Everybody here in continental Europe knows how attached the British are to their military victories. Waterloo, on the outskirts of Brussels, remains a little shrine to British might in the face of dastardly French imperialism. Dunkirk – although hardly a victory – has been evoked many times in the context of leaving the EU. Yet, behind the easy historical analogies lies a fundamental truth about the rationale for Brexit. Put simply, the idealised memories of British victories in the Great Wars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are impossible to reconcile with the reality of Britain’s actual global role in 2019.
For Brexiteer ultras, this is an intolerable situation; so intolerable, in fact, that they remain willing to sacrifice Britain’s very important position in Europe (one of the largest, but not the largest economy) for a shot at imperial-style global redemption. In this context, Nigel Farage’s view that “in 1945, one country lost World War Two - it was us,” is a classic example of how a deliberately misrepresented view of British history has seeped into the public consciousness. This isn’t real history or even debateable revisionism. It’s classic English nationalism reworked for the post-economic crisis populist age. It’s a narrative based on a warped sense of British declinism and a fatalist view of a doomed EU.
The reality, as always, is much more prosaic. The vista proposed by Farage and his ilk is the culmination of a decades-long process of British myth-building about their role in Europe. In addition to Farage’s view of wider defeat in 1945, three additional narratives – all now part of accepted British popular culture - have driven this British misunderstanding of what EU membership actually entails.
The first sees the embedded belief in British exceptionalism – “our finest hour” – exemplified by the military experience of 1940-41. This narrative remains remarkably present in contemporary British society and continues to be underpinned by an uncompromising belief in British difference. The second narrative centres on the almost maniacal obsession with Britain’s “special relationship” with the United States. This is the relationship which defines Brexiteer views on Britain’s position in the wider world. Even before acceding to the EU in 1973, it was this issue which coloured continental Europe’s view of British membership. For Brexiteers, the US is Britain’s “best ally in the world” and the dynamic counterpoint to the EU’s sluggish growth path. Of course, such an interpretation ignores that it was relative British weakness (think the Suez Crisis in 1956), Commonwealth economic irrelevance and American prodding which directed London to eventually seek accommodation in Brussels in the first place.
Thirdly is contemporary Britain’s continuing nightmare about the EU stealthily becoming a United States of Europe, a federal super-state of which London becomes an unwitting prisoner. This view – “the not what we signed up for” argument - belies Britain’s unwillingness to fully come to terms with the reality of the Franco-German relationship as both the engine and driver of the whole European integration process. It is an important reason in Britain’s largely conditional involvement in EU affairs since the 1980s.
Ultimately, the mainstreaming of all these historical narratives has had corrosive political consequences for Britain’s position in Europe. The failure of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s to transform the EU into an inter-governmental carve-up with other large member states weakened Britain’s standing in Europe. The fall of the Iron Curtain and the subsequent reunification of Germany provided the basis for a renewed Franco-German commitment to European integration.
From that point of no return, Britain faced a choice; engage fully as a senior member of the EU or step back from leadership to focus on a more limited role furthering core British interests, such as the continued development of the European single market. In choosing the latter, Britain rendered a future type of Brexit inevitable. This has been a process accelerated (and increasingly not regretted in other EU member states) by the miscalculations and basic misunderstandings of Prime Ministers Cameron and May.
Contrary to what Nigel Farage believes, Britain did indeed win the Great Wars in Europe over the past two centuries. But just as at Waterloo (alongside the Dutch and Prussians) or in the Battle of Britain (with the Poles and Czechs among others), the bravery of her allies and friends in Europe rendered British victory possible. Britain fought these battles to save Europe, but ultimately these victories have caused Britain to lose itself and its rightful place at the heart of Europe.