Notes From the Margins…

We Could Be Heroes: from Brexit to the Blitz

  • February 26, 2019
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History has played a big part in the national torment that we’ve been going through for the last two and half years.  Social media and more mainstream political discourse alike are awash with facile historical references and comparisons, between Dunkirk and WTO rules, between the EU and Hitler, Napoleon, or the Soviet Union.

At times it feels we’re living in a looped mash up of Blackadder and Horrible Histories mixed with Pathé News clips.

Many of these references return invariably to World War 2, usually from Brexiters, who like to remind us that we survived the war and can therefore survive a no-deal Brexit, that we liberated the same foreigners who are now telling us what to do, that they should be grateful etc, etc

Such snippets generally come stripped of the complexities, nuances and context that are or should be part of any serious study of the past.  They tend to consist of what Norman Mailer called ‘factoids’, invoked to satisfy a nationalist imagination that feeds on the nostalgic invocation of lost grandeur, that generally prefers myths to facts,  and ignores inconvenient facts that contradict the myths it refers to.

It’s easy – and entirely correct – to point out the fraudulent and selective ‘invention of tradition’ by men like Rees-Mogg and Johnson.  But this selectivity is essential to our post-referendum fascination with the past.

Last night Channel 4 News devoted a thoughtful segment to the post-referendum obsession with the war.  Fatima Manji interviewed the former ‘wartime child’ Ruth Baden; a former RAF fighter pilot; the British historian Neil MacGregor, who now advises the Humboldt Forum museum project in Berlin, and the German historian Helena von Bismarck.




Many Remainers will relate to Ruth Baden’s heartfelt response, when asked about the constant references to wartime rationing, that ‘ I feel like weeping, because it’s so utterly stupid.’  But then there is the 94-year-old former RAF pilot Brian Neeley, who  remembers Dunkirk as a time when ‘ we had nothing, we had absolutely nothing.  And it’s the same with Brexit.  We’ve stood up alone before.  And what makes us think that we can’t stand up alone again?’

Neeley, like many people who make such comparisons, seems entirely oblivious to the fact that we are not at war and the negative consequences of Brexit are a consequence of a political choice that our politicians have made .  Nor does he mention the fact that Britain did not ‘stand up alone’ during the war, and would have lost the war if it had.

I’ve often thought, listening to this kind of ‘Blitz spirit’ nostalgia, of the nineteenth century American writers who longed for civil war, not because they cared one way or another about slavery, but because they saw peace as an inherently corrupt and corrupting state in itself.   These were writers who believed that nations were tempered by war, and that war made nations heroic.

Something similar can be found in the writings of Padraig Pearse about Ireland; in the neoconservative writers after 9/11 who saw the ‘war on terror’ as a bracing moral struggle that would redeem a decadent American society through heroic righteous war against an utterly evil enemy.

Some of these expectations underpin the wartime nostalgia that has converged around Brexit, as the negative consequences become clearer.

In terms of how ‘Britain’ imagines itself as a nation, WW2 – and particularly 1940 – has always constituted  a unique historical reference point of national heroism.   Such nostalgia obscures a great deal.  Land Lease, the Soviet Union, the carpet bombing of German cities, the European partisans, the use of colonial troops, and many other factors contributed to a victory that too many people seem to imagine was won by ‘Blitz spirit’ and a stiff upper lip.

Such nostalgia tends to be accompanied by a sense of indignation and incomprehension that ‘Great’ Britain should now be having to ‘take orders’ from foreigners who ‘we’ liberated from Nazism.

In last night’s programme, Neil MacGregor compared the British obsession with the war to Germans ‘who live constantly with the failures of their own history.’   In McGregor’s estimation,  the British use the past as a form of ‘self-affirmation.  It’s a way of telling ourselves that we’ve on the whole been the good guys.  And when we come to the difficult bits, we just speed up.’

We have seen a lot of ‘speeding up’ over the last few years, but our historical amnesia wasn’t caused by Brexit.   We have yet to experience what Germans call ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’  –‘ the process of coming to terms with the [negative] past.’

Germany, as MacGregor points out, uses its Nazi – and communist – past to guide its politics, in ways that the UK has not begun to do.

To point this out is not to suggest that the British Empire was ‘like the Nazis’.  ‘Coming to terms’ with the past should not mean moral self-flagellation, but it should be based on the honest acknowledgment of less heroic episodes such as the Bengal famine, Boer War concentration camps, Cecil Rhodes or the bombing of civilians.

And we should incorporate that knowledge into our understanding of who we are and how we came to be who we are.  Because countries that don’t – or can’t – do this, will inevitably fall victim to precisely the kind of self-destructive nationalist frenzy that has unfolded since the referendum.   They will always be vulnerable to charlatans and demagogues, and what the 86-year-old Ruth Baden calls ‘ false pride.’

As Baden plaintively observed ‘ We’re just a small island off the mainland of Europe.  I think we have a great deal to offer.  But we shouldn’t get above ourselves.’

Quite. But we’ve been ‘above ourselves’ for a long time now, and if we are ever going to wake up from the political nightmare we have inflicted on ourselves, we would do well to take off the rose-tinted glasses that the nationalists want us to wear, stop waving the Union Jack, and remember that we were not always good, heroic, or great – and that our ‘greatness’ was not always what we now think it was.


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  1. julietta schoenmann

    28th Feb 2019 - 8:02 pm

    Great piece. Are you by any chance reading Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain by Fintan o’Toole? I’m only a few pages in but what you’re saying corresponds closely to his analysis and makes fascinating reading!

    • Matt

      28th Feb 2019 - 10:56 pm

      Thanks Julietta. I haven’t read that book yet, but I’m a big fan of Fintan O’Toole and I always read his articles. He’s a very thoughtful observer of our national implosion, and his Irish perspective is always grimly revealing.

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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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