed’.
For one thing, the Brexit khaki narrative tends to ignore the fact that we survived with the help of others, whether it was the United States with its blood plasma programmes, landlease loans and military aid, or the massive sacrifices made by the Soviet Union.
Contrary to Banks’s observation, we did not ‘bale out’ Europe. We fought alongside Europeans in a common struggle against Nazism and fascism, in the various resistance and partisan movements which the Special Operations Executive and other organisations worked with across the continent.
We came to this struggle late, having refused to act during the Spanish Civil War, or the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. When we finally did fight, we did so as part of a European-wide alliance that included communists, Gaullists, Yugoslav monarchists, socialists, republicans, monarchists, conservatives, and social democrats.
Without that alliance we could not have ‘prevailed’. Without the contribution of the colonial troops who fought in our armies, we could not have ‘prevailed.’ Without the Polish pilots who fought with the RAF we might not have won the Battle of Britain. It’s true that, for a brief period between June 1940- June 41, we ‘stood alone’, in Europe at least, and acted as an inspiration and a facilitator to resistance movements across the continent.
But anyone who reads the accounts of the British SOE agents who fought alongside these movements – and sometimes died in German concentration camps – will be struck by the solidarity and empathy these men and women felt towards the countries they infiltrated and the Europeans they worked with as they attempted to ‘set Europe ablaze.’
The sentiments that moved so many of these agents were entirely different to the smug chauvinism, xenophobia and national exceptionalism that drive the Brexit project. These men and women saw themselves as Europeans and the movements they worked with as participants in a common struggle against a common enemy.
To invoke the genuine sacrifices that they made, and that millions of people made across the continent, in the service of Brexit is not just bad history, it is not history at all. It is simply crude, dishonest propaganda.
To compare our entirely voluntary – and ineptly executed – decision to leave a trade bloc to the military and ideological struggle against one of the most barbaric and tyrannical political formations in history is demented and shameful hyperbole. Quite simply, anyone who thinks that the European Union is like Nazi Germany does not understand either the past or the present, and most likely has no interest in understanding either.
For these Englanders, ze war really should be over, and their willingness to keep fighting it is not proof of our national resilience, but further evidence of the extent to which nationalist fantasies have reduced us to collective hysteria, idiocy and frothing self-delusion.