Friday, 16 February 2018

The final fling

I remember that when I was a child growing up in the 1950s, it was common talk among those of my parents’ generation, and older, that ‘the only good German is a dead German’.  In the immediate aftermath of a horrific war during which there can have been few families which did not suffer a direct loss, the attitude was understandable.  In order to keep people onside, there had been positive encouragement by government and war time leaders to see things in simple terms of goodies and baddies, and to learn to hate the ‘enemy’.  There were also in the 1950s and 1960s a whole host of war comics in circulation.  These invariably portrayed the ‘Jerries’ and the ‘Japs’ as fanatical and ruthless (as well as often cowardly and bunglingly incompetent) whilst soldiers of the UK and US were portrayed as brave, heroic men (invariably men) of principle standing up for righteousness and justice against the foe.  It is fairly easy to see how a generation or two could have become imbued with a hopelessly over-simplistic understanding of what has always been a complex relationship between European powers.
It was a strong current, and it didn’t stop at one or two generations – the England soccer fans who chanted ‘two world wars and a world cup’ whenever their team played against Germany were of a much younger generation, but were expressing a variant on the same raw emotion, albeit at least third hand by that point.  The understanding of European history which many in the UK possess, particularly those in older generations, is largely based on that oversimplification which sees ‘the Germans’ as hell-bent on world domination by whatever means possible, whilst the UK is that plucky little island state which stood up to them and defeated them.  Twice.  It’s a poor version of history, but as a mechanism for transmitting nationalistic sentiment from one generation to another, it has been remarkably effective, even if that effectiveness has declined over time, with the majority of younger people – a generation which has had the time and the money to travel and meet people from other countries – tending to judge the situation as it is today, not as their forefathers were led to believe that it was in the past.
That difference is reflected, of course, in the generational variance in attitudes towards the EU and Brexit.  The prism through which we view ‘Europe’ is either that of a place full of shifty and untrustworthy foreigners, out to dominate us at any chance they get, or that of a continent which has tried (and largely succeeded) to put the past behind it and come together in a peaceful and co-operative fashion from which all benefit, albeit in structures which are far from perfect.  I still see, in comments on this blog and elsewhere, references to the EU as the Fourth Reich, the latest means by which those dastardly Germans are attempting to dominate us.  And even if some more educated politicians (such as the Foreign Secretary) don’t put it in such crude terms, when they talk about rules being ‘imposed’ upon us by foreign powers they are essentially trying to tap into the same sentiment.
There should be no surprise when people like Johnson say that there can be no turning back from Brexit.  They know that this is probably the final fling for a particular view of Europe and the world; demographic changes are against them.  They need to cement their ‘victory’ as solidly as possible, and inculcate a new sense of jingoism and nationalism in the younger generation before their generation loses all its influence as a result of the inevitable process of natural attrition.  Their appeal for a return to the ‘greatness’ of the past, and their demand that we should all ‘get behind’ Brexit is, in its very essence, an appeal for the sort of blind loyalty to king and country which their generation took for granted, yet which they see crumbling all around them.  In a sense, I almost feel sorry for those whose world view is so strong and immutable that they cannot understand why others don’t share it as instinctively as they do, believing instead that it’s simply a matter of repeating the same message over and over again.
What they don’t get – and probably never will – is that the world has changed irrevocably under their feet.  People, and especially younger people, are no longer willing to be told what to think, and have mechanisms for disseminating alternative views which don’t depend on the media controlled by our ‘leaders’.  Brexit is a critical juncture in the movement from one view of the world to another.  The timing of the referendum was crucial to the outcome, and the ‘winners’ know that they can’t afford to concede another chance.  Every day that passes reduces the number of Leavers and increases the number of Remainers.  The only real question is whether demographic changes will be able to redirect the political processes before too much damage is done.  The future belongs to trust and co-operation, not the division and competition of the past.

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