Wednesday 22 August 2018

Putting the past behind us

I noted last week that there is no such thing as simple objective history; facts and events are always selected and interpreted from one or other point of view.  It’s something that strikes me time and time again looking at the debate over Brexit.  One particular example concerns the argument which I’ve seen over and over from Brexit supporters, angry over the failure of ‘Europeans’ to give the UK whatever it wants (even if it still doesn’t exactly know what that is), which refers to the two world wars fought partly on European soil during the twentieth century.  The argument invariably comes down to how ‘we’ saved ‘them’, twice, and now look how they’re treating us, the ungrateful bunch that they are.
It’s an insular mentality, based on the idea that these islands are somehow separate from and apart from the rest of the continent, only getting dragged into that continent’s wars when it became necessary to do so to prevent German dominance.  Not only is that a comparatively short-term and grossly over-simplistic analysis of the causes of those wars, it also ignores the long previous centuries of conflict during which ‘England’ was as often as not the aggressor, attacking anyone and everyone in pursuit of its own desire for dominance.
Taking that longer view of history, Europe has been fought over time and time again in what, from a pan-European perspective, looks like a series of bloody civil wars as different states each sought to dominate their neighbours.  It is that history of conflict which explains the outcome; a mish-mash of so-called ‘nation-states’ in which the boundaries of nations and states rarely coincide.  The desire to avoid any further repeat has been a significant driver of the attempts, however imperfect they have been, to unite Europe since the 1950s.  It’s a perspective which many in the UK seem never to have understood, and which leaves them bewildered when the rest of the EU pursue objectives other than the purely economic. 
In 1984, the president of France and the German chancellor held hands at a ceremony marking the seventieth anniversary of the outbreak of the first world war, marking the extent of reconciliation between those two countries.  It was a moving gesture.  Contrast that with attitudes in the UK – in 2014, thirty years after that hand-holding act of reverence for the dead on all sides, a plan to invite the German president to jointly mark the occasion on which the British Empire and Germany went to war was dropped because it was judged ‘too difficult’, according to a report in the Sunday Times (paywall).  (The same report notes that the government is now planning to invite the German president to the commemorative service at Westminster Abbey marking the end of that war - but he will be the only head of state invited to join the Queen, reflecting again the way in which ‘the war’ is viewed as an almost uniquely ‘British’ event against a single enemy, in another gross oversimplification of history.) 
There is a continuing reluctance in the UK to see either war in terms other than those of ‘this sceptr’d isle’ against the rest, or as victory for one side and defeat for the other, and it can sometimes be difficult to see where commemoration of the dead ends and celebration of victory and militarism starts.  The UK’s underlying military-based identity and resistance to reconciliation in turn often seems to translate into seeing the EU as yet another fiendish plan by which Germany will come to dominate the European continent (a role which a blinkered view of history says belongs only to Albion).  Seen from that perspective, reconciliation between France and Germany – both of which have been ‘enemies’ of ‘England’ for centuries – is viewed more as a threat to the UK’s position than an opportunity for Europe, and rather than seeking to be part of that rapprochement, the aim must be to smash it apart.  When Basil Fawlty talked about ‘not mentioning the war’, he was really reflecting the fact that a shared, albeit distorted, folk memory of ‘the war’ continues to underpin the attitudes of many British people to Europeans in general and Germans in particular.
I can understand, to an extent at least, why some of these attitudes might be present amongst those who lived during either of the two wars; hatred and mistrust of ‘the hun’ was formal government policy in order to rally the population to strive for absolute victory.  But that demographic accounts for less than 10% of those living today, and many of those would have been children at the time.  I can see how the feelings could have been transferred to many in the immediate post-war generation as well; as someone born in 1951, I grew up around adults saying things like 'the only good German is a dead German'.  But whilst subsequent generations in Europe seem to have been able to move on, it does not seem to have happened at the same speed or to the same extent in the UK.  Can anyone imagine any UK Prime Minister holding hands with the Chancellor of Germany at any war commemoration?  Or the reactions of the tabloids if they did?  ‘The war’ still dominates much of the tabloid discourse about the EU in general and Germany in particular - especially, it seems, when it comes to football - even if it is not always openly expressed in such terms.
Things are changing, though.  The generational difference in support for membership of the EU was striking in 2016, and demographic changes since then make a similar result less likely in the future.  That partly explains why the Brexiteers are so keen that everyone should ‘respect the result’; their chances of winning again are diminishing daily due to demographics alone.  One of my fears about Brexit is that they want to take us back to a time when all other European countries were overwhelmingly viewed as potential or even actual enemies, and where this brave little island stood alone.  The crisis likely to be caused by the sort of Brexit for which they are now working is for them an opportunity to invoke that wartime spirit once again, strengthening and passing on to future generations that sense of specialness and uniqueness which Anglo-British nationalists delight in calling ‘not nationalism’.  And I think we all know which sections of the population will suffer most from the economic crisis which the ideologues plan to use to recreate a sense of deference and ‘Britishness’.
The continuing utter incompetence of the governing party, and its inability to agree on anything, gives me hope, of sorts, that such a future can still be avoided.  Faced with a choice of ‘no-deal’ – which increasingly looks like the only possible result of Tory dissension – and a fresh vote leading to cancellation of Brexit, the probability of the latter is increasing.  That would allow us to turn our attention instead to shaping the sort of EU that we want rather than the one we currently have.  But I’d have even more hope if there were a credible opposition party able to free itself of the attitudes of the past and seek a different way forward.

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