Claims about Britain’s past are made regularly in the referedum debate. But claims about Britain’s historical place in the world – courageously standing alone, being outnumbered and outgunned but in the end outperforming everyone – are not based on fact, writes Mike Finn. These myths could nonetheless have very real consequences: this is the self-image that the Brexit campaign portray and which many think they will revive by voting to Leave.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Michael Gove, who as former Education Secretary trumpeted the virtues of ‘our island story’ in the history curriculum, should have emerged as a leader of the Brexit campaign. Nor is it surprising that Boris Johnson, who penned a book to situate himself in comparison with Winston Churchill, should do the same. Both consider themselves to be historians of sorts, articulating Britain’s place in the world in historical terms. But the visions of Britain’s past they draw on are rooted in myth, not history, and this has implications for the decision they are asking us to take.
The ‘standing alone’ myth
For Gove and Johnson, Britain is the nation who stood alone in 1940, a great nation, heir to Anglo-Saxon culture and ‘first in the world for soft power’, owing to Britain’s supposed ‘invention’ of representative democracy. For Johnson, Churchill was a man of ‘vast and almost reckless moral courage’, the encapsulation of all that is good about Britain, not least British pluck. As Gove puts it, those who believe that the prospect of Brexit is a terrible idea are actually arguing that Britain is ‘too small and too weak…to succeed without Jean-Claude Juncker looking after us.’ Johnson went further, comparing the European project to Hitler’s attempt at territorial domination. Both agree that, as in 1940, Britain can, and should, stand alone.
But standing alone has been the exception, rather than the norm. Apart from those heroic months in 1940 and early 1941, Britain has faced the world – in war and peace – with allies. As historians of post-war Britain are only too aware, the ‘financial Dunkirk’ and imperial retrenchment in the years prior to the Suez crisis represented the beginning of a balancing act between Europe and the United States, which continues to this day. For several decades after the war, Britain, in David Edgerton’s words, was keen to maintain ‘a sharply-differentiated third place in world affairs’. The question was how.
A culture of escapism
Ever since, successive British governments indulged in realpolitik and self-delusion in equal measure. Macmillan famously courted American presidents, not least John F. Kennedy, in the belief that Britain could be ‘Greece to America’s Rome’. This attempt at defining a ‘special relationship’ owed much to British culture and snobbery; Americans might have the money and the power, but they didn’t have the class or the guile. On those scores, nobody did it better than Britain.
In popular culture, this ‘escapism’ was represented by Britain’s hero of the post-war era, James Bond 007. Bond was the living embodiment of Britain’s self-delusion, superior in every way to his American counterparts. Successive generations of Britons internalised the Bond mythology; Britain might be outnumbered and outgunned, but in the end nobody does it better.
The Bond mythos runs through depictions of the UK armed forces. The performance of the Special Air Service in the 1980 Iranian Embassy siege seemed to highlight the vitality of Britain’s ‘specialist’ qualities, so much so that there is now a ‘special forces myth’ in popular culture. Their supposedly-supernatural powers are invoked by the tabloids, politicians and pub pundits alike for any crisis Britain may wish to involve itself in. ISIS? Send in the SAS. Or bomb them with Brimstone, a special weapon that Britain has but the US doesn’t. Nobody does it better.
But these historical myths and their influence on Britain’s contemporary self-image have consequences. Britain’s armed forces, heresy though it may be to say it, are not, as Michael Gove claims, ‘the best in the world’. Today’s Royal Navy has no aircraft carriers and it is questionable whether it can really consider itself a ‘bluewater navy’ given its lack of organic air support and dwindling numbers of escort vessels. At least in part this is due to coalition cuts which Gove was a party to.
The Royal Air Force, itself part of the ‘British specialism’ narrative due to its undeniable heroism against superior numbers in the summer of 1940, now operates clapped-out ancient Tornado airframes. Even before the recent vote to additionally intervene in Syria as well as Iraq, one RAF source told the BBC that operations from Cyprus were being conducted with ‘broken jets and tired…fed-up people’. And the two conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan, followed by subsequent defence cuts, have dealt huge blows to the army’s ability to operate autonomously.
In fact, British defence planning has increasingly moved towards models of co-dependency on allies for resources the UK simply cannot provide. But whether one takes a positive or negative view of such dependency, it is the reality. Our dependency also extends to intelligence-gathering – more than anywhere else. The US National Security Agency has maintained listening posts on UK soil for decades, whilst the US Air Force still maintains a significant presence. The rub is that Britain gets access to US intelligence and partners with the US on numerous technologies, from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to Trident (though neither is free from controversy).
Of course, none of this would be in jeopardy – at least for now – in the event of Brexit. But it serves to undermine the mythology of Britain standing alone. It doesn’t, and generally it hasn’t. And in future it won’t. The Bond view of Britain’s place in the world, ‘our island story’, is nothing more than comforting ‘escapism’ as Cannadine described it. Britain is and remains as it was: a second-rate power trying to best maximise her influence against the challenges of a globalising world. And here the EU is far more of an asset than a weakness.
Conspiracy or choice? Why we joined in the first place
The closer defence partnership with the US fostered by the brutal subordination of the British at Suez in the 1950s was mirrored by Britain’s attempts to join the European Economic Community. The British government – for all its delusions – knew that Britain had to retain as much global influence as possible. When Harold Macmillan’s government attempted to join the EEC in 1961 this was not a reflection of Britain sacrificing her power, but an attempt by Britain to ‘to achieve national objectives they could not achieve on their own’. Outside looking-in wasn’t working; the Commonwealth could not compete with Europe as a market, and the greater European unity engendered by the war experience meant that as long as Britain remained on the outside, it was politically marginal in her own backyard – not least in the eyes of a United States who sought influence in Europe through political structures and NATO.
The US, meanwhile, still retains its interest in Britain remaining in the EU, following President Obama’s stark warning to the British people. It is not possible to be an Atlanticist and a Brexiteer. Britain’s withdrawal from her largest economic ally will alienate her most powerful political one. Not for long will Britain survive as the oft-cited ‘fifth largest economy in the world’ if it chooses to walk away from the world’s largest single market. But there’ll be a quick trade deal, of course, or so we are told – even though both Obama and the German Finance Minister say otherwise. On this, the Brexiteers again are betting on Bond; somehow Britain will pull it off. Fantasy politics has a seductive appeal.
The macro-level of debate of Brexit is important, because it will decide people’s votes. But it is also the most nebulous and the most given to sentiment over sober judgment. It is the level most anchored in identity politics (which is important) and its subjectivities. But it obscures the many micro-level issues, such as the impact on the science base, the cost to Britain’s students, the impact on homeowners and those seeking to buy, those with pension funds, those in the armed forces, every British citizen’s life in some way or another. The failure to grapple with the Gordian knot of Britain’s place in the world, instead elected for the safety of self-delusion, has brought the country to this place.
When Brexiteers engage with the macro-level, it is customarily in terms of offering examples of other countries who apparently stand alone – but who on closer inspection turn out not to, or who in fact pay a tremendous price to get less from an organisation of which Britain is already a leading member. But nonetheless there is evidence that such Brexit claims are working. Brexiteers espouse what Niblett calls a ‘myth of sovereignty’, implying that the EU has been a sinister continental conspiracy when it was in fact an elective choice of successive British governments to give the country and her citizens more power. For decades, the EU has been an easy target to pass the buck for British politicians keen to abdicate responsibility for their own choices.
This week, their ultimate abdication will take place. For several generations, Britain’s politicians told themselves – and their publics – comforting lies about Britain’s place in the world. Now, for reasons of a petty party squabble, the British public is expected to sort that out for them. The outcome of any Brexit, however, will more than likely be an ever-diminishing return on Britain’s post-war fantasies.
Mike Finn is Principal Teaching Fellow in Liberal Arts at the University of Warwick, and Honorary Research Fellow in Politics at the University of Buckingham. He is the editor, with Matt Qvortrup and Gillian Peele, of The Referendum Effect (forthcoming, Cambridge University Press, 2016). His previous books include The Coalition Effect, 2010-2015 (edited with Sir Anthony Seldon, Cambridge University Press, 2015) and The Gove Legacy (Palgrave, 2015).
Britain, like all the member countries in the EU , tottered into it out of fear of failure and economic desperation.Even its embryo, the Franco German Iron and Steel Agreement was based on these two pillars.”We’ll show the Americans, the Russians and the Chinese…”…No wonder Europes share of world trade has massively fallen un the last 30 years.No wonder it is riven with endless internal rivalries that fester and grow.A United Europe is a dumb idea.If it ever had anything going for it it would have happened hundreds of years ago.It didn’t.
If Le Pen gets in and France leave that’s the end of the EU anyway. Things are getting very difficult to predict, and systemic unpredictability shortens the life-span of all commentary.
It’s an enduring blight on the Anglo-UK that it has been incapable of adjusting fundamentally to it’s post-imperial position in the world. Pax American seemingly killed off old imperialist militarism when the UK and France were faced down over their ill-fated Suez venture in the late 1950s. But that strand of vainglorious militarism has endured – see Blue Streak, TSR2 (does anyone still remember or even know about them now?). The risible notion that the UK possesses an ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent is especially glaring (independent of the USA that is). Similar examples abound in the non-military domain with ‘supersonic’ Concorde in earlier times, and now the political vanity project that is HS2 – an already obsolete analogue ‘solution’ for a post-digital age? Surely, however, the Anglo-UK has reached a nadir with the hapless UK taxpayer funding the Chines and French to build the wastefully costly Hinkley Point (meantime, China is of course, downgrading its domestic investment in nuclear power generation. Brexit is just about the arsenic laced icing on this cake. The latter is a major driver in the sentiment for Scotland to break away from the existing Anglo-UK failing structures.
You have to wonder at the logic that says 500m people ‘need’ the UK, but that the UK doesn’t need 500m customers..
Its terrible to imagine that the UK is doomed to the suffering of an independent country with only trade agreements and not rule from Brussels. We would be reduced to the status of a Canada, Australia, Singapore, USA, India….
Sorry, the article is simply remoaning bitterness. Better to focus on the fact that the much vaunted Economic Collapse after the EU referendum has not materialised. If you look up those IMF and PwC predictions about the terrible consequences of Brexit for the UK Economy they all depend on the sky falling in right now – the “uncertainty” that would destroy us if we voted Leave. The sky is not falling in and the Remain Economists were entirely wrong. Without the “uncertainty” effect even most Remain Economists predicted Brexit will be positive or nearly neutral for the economy.
If there is to be an economic collapse, it will occur after we leave the EU, not immediately after the referendum – which is likely to be several years before we actually leave.
The IMF,HMT and PwC predictions relied upon uncertainty immediately after the referendum as the source of most of the negative impact of Brexit. This uncertainty has not happened. The IMF and PwC predictions were widely quoted in the media. None of the predictions showed more than a minor effect of Brexit after the uncertainty period. Most of the economic argument was that the few years of uncertainty after the EU Referendum would scar the UK economy for decades.
Ridiculous, the predictions of economic loss as a result of Brexit are not based on anything as nebulous as ‘uncertainty’.
Tariffs and regulatory non-tariff barriers on our trade with our single biggest market, nearly half of all of our exports, is where the economic will come from.
This cannot be correct because I, like John, have been following Brexit assiduously via the Daily Mail and I am confident that Britain will only become greater by going it alone. We are going to have free access to the European markets without paying for it at all, and we have already saved hundreds of millions of pounds that have been ploughed into our NHS. Why, as I remarked to Mr Churchill only yesterday, over tea and scones in the garden of my thatched cottage, thank goodness we managed to escape the clutches of that evil organisation before they sent those twelve million Turkish people over here to live off our generous welfare system. Phew! Mr Churchill smiled wryly, spreading my home made bramble jelly on his scone, and complimented me on this year’s beautiful display of roses. I rarely see a brown face here in the Cotswolds, unless it’s young Tamara back from one of her Caribbean holidays, and apparently now after Brexit I never shall. Hurrah! The vicar at St Luke’s has been muttering something about sending relief parcels to a jungle in Calais, which did surprise me a little, as I thought our nearest jungle was in Africa, apart from the toddlers’ jungle gym in Chipping. Still, being a true Brit and ever ready to rally to the aid of those in distress, I have baked a lemon drizzle cake and packed some of Lionel’s old wooly socks in a shoebox for Sunday. Apparently some of the folks in the Calais jungke may be terrorists, possibly, but I feel extra safe now that we are taking back all our borders. Except probably not that one, because really, we can’t have that sort of thing at Dover, can we. Ho hum. Better start thinking about tomorrow’s fish and chip supper with Will Shakespeare I suppose. It’s so lovely here in Brexitania. I can’t imagine what all the fuss is about!
This is VERY funny. Posted it on Reddit and many people lolled.
The sky is not falling in because Britain hasn’t left the EU yet, and Mark Carney, thank God, had a plan and is executing it, though it’s hard to see how that could go any further, with interest rates now at historic lows. Many observers believe that Brexit will prove untenable, so there is still hope. But if Brexit actually occurs and foreign investors leave Britain in droves because they no longer have tariff-free access to the largest trading bloc in the world, Britain will begin to sink. It may sink slowly, or it may fall off a cliff, but the only way is down. There has been nothing these past 30 years to prevent Britons from creating their own domestic industries, even with all the advantages of EU membership – what makes anyone now think the UK will suddenly become a manufacturing nation again? It would take years to create the factories required to, for instance, regenerate Britain’s car industry and meanwhile jobs would be lost wholesale as current manufacturers pull out or mothball projects and transfer to EU locations. Even if Britain did, for instance, make its own cars, it would still need to trade primarily with its neighbours in Europe, and therefore meet EU regulations on standards, etc. What, then, is the point of leaving? You cannot spend 45 years building a house and then burn it down because you don’t like the curtains. I still can’t believe British people were dumb enough to vote for this, and as someone who lives overseas, I can tell you, no-one else believes it either – they all think the UK has gone completely mad.
The adverse Remain predictions really were largely about the uncertainty post referendum and pre Brexit. Check out the original reports. Look at the “GDP Growth” graphics in https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/scr/2016/cr16169.pdf
See Section 48, page 31 of https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/scr/2016/cr16169.pdf – predicted negative effect is all due to uncertainty (and did not happen).
The publication you cite, says: ” The net long-run economic effects of leaving would also likely be negative
and substantial, though there is significant uncertainty about the precise magnitude. Reduced trade
access would likely lead to lower output and investment. Permanently lower incomes would be
associated with reduced consumption. Pass-through from a weaker pound would result in higher
prices for imported goods; depreciation would mitigate economic losses to the UK somewhat by
stimulating net exports, but not enough to offset declines in other expenditure categories. Fiscal
savings from reduced contributions to the EU budget would likely be outweighed by lower revenues
from expected lower output, resulting in a net fiscal loss.”
“During 1940, the component units of the Australian 9th Division were sent to the UK to defend it against a possible German invasion.” Thanks for the memories.
A truly insightful piece – really well done!
Andrew Walker’s comment point about the Empire is also well made though. Even at the moment when it stood alone, Britain (like France) had forces abroad which remained in place, and to that extent, even then, was not quite as alone as first meets the eye.
Thank you for the article.
One of the problems of the Left in Britain is that they tend to project motive onto their political opponents without really attempting to understand the arguments. This article is pretty much an example of that.
Any cursory reading of serious Brexiteers shows that they seek more, not fewer alliances, and alliances which we gain more than we lose. The argument against the EU is that we have damaged other alliances in the world, and paid a high price to be in the EU alliance: sovereignty, increased EU regulatory costs, etc.
In addition no pro-EU writer has been able to explain to me why independence is such a disaster, or why it is a myth. There are many other states that function extremely well as independent entities, in fact pretty much the entire world does, with the exception of the EU model, which is frankly unsuccessful and becoming more unsuccessful every passing year.
To write off a desire for self-government, and the sense that membership of the EU was becoming too expensive, as myth and delusion says more about the author’s weak case than the arguments he attempts to, unsuccessfully, confront.
Thank God we voted to leave if this is the best that the anti-Bexiteers can come up with.
Alliances will only occur when both parties believe that they have something to gain from the alliance. The idea that other countries will willingly grant concessions to the UK without anything in return is a chimera. Once again, this depends on the myth that such countries will form alliances purely on the basis of our ‘specialness’ – the entire point of this article.
Those months in 1940 and ’41 when Britain stood alone: would that be alone (except for an empire that include about a quarter of the world’s population and a third of its land surface)?
An empire that meant that reinforcing Egypt and the route to India was a priority over reinforcing the south coast.
Here is what the EU has in store for us.
An additional 16M people in 35 years. What kind of country will we be when that happens? So much for the EU “being more of an asset than a weakness”
That projection is for an increase by 2060, so more than 35 years by my calculation. However, you can’t just leave that there and say that it indicates the EU is a problem because of it. Our population increases will most likely be due largely to immigration, but immigration in itself is not bad. If we have no immigration and just rely on our pretty low birth rate for growth, we will end up with an increasingly elderly population. Migrants tend to be, demographically, younger, healthier, and productive on the whole. This helps our country to keep going and pay its bills. If you want to see an anti-immigration country and the consequences, look at Japan, which generally shuns immigration, has a declining young population and faces dire economic consequences over the coming decades because of it.
It’s so nice to see someone make the connection in print between Britain’s ageing population, falling birthrate and immigration. The country NEEDS immigration, but it also needs the infrastructure to cope with it – classes to encourage assimilation, and teach people English and about the British way of life; the creation of extra places in schools, extra hospital provision etc. It is the Tories who cut these kinds of provisions, which has led directly to resentment among native Britons about the influx of foreigners.
Lot’s of things were said during the referendum campaign by both sides. As far as the Federasts are concerned, they may wish to tell us when the Third World War will break out and will it come before or after the total economic collapse that we were all threatened with?
Did some Brexiteers vote on the basis that they wanted the UK to live in splendid isolation? I am sure that they did, but to extrapolate from that, as you seem to be doing, to try to make the claim that this was a common viewpoint is dubious to say the least.
I see from one of your links that you are a member of Liverpool Wavertree CLP. I was once a member of Oldham West CLP and I worked my heart out in 1983 to try and get Labour elected, on a programme of withdrawal from the EU, and a transfer of wealth from the rich – and their middle class stooges – to the rest of us.
You may not believe in those policies, but I do. We have just won the first, and now it is time to start arguing for the second.
There’s plenty of time for World War III, actually. It took about – what – eight years from the Nazis gaining power in Germany till world war, and even longer between economic collapse and war being declared. The pound continues to sink; industries continue to leave the UK and if economic collapse does ensue, which it certainly might, then far worse could follow. The only thing stabilising the situation at the moment is the hope that Article 50 will never be triggered and Britain will step back from the abyss.
“…The only thing stabilising the situation at the moment is the hope that Article 50 will never be triggered…”
The only thing – do you really mean that?
With pessimism like this we drag ourselves back to making the job twice as hard. It will be hard graft but, as stated, we have always overcome,– somehow, and why not?
You obviously haven’t read the article, or worse, wilfully misrepresent it.
The James Bond fantasy is well and truly debunked.
James Bond was always a bit on the tacky side as far as movies are concerned.
This time you won’t. There won’t be any Dunkirk for you.
Britain is simply not a very clever nation it has been revealed. Other nations, notably European ones, have their own brands of nostalgia. Everyone had some kind of empire once. But usually they don’t let it interfere with their common sense or their political calculations.
Britain is off its rocker and apparently begging to be seriously humiliated. I heard suicide attempts are often a call for attention, but too tragic if this one worked.
Interesting and thought-provoking piece as is the first comment. It’s good to read an expert and researched critique of both the history and the possible future by people who are the much maligned experts. Unfortunately the Brxit campaign was won through constant repetition of three to five word slogans.
Whereas your reasoning is perfectly clear, my left leaning friends who voted for Brexit cite the EU’s treatment of Greece and the rules against government borrowing to invest in industry as their overriding considerations even though they would agree with everything in your article.
Greece is part of the Eurozone; Britain is not. It’s completely different.
Wise and, sadly, prescient.
It is 28 years since Tom Nairn wrote “The Enchanted Glass: Britain and its Monarchy “, and if any thing the Glamour, the spell, has grown stronger. The more the real world situation deteriorates, the stronger the myth must become.
At some stage people, particularly in England, will have to reconcile the magical belief system, with mundane reality. God knows how.
Mr. McPhie: Which of Britain’s “force for good in the world” would those be? Would that be the force for good that jailed Gandhi? The force for good that attacked the Salt March? The force for good when Churchill sent tanks onto the streets of Glasgow? That established Boer concentration camps? That shot unarmed people on Bloody Sunday? That tortured thousands of prisoners, both men and women, in Kenya? That abused Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib? Just wondering…
You might want to rethink those myths you’ve so obviously swallowed.
Mr Tomlin, your argument, while valid, would carry greater weight if you actually countered those positive contributions that Mr McPhie mentioned. Every single nation that has ever existed has committed atrocities to some extent. Indeed, in many, many other cases, Gandhi and his supporters would have simply ‘disappeared’. As it is, they largely achieved their goals.
Interesting piece, but do you think there’s a risk that the mythology of the Brexiteers leads us to overlook Britain’s continued significance and potential to be a force for good in the world?
The Euro aside Britain drove some of the most significant steps the European Union has taken since it has joined. The Goverment of the heroine of the Brexiteers, Margaret Thatcher (in reality a pragmatist with regards to Europe when in power), was one of the biggest supporters and made a significant contribution to the creation of the Single Market.
The Eastern European immigrants who are now denounced can only come here, in part, due to longstanding British support of the EU’s expansion towards the East.
The most recent commission had, until yesterday, in charge of financial services, a Briton despite the fact we are outside the eurozone. Not to be sniffed at given the predominance of financial services in the British economy. Prior to that we had Cathy Ashton as the EU’s foreign secretary. This, in negotiations with Iran we had not one, but two seats at the table.
For a country that was apparently always outvoted, they appear to be significant contributions by Britain to the EU. As you say, Gove is keen to underline British achievements in the past, except, it seems, when it comes to the EU.
Outside the EU, the Brexiteers were among the keenest Tories to cut funding to the BBC world service despite the fact it has a respect well beyond any other nation’s national broadcaster. Universities, another area where Britain punches above its weight, will also likely face substantial funding cuts following Brexit.
It seems withdrawal from the EU will undermine, rather than rejuvenate, our ability to play a significant role in international affairs, when membership of the EU allowed us, at times, to punch well above our weight,