Brexit and the myth of WW2: Politics of the Past

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

By Alex De Boick

Thinking back to those strange days after the referendum in 2016, there is one memory that sticks out to me above everything else. A reporter was interviewing two elderly ladies asking them what they thought about the result. Excitedly, one of them replied, “everything will go back to how it used to be.” This statement struck a huge chord with me. How could it be that one vote would suddenly revert the country back forty-or-so years to a time more familiar to these two ladies? What would that even look like? Yet, this appears to almost perfectly capture the general mood behind the leave vote. As the saga continues, arguments for Brexit, and particularly a No-Deal exit, have moved away from whether it’s for the benefit of the economy to more abstract ideas about sovereignty and re-installing a sense of pride in the British people.

We are constantly reminded that Brexit is the biggest crisis facing this country since WWII, so perhaps unsurprisingly the political rhetoric surrounding the issue is frequently tainted with war-like phrases such as ‘surrender bill’, ‘traitors’ and ‘anti-patriots'. For many people, the Second World War represents Britain’s finest hour as a nation, defending the principles of liberal democracy from a tyrannical fasicst regime. For Brexiteers, their argument is often seen as nothing but a continuation of this conflict--the United Kingdom standing alone against a monolithic European entity. Boris Johnson himself stated in 2016 that the EU is an attempt to create a ‘Superstate’ in the same vein as Hitler and Napoleon, and that whenever attempts like this are made ‘it always ends tragically.’

For Remainers too, the Second World War is of great importance--after all, the European Union was created out of the ashes of that conflict in order to prevent Germany and France from ever attempting to knock two shades out of each other ever again. Even Churchill, a name that often seems to be infused with arguments for leave, was a supporter of the 'European dream'.

Of course, for the most prominent image of Brexit and WWII, we must return to the idea of Britain defending itself from Europe alone. Many historians and researchers have commented upon how even in 1940, with Nazi Germany ruling much of Western Europe and the U.S.A relcutant to declare war, Britain was not exactly without any allies. Roughly 20% of fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain (our ‘finest hour’) were foreign, coming from colonies like New Zealand and South Africa as well as other places in Europe such as Poland and Czechoslovakia.

Despite these numerous rebuttals, still the myth prevails. A study by the LSE found that the generation who were alive during the events of 1939-1945 held ‘significantly more positive views towards European integration than the immediate post-war generations.’ Perhaps the reason that the myths of the war are so pertinent with this generation is because they grew up on the bombardment of WWII depictions that the media was producing at the time.

Again, I find myself returning to ‘everything will go back to how it used to be.’ Nostalgia is almost always a comforting thought. While Remain arguments focused heavily on the impact of the economy, the Leave vote perfectly captured the desperation to return to a British hey-day. Boris Johnson’s so-called ‘peddling of optimism’ is yet another example of this. Polls have shown that the majority of Britons believe that the country’s best days are behind us, with the two best years being 1945 (the end of WWII) and 1966 (the year England beat Germany to win the World Cup). It is also interesting that some of the areas that voted leave the heaviest are seaside towns. More than 100 of the 120 constituencies with a coastline voted for Brexit. Hailing from one, I can sympathise with this notion of the past being 'better'. As you drift along the run-down promenade, you are reminded that life here in the early 20th century--before commercial air travel allowed a cheap getaway to Europe-- probably would have seemed better. Brexit presented an opportunity for these disillusioned towns to show-up David Cameron and the Westminster elite while also attempting to reclaim the glories of the past.

No matter which side of the debate, political rhetoric needs to change. There, of course, needs to be hope for the future, but this future should not be viewed through WWII-tinted glasses. Whatever the outcome of Brexit, hopefully it can lead to a re-evaluation of Britain’s position in the world and forge a 21st-century vision of this country that can move us forward without constantly looking backwards.


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