The next Battle of Britain is going to about England’s future

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, February 6th 2019

Brexit certainly seems increasingly to be about England – or a certain version of England and a rather specific version of the past.

Take last week for example. The previous Tuesday was another landmark day for Brexit. There were numerous big parliamentary votes and the House of Commons made clear again that it was unhappy with Theresa May’s deal with the EU.

BBC News knew this was a big moment and the next day ended their flagship ‘Six O’Clock News’ announcing: ‘Theresa May says she intends to go back to Brussels to renegotiate her Brexit deal but EU leaders say the deal is done and they will not reopen talks.’

Dramatic stuff. But what footage did the BBC have as a backdrop to showcase a British Conservative Prime Minister with their back to the wall standing up to Europe? They inexplicably choose footage of World War Two Spitfires and the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940. The reason for this, the Beeb later revealed, was ‘a production mistake’ of loading a previously shown film again. That seemed a little disingenuous to say the least!

Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski had no such excuses when he tweeted:

Britain helped to liberate half of Europe. She mortgaged herself up to eye balls in process. No Marshall Plan for us only for Germany. We gave up war reparations in 1990. We put £370 billion into EU since we joined. Watch the way ungrateful EU treats us now. We will remember.

He refused to recant or qualify in the face of the facts – Britain, as anybody with a scant knowledge of the Marshall Plan should know, having being a major recipient of American aid and much more than West Germany.

Meanwhile on ‘Newsnight’ a Leave voter, Danny Gillespie, who lives in Grimethorpe and a former miner captured the mood of a part of the country:

We fought in the Second World War. We liberated France, we liberated Belgium. We beat the Germans. And what we got now? Trying to tell us what we can and can’t do.

This is just the most notable interventions in one week. The week before Tory MP Mark Francois attacked the German head of Airbus who had the audacity to warn of the damaging consequences of a No Deal Brexit. Francois invoked his father and the war: ‘My father, Reginald Francois, was a D-Day veteran. He never submitted to bullying by any German. Neither will his son.’ He then tore up a copy of the Airbus letter in front of the TV cameras.

The Second World War is everywhere in the ether. People have heated debates about Winston Churchill and the 1943 Bengal famine. Green MSP Ross Greer goes head to head with Piers Morgan on the subject. The British citizenship test contains as a question: ‘Which country did Germany invade in 1939?’ to which the answer is Poland.

‘Living in an Old Country’, England and Brexit

Fintan O’Toole in his recent book on England and Brexit, ‘Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain,’ looks at the pivotal point that was the summer of 1990. This was the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall and talk of German reunification between the West and East parts were everywhere. The UK Government led by Margaret Thatcher regarded this as deeply unattractive, shaped as they were by memories of the war and still living in their minds in its long shadow.

In such circumstances along came Thatcher’s Trade and Industry minister Nicholas Ridley who, in an interview with ‘The Spectator’, said the EU was ‘a German racket designed to take over the whole of Europe’. He then went on to dig a deeper hole comparing the EU and the Nazis: ‘I’m not against giving up sovereignty in principle, but not to this lot. You might as well give it to Adolf Hitler, frankly …’ His offensive words were escalated by the magazine’s cover of then West German leader Helmut Kohl having a Hitler moustache put on his face by Ridley who was running away. Ridley was unsurprisingly forced to resign.

O’Toole provides the valuable insight that German unification in October 1990 ended the legacy of World War Two for Germans. It was the end of two Germanys and the Yalta-Cold War division of Europe. But for Britain, and in O’Toole’s take, the English political imagination, all of this saw the re-emergence of the ghosts of World War Two as a powerful German hegemon at the centre of Europe rose again to prominence and European leadership.

This has been a long time coming because the past and the claustrophobic obsession with a certain specific part of it – World War Two – has not always been to the extent it is today. It amounts to, in the words of the academic David Andress, a kind of ‘cultural dementia’ where only one version of history is remembered: a singularity of the past and national memory.

Patrick Wright in the mid-1980s wrote a book which foresaw the future as the past: ‘On Living in an Old Country: The National Past in Contemporary Britain’. He thought he was writing then about Britain, but it is obvious he is really writing about England and the national imagination. He examines the rise of the heritage industry and the fascination with the English country house, the retreat from the inner city, and spends time exploring the raising of Henry VIII’s warship Mary Rose in the waters of the Solent. All of these are English stories and we have only continued this regression since.

It is not very far from Wright’s decades-old tour of the past to the books (and TV series tie-in) by Dominic Sandbrook on the cultural history of Britain – for which read England and a very narrow, respectable, know your place version of the place. ‘The Great British Dream Factory: The Strange History of Our National Imagination’ is as its title says strange. Despite 650 pages there is next to no Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, and next to no England north of Liverpool and Manchester.

Sandbrook doesn’t like rebels. John Lennon gets it for wanting to live in a big house and hence be drawn to the English dream of a big country house. The same with the Rolling Stones. And don’t ask about certain versions of English rebellion and imagination such as punk. Forty years after the event Sandbrook can’t bring himself to discuss the subject at any length, only allowing for passing mention of the Sex Pistols and their glorious moment in the sun, ‘God Save the Queen’.

This cultural history of Britain as Southern, middle class, polite, bourgeois England where the highest accolade is being commercial and selling lots of product: hence admiration for Catherine Cookson and Elton John and his dismissal of anything with edge, outsider characteristics or breaking new ground and asking questions. Sandbrook’s cultural take is really Wright’s world taken to the point of ossification and strangulation: popular culture which once was about the future and challenging the old order here becomes part of the heritage industry with no room for anything else. It is England as an old folk’s home or baby boomer retreat where people continually reminisce about the good old days of the 1940s when we were all united against one enemy and sang the same songs and if they are feeling cool go on about how fab the 1960s were.

‘Don’t Mention the War’: How it wasn’t always like this

This was not always the way the world was. England as Britain never used to be so dominated by the Second World War. Indeed, immediately after the war a generation of people who directly experienced that conflict often preferred not to talk about how grim and horrid it had really been. There were of course numerous films and books extolling Britain’s various triumphs: ‘The Battle of Britain’, ‘The Dam Busters’ and ‘Sink the Bismarck!’, but they did often make war seem rather jolly and often an escapade involving public school boys teaching the Jerrys a good lesson.

Many will have forgotten but there was a reaction to this, of cultural figures saying enough is enough: ‘stop going about the war’. Maybe this was coincidental but it seemed to crash into the mainstream at about the time the UK entered the EEC in 1973 and had its first European referendum in 1975. Thus, in the mid-seventies figures such as John Cleese playing Basil Fawlty in ‘Fawlty Towers’ could pore scorn on the fixation with the war and caricaturing of Germans.

Fawlty instructs himself in the episode ‘The Germans: ‘Don’t mention the war’ and then proceeds to do so at every opportunity. When he gets into an argument with German visitors to the hotel and one says to Fawlty, ’Well, we didn’t start it!’ he replies ‘Yes you did, you invaded Poland’. Cleese later said: ‘Everybody thinks it’s a joke about Germans but it’s about British attitudes to the war and the fact that some people were still hanging on to that rubbish.’ Too many British missed that intent.

This began to change in the 1980s as the war receded, Thatcherism gave voice to an unapologetic British-English nationalism, culminating in that summer of 1990 when England played West Germany at football, the tabloids went crazy with anti-German headlines and wartime references, and German reunification was in the air.

All of this has played a part in creating a bitter, nasty environment which aided and informed Brexit, in many respects making it all but inevitable. This really is a country which sees its best days and stories in the past: whether in drama, fiction, or with some connection to reality.

This is why a mythical version of sovereignty played such an important part with many Leave voters. It was a call to reach back to a past Albion, a half-remembered country: independent from Europe, standing tall in the world, all-white, and with a sense of both order and due care at home for its citizens.

This is an English story, but one that could appeal beyond the right to Labour, Northern and working class voters. It was used by the right to see a very narrow reactionary, nostalgic version of England. In this there are numerous culprits for this sad state of affairs. The litany of guilty men, women and forces includes the obvious: Thatcherism, the little Englanders and Global Britain fantasists of Brexit, and the dodgy money and tactics of the likes of Arron Banks and Nigel Farage.

Yet this is too obvious and easy a charge sheet. As culpable for this capture and distortion of England and its hijacking of Englishness is a long line of Labour figures who embraced English conservatism with a small ‘c’ and failed through lack of radicalism to take on its reactionary centres of privilege. This lineage runs from Clement Attlee to Harold Wilson who like Tony Blair governed for periods with huge parliamentary majorities. But as guilty is the left wing Labour conservatism of the likes of Jeremy Corbyn who have failed to take on domestically the reach of reaction, instead being content to play to their own comfort zones. Corbyn even sits in that long tradition of the English left of disowning and having no interest in his or anybody else’s Englishness – which concedes this vital political ground to the right.

To invoke a wartime reference the next Battle of Britain is going to be about different Englands. But it is one Labour and left-wingers have to enter and engage with coming up with alternative stories and futures to the right. If they continue to not do this it comes at a cost to all of us on these isles: the hijacking of the English national story by the unreconstructed right.