Alone against the world, we guarded our island fortress with heroism and stoicism. Six long years of wartime suffering, shortages and existential threat were born without complaint by this hardy, island nation. Surely the machinations of Donald Tusk will not dent our armour?
This narrative, replete with millenarian and masochistic yearnings for some national character-building, fat-trimming confrontation with economic hardship, has begun its insidious and unwarranted creep into the Brexit debate. A debate already brimming with overlapping, all-pervasive and multifaceted self-conceit by almost all involved, this is a national project of self-harm that we are now simply too embarrassed to call off. In such a maelstrom, you would not expect there was any room left for a lie so enormous and so lacking in subtlety.
But we have really reached that stage. It is now common to read the rhetoric of a ‘Dunkirk spirit’ in the words and actions of the hard-Brexit faction. This rhetoric is fuel to the fire of British exceptionalism, a cultural disease that is now more dangerous than ever. We British have a fevered, festering relationship with our history. We cannot confront it, and we cannot escape it. It chases us into the future with our tail between our legs. It is time to stop running.
Comparisons between our present situation and 1940 must be rebuffed if we are to weather this storm and if we are to fulfil our public duty as historians.
Firstly, we are not at war. In 1940, the British people endured and suffered things that my generation cannot hope to grasp (although you can raise doubts about the ability of the Baby-Boomer generation – from whence much of this rhetoric emanates – to understand them either). But they did this because our island was under the threat of imminent invasion. We did not seek war, it was forced upon us. It was a war of survival against tyranny. Brexit is not a war, it is a political decision taken without adequate information or planning, and campaigned for in bad faith. It is voluntary, and useless.
Furthermore, unlike how World War Two is popularly imagined, this will not be a unifying kind of hardship. Brexit has already divided our country straight down the middle. Resentment and disillusionment with our politics is growing from all sides. At this stage, there is no outcome that can satisfy the majority. Brexit is inherently political; its effects will be blamed by one side on the other. This isn’t a national project or a national fight. It’s a national folly.
Finally, the EU is not Nazi Germany. What are we escaping? What are we fighting? British Euro-scepticism has always drawn dubious links between the European unity that various tyrants, from Bonaparte right through to Hitler, tried to enforce with violence, and the ‘ever-closer’ union that characterises the modern EU’s philosophy. This is dishonest in too many ways to count. The EU never really represented the enemy that Brexiteers so skilfully conjured up in 2016.
All of these arguments miss the point. The truly tragic thing about this glory-seeking, show-down mentality is that its most vocal proponents will be the very least affected by the economic pain of a no-deal Brexit.
Jacob Rees Mogg has nothing to fear from factory closures. He is not trying to support three children on a minimum wage job. It is easy to view 1940 with rose-tinted vision when you’re sitting in a leafy country home. Even bombs falling on London probably looked like fireworks from such glorious isolation.
Image: ChiralJon via flickr