Notes From the Margins…

Brexit: Don’t Mention the War

  • May 19, 2019
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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 :

Or Piers Morgan, the overpaid and overfed celebrity loudmouth, telling Gary Lineker:

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.

The implication of Widdecombe’s comparison is that Brexit is a struggle for ‘freedom’ that demands a comparable ‘sacrifice’ to the one made by her granny.  Other Brexiters have made this comparison more explicit, such as the UKIP and Bruges Group member Max Gammon (yes he really is called that), who described Brexit in the following terms:

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:

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:

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.

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  1. Nik

    20th May 2019 - 3:57 pm

    I cannot believe that this line of arguing for Brexit or how it is doable was or is actually a thing. What’s next then? Napoleon’s blockade? The Spanish Armada? The brave Brits survived them all.. they even withstood the Norman onslaugh… oh hang on. Matt, you better go grab your rifle, historical events actually CAN harm an Englishman.

  2. Mark

    20th May 2019 - 9:21 pm

    Oh you’ve forgotten the Roman invaders!!

  3. Guano

    21st May 2019 - 10:43 am

    From 1961 to about 1988, the Conservative Party was considered the Party of Europe (while Labour politicians from Gaitskell pointed out the trade-offs that would be required). The politician who did the most to create European institutions and link the UK into those institutions was Margaret Thatcher.
    From the late 1980s onwards, the Conservative Party has gradually helped to create a narrative that the European institutions are an imposition rather than being institutions that UK governments helped to create and joined voluntarily. There was little push-back against this narrative from mainstream politicians because it was a handy device to deflect attention from domestic political decisions such as austerity, so among certain sections of the electorate the idea that the UK is a colony of the EU are well-embedded. All they remember of Thatcher is the rebate on EU contributions and the Bruges speech, and this leads to the absurdity of Bruges Group meetings at which there are giant portraits of Thatcher as a heroine. even though she was the chief architect of the Single Market and thus of Freedom of Movement.

    We thus have this section of the population who see Brexit as about throwing of outside impositions (at any cost) and another section of the population who sees it as about the trade-offs attached to different levels of integration with institutions that were designed to facilitate trade and cooperation among European nations. A deep division in society has been created by the telling of these lies for the last 20 years (and by allowing them to be told) which will be difficult to overcome.

  4. Nik

    23rd May 2019 - 5:14 pm

    For me the whole ordeal is simply one of the saddest events in post-war European history. I quite often drive my friends crazy because you most likely will not find a bigger anglophile than me in Austria. No matter what I always had the Three Lions’ back as much as possible when it came to unfair criticism in the past. Admittedly this started due to the stories my grandfather told me about how the “Tommies” picked him up when he was wounded in North Africa and what amazing gentlemen they were and how amazingly – given the dire circumstances – they took care of his serious wounds. So from a young age on I always had an almost soppy soft spot for you lot. Add to that amazing school exchanges, easy easy easy traveling to the UK and an English girlfriend plus a natural affection for British humour (and the Infernal Machine of course hehe) and what you get is a guy who has used Queenie from Blackadder as his avatar since the beginning of his online “career” and who frequenlty tried to pass as a “native” in the UK by mimicking an English accent (which lasts for aprox. 20 seconds before my Austrian German tank commander accent shines through).

    Long story short: This is the first time that I am thoroughly fed up and quite frankly pissed with at least 50% of you guys. I just do not understand British political discourse anymore. From Labour being accused of institutionalised Antisemitism to especially the whole Brexit story I simply cannot help myself but be frustrated to such an extend that I even wish that those idiots who cheer on Brexit get exactly what they wish for: a Brexit so hard it makes their heads spin.

    Sorry for the little rant, but I had to let it out somewhere..

    • Matt

      23rd May 2019 - 5:20 pm

      No apologies necessary Nik. Understand completely.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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