How Delusions About World War II Fed Brexit Mania

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Three days ago, Britain completed the process of quitting the European Union, a major act of foreign policy that most of the world finds bewildering, and considers ill-advised.

It brought to mind comments at an Anglo-German conference some 15 years ago made by the then-chairman of Mercedes-Benz: “I want to tell our British friends how much we hope they will remain partners in the EU. Should they decide to leave, however, I hope you will not consider it impolite if I suggest that, in an age of giant trading blocs, you may find it cold out there.”

So why has Britain taken this leap into the unknown? What follows is a rumination on the British character, rather than on our government.

Nonetheless, we shall begin with a remark last month by Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, who possesses the fiercely contested distinction of being the least impressive member of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s cabinet. Asked why Britain had been the first nation to authorize a Covid-19 vaccine, he compared the quality of U.S. and European scientists and regulators, then said, “We’re a much better country than every single one of them, aren’t we?”

Underpinning almost everything Britain has done since 1945 is a belief among most of its people that we are special, different, important. Many middle-sized nations cherish this conceit in some degree — think of France — but few allow it to influence their political courses as doggedly as do Winston Churchill’s inheritors. 

World War II still dominates British self-image. As a historian of the conflict, I am sometimes driven to despair by my fellow-countrymen’s determination to preserve nationalistic myths about it, rather than to acknowledge harsh realities. The phrase “Grand Alliance,” coined by Churchill, fitted the glorious, largely fictional pageant of which he became the most influential literary begetter, through his six-volume history of the conflict.

In truth, the U.S., Britain and the Soviet Union waged war with very different objectives, and emerged in much different conditions. The U.S. was an indisputable victor, and the only one to emerge from the war in a vastly strengthened economic condition. Russia suffered unspeakable human losses — 27 million dead, against fewer than half a million each for the U.S. and Britain — but the capture of Berlin enabled the Communist leadership to claim its only unequivocal national success between 1917 and its collapse in 1991 (with the possible exception of the 1957 launch of the Sputnik satellite). 

This goes far to explain why Russia still makes more of annual commemorations of its “Great Patriotic War” than does any other nation.

Britain, meanwhile, was financially ruined by the war, which also rang the tocsin for its empire. Yet no postwar event or success, including attainment of a modern standard of living that would seem sybaritic to our fathers and grandfathers, has matched the magic, in national folklore, of our lone 1940-41 defiance of the Nazis. Modern Brexiteers warm to King George VI’s wonderfully foolish remark to his mother, after France surrendered, that he was happier that “we have no allies to be polite to and to pamper.” 

I have written books in which I point out that Churchill himself saw absolutely nothing glorious about Britain’s isolation. Before the French acknowledged defeat, he made the desperate, hopeless gesture of offering their prime minister, Paul Reynaud, “indissoluble political union” between the two countries, if only France would fight on. 

Most of the British upper class despised Americans almost as much as they did Continentals. Their prime minister was among the few who sincerely respected the U.S. He recognized that victory over Hitler was unattainable without American belligerence.

A middle-class Londoner named Vere Hodgson wrote in her wartime diary, acknowledging a debt to the prime minister’s half-American parentage, “Had he been pure English aristocracy he would not have been able to lead in the way he has.” She recognized that many of Churchill’s fellow members of the upper class regarded him as a vulgarian, but she observed wisely: “We need more than good taste to save Britain at this particular moment.”

Churchill himself wrote of the night following Pearl Harbor, when he knew that America was in the war, “I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful.” 

Wartime opinion surveys nonetheless showed the British far less enthusiastic about their transatlantic allies than was the prime minister, and still in love with their vision of plucky little Britain, crying defiance from the White Cliffs of Dover. 

Richard Weight, author of a 2002 study of the modern British search for identity, has written of the wartime era that many politicians, poets, historians and newspapers drew explicit parallels with the Elizabethan and Napoleonic eras: “They portrayed Hitler as the latest in a long line of jumped-up, power-crazed Continental dictators, and they emphasized the unshakeable continuity of ‘the island story.’”

What is remarkable is not that this thesis exercised such power over British imaginations in 1940, but that it continues to do so 80 years later. A year or two ago, I lamented to my old friend the historian Michael Howard, an exceptionally wise nonagenarian, the xenophobia at the heart of the Brexit movement. It is extraordinary, I said, that the British should regard foreigners with such disdain. He gave a theatrical sigh and said: “Dear boy, they always have done.” 

In an important study of Britain’s relationship with the EU published in 1998, the journalist Hugo Young, himself a passionate European, wrote of Conservative Party antics: “The world they defended seemed … to be nostalgic and narrow; assailed by demons, racked by existential confusion. They were incapable of absorbing the possibility that Europe, by immensely strengthening the postwar local economies, might have been the making of the nation-state in the modern world.”

Almost half a century ago, in 1973, the British people reluctantly acquiesced in joining the European Economic Community only because they had exhausted all other possibilities of extending their influence abroad. While U.K. governments enjoyed close relationships with Washington, none doubted that we were immeasurably subordinate to the U.S. 

When Britain’s empire was lost, it sought instead to sustain global reach through mastery of the Commonwealth, to which most of its former colonies and dominions belonged. This institution has proved to possess a ritual significance which pleases the Queen, its official head, but has yielded only marginal economic benefits and negligible political ones. 

Many in the British governing establishment hesitantly accepted the notion of joining Europe because they deluded themselves that they could dominate it. They failed to recognize that relative British economic weakness, measured against Germany’s ascent and France’s recovery, would make this impossible.

They also sold membership to the British people on a false prospectus, asserting that the EEC was solely a trading partnership, which demanded no sacrifice of sovereignty. This was a lie, known to be such by all thoughtful politicians. The betrayal — to use a word favored by Brexiteers ever since — laid foundations for the outright hostility to Europe that has lately supplanted mere general indifference.

In the 21st century, the anti-European faction was transformed into a mass movement by immigration, which a majority of the British people oppose, because they view our crowded island as full. In 2000, Britain had a population of 59 million. Today, the figure is 68 million. 

Yet an irony, still little understood by most of the public, is that leaving Europe will do nothing to curb immigration from beyond the continent, which continues to surge. Net migration from EU countries to Britain has fallen dramatically, to 58,000 last year, and will presumably fall further as EU citizens lose their right to live and work here. Meanwhile, between March 2019 and March 2020, 316,000 non-EU migrants arrived in Britain, and absolutely nothing about Brexit will empower Britain to reduce this figure. 

The great political success of the Brexiteers is that they have convinced a narrow majority of the British people that most of their woes, even the weather, derive from Europe. In truth, scarcely any do, but foreigners make convenient scapegoats. There are close similarities between the tribal attitude of President Donald Trump’s supporters in the U.S. and Johnson supporters in Britain. Both see themselves, above all, as patriots.

Both have lost faith in their respective nations’ traditional governing establishments, and in the collectivist principles upon which they have based our respective nations’ foreign policies. Hugo Young once described Europe as “the graveyard where the reputations of a large [British] political class lie buried.”

Just as in the U.S. where many of society’s “haves” support Donald Trump from economic self-interest, so in Britain a spoiled, rich minority has formed an unexpected alliance with humbler Brexiteers, because its members are privileged enough to be personally impervious to the national economic cost of Brexit. They share the “have-nots” dislike of the Continent, save as a holiday destination.

Some of us have always believed that partnership with Europe, despite all its imperfections, offers our nation’s only plausible future, while isolation represents bondage to a mummified past. But we have lost the argument, because the island heritage vision still exercises extraordinary power over many British people, especially elderly white people. Though they might not quote Shakespeare from memory, their guiding spirit is that of the lines about England — as it then was — attributed to John of Gaunt in “Richard II”:

This happy breed of men, this little world

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall,

Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands,

It is pretty potty, of course, that a middle-ranking offshore island, with little indigenous industrial capacity, should aspire to condescend to other nations. But the French social historian Francois Bedarida, who possessed a deep understanding of the British displayed in several books, was not wrong when he wrote a generation ago that “the train of prejudice” against France ran through British souls, and was “still on the rails.”

Many British people, at the onset of this year of our Lord 2021, still sincerely suppose that, because we were on the winning side in 1918 and 1945, while most Continental nations were humiliated or shamed, we are superior beings. Michael Howard observed after the 2016 Brexit referendum: “We shall be condemned to become global harlots, doing business with any regime that will accommodate us, however unpleasant.”

Some commentators believe that the British will henceforward experience a slow, painful awakening. More likely, in my view, however, is that most will not notice our decline in wealth, relative to what we might have enjoyed had we retained membership of the EU.

The issue of Europe has not merely poisoned Britain’s politics, but induced a drugged stupor in many of its people. They have embraced a nostalgic vision that some of us fear will deny us a stake in the most important and exciting things the world will achieve in the years ahead. We have voted to become a theme park. 

I wrote two years ago that if Johnson achieved his ambition to become prime minister, Britain would forsake any claim to be regarded as a serious country. I do not retract those words. My own vanquished faction can only stand by in sorrow, as the victors in our tragic debate over Europe enfold themselves in the tired old Union flag.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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