Brexit’s Dunkirk Fantasyland

If the cultural roots of Brexit are reduced to one sentiment, it is that Britain did not win two world wars to be run by Germany via Brussels.


The most striking feature of Christopher Nolan’s wonderful movie Dunkirk is that very little is said. Rather, the movie carries the audience through the depiction of the bare human experience of the evacuation of Allied forces from the beaches of northern France as Hitler’s Wehrmacht closed in. Chaos. Fear. Duty. Despair. Relief. Survival. Sorrow. Pride.

Dunkirk also provides us with an insight into the cultural roots of Brexit, which rehearses the idea of a lost golden age before the United Kingdom joined the European Union — one strongly colored by the memory of World War II.

Dunkirk plays a key part in that memory. It marked the end of a catastrophic campaign in France, and the start of a dogged fight back. It gave us Churchill’s immortal words, exclaimed to the House of Commons on the final day of the Dunkirk evacuation on June 4, 1940: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Nigel Farage, the king of Brexit, tweeted that he urged all young people to see Dunkirk. It is entirely fitting that younger Britons should act as the custodians of that memory, to be honored and passed on to the next generation. The summer of 1940, when Britain stood alone against Hitler, was indeed the country’s finest hour in modern times: Never was so much owed by so many to so few.

But the past has its proper place. History anchors identity, but should not consume it. Like the movie, there is always a risk that a recollection of memory so heavily rooted in emotive experience becomes detached from the story of what happened as a matter of fact: Like Orpheus, who descends into Hades attempting to bring his deceased wife Eurydice back to the world of the living, it is the desire to bring an idealized past back to life that tends to end in sorrow.

Take first Prime Minister Theresa May’s claim that leaving the EU will allow Britain to once again become a “great, global trading nation,” a call that harks back to the imperial world before 1945.

The historical reality was that for better or worse, World War II broke the British Empire, which was effectively mortgaged to pay for the vast costs of the conflict. The British Empire’s trade zone was broken by a series of sterling crises in the 1960s and the politics of decolonization. The big cargo ships had all but disappeared from London’s docks by the time the U.K. joined the EU’s predecessor, the European Economic Community in 1973.

The U.K. that joined the European institution was on its knees, requiring an International Monetary Fund bailout in 1976. Against Labour Party opposition, the Conservative government that brought Britain into the EEC did so on the basis of free trade. It was none other than Margaret Thatcher who pushed to open up the European single market in the 1980s.

In short, the EU was the answer to the collapse of Britain as a great trading empire, not its cause. The argument that the most deeply integrated free trade area in the world is holding back free trade is ridiculous — look no further than Germany’s huge success as an exporting nation.

But the promise of a return to a golden age is a powerful one, which trumps rational argument. Only in this way can the leaders of Brexit, who are now in government, make these obviously contradictory claims: that Brexit is about even more free trade (that is, more globalization), but that it is simultaneously about returning to a simpler world with fewer immigrants and less exposure to low-cost overseas trading competitors (that is, less globalization).

Singapore on the Thames in England’s green and pleasant land is a weird place, because it confuses the imperial and domestic dimensions of pre-1945 Britain. But that is the idyll to which the Brexiteers want to return, which neatly overlooks 1945 to 1973, years which weren’t so great.

Beyond trade, the memory of World War II evokes a sense of national unity, symbolized in the “Dunkirk spirit,” which can be taken to represent a cultural unity purportedly absent in modern Britain. This attitude is implicit in the claim that Brexit is about “stability” — as if 44 years of British EU membership has somehow disfigured an older and more genuine cultural stability that existed in pre-EU Britain.

This was not some peripheral part of May’s pitch to be prime minister but central to it, and it remains at the core of her government’s communication strategy. Thus, we hear over and over and over again that the government wants “stability,” and an “orderly” Brexit, without “disruption” for individuals or companies.

There is an epic contradiction here. Either Brexit will be the radical change its proponents said it would be, or it won’t. If it’s the former, it will be hugely disruptive to the existing state of affairs — that’s exactly the point! If it’s the latter, and the U.K. ends up in a sort of Norway model, in which it must follow EU rules with no say over them, there will be stability — but Brexit will simply have resulted in a unilateral relinquishing of power by the U.K. for no real change. One would wreak economic damage; the other would be politically unsustainable. Don’t ask me for the way out of this mess; I did not ask for this.

In any case, we are left with the supposed government of stability carrying out Brexit, which is no less ludicrous than if Robespierre had gone around Paris wearing an “I love stability” T-shirt. And be in no doubt: The people masquerading as “conservatives” now running the Tory party are revolutionaries who dismiss anyone who doubts the purity of their project as unpatriotic. They rely on the idea of a return to a golden age to give the impression that they are preserving some sort of deep status quo, some deep cultural stability, rather than radically smashing up the past 44 years of Britain’s relationship with the EU — which, for my money, has left the country better off than it was in 1973.

Ultimately, if the cultural roots of Brexit are reduced to one sentiment, it is that Britain did not win World War II to be run by Germany via Brussels. This is felt more by the older generation, who voted disproportionately for Brexit. It would be rebuked as xenophobic by many of us born well after 1945, including me, who voted disproportionately against Brexit; not to mention that this sentiment does not map onto the facts of how the EU actually works. But my generation did not survive Dunkirk, live through the Blitz, or experience the catharsis of victory in 1945.

Photo credit: Warner Bros./Getty Images

 Twitter: @emile_simpson

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