Brexit has been adorned with images from Second World War. Two new films, Dunkirk, and Darkest Hour, focus on the British forced withdrawal from the Continent of Europe. It was as if Dunkirk was the first Brexit.
On the face of it Dunkirk is a good image for Brexiteers. For a long time, the events of May/June 1940 have been seen as the moment of the recreation of a vigorous new nation. Against the odds, and the views of experts, grit and determination won out. It is a story of taking back control from shifty continentals and surging ahead.
But the films and the stories they build on both get what really happened very wrong indeed.
The first Brexit that of 1940 was a disaster for the British Empire, and indeed for Europe. Had it not happened the world would have been a much better place. Imagine for one moment something which is tellingly not generally put into the balance of assessment of 1940 – that the British empire and the French republic had – instead of being defeated on land – held the German attack and marched triumphantly to Berlin. Churchill and Reynaud would have stood taller even than Lloyd George and Clemenceau did in 1918, and would have outshone Stalin and Roosevelt. The worst bloodletting of the war that of the years 1942-45 might have been avoided.
The balance of forces made this a likely outcome. We find it unlikely because we have been told too many times that in 1939 and in 1940 something called Britain was weak, barely armed, and badly led. Only Churchill’s irrational optimism, we are told, transformed this Britain into a powerful fighting nation.
The reality is that Churchill became the prime minister of a superpower in 1940 and through no fault of his own left it in the second rank of nations. Only an extreme right fringe of imperialists make this point for their own deluded reasons, but it is nevertheless true. Where they err is in assuming that if the UK had kept out of the war it would have retained its power. The reason is that they assume that the British economy and British power was a matter of empire, and not connected to Europe. They were wrong in this, as have been others who overestimate the significance of empire.
Even with the rise of tariffs in the 1930s the UK was a formidable trader in Europe. Its coal was vital to both Baltic and Mediterranean nations. It depended on Swedish and North African iron ore. Its eggs and its bacon came from Denmark and the Netherlands. Belfast linen depended on Baltic flax. The mines and railways depended on European timber. The newspapers and books were made of Scandinavian trees and North African asparto grass. The gravity model applied then as it does now.
German arms made the first Brexit – they cut the UK off from its sources of supply and from its markets in Europe. The consequences could have been dire but for the then great power of the UK and the British empire, and its continued alliance with European governments in exile. The United Kingdom had the power to ship material from outside Europe, it had the market power to demand that countries round the world send it material in return not for goods, but promises to pay. The USA was also prepared to supply it for free with much of the wherewithal of war. Only this made possible the surviving of what would otherwise have been an even harder and even more uncomfortable Brexit. The Americans were to exact a heavy price.
The war over, the United Kingdom set out to re-establish its old economic links to Europe, and indeed to become a more European-looking economy. It took time and effort. By the early 1960s the Conservative government came to accept that full entry into the main markets would be on the terms of the new Common Market, not on the British terms. This was made brutally clear in that France, not the UK, was responsible for keeping the UK out of the Common Market until the 1970s.
If the first Brexit led to economic success it did so indirectly, long after the war, and in ways which modern Brexiteers would not approve of. After the war a national and nationalised economy was created out of necessity and by conviction, of the Labour party in particular. Protection by national import controls, exchange controls, and more, further industrialised the economy, and made it in time self-sufficient in food. It grew faster than ever before in history, and faster than it has grown since. But that national economy no longer exists and for all the talk of industrial strategy and fantasies about leading in the fourth industrial revolution will not come into being.
Churchill, unlike those who pretend to emulate him today, did not want Brexit – he would have preferred as any sensible British leader would, a successful Anglo-French alliance marching to victory. That was the way to preserve British power then, as it is now. Then as now, Brexit will be bad news and the best that can be expected is an expensive and painful reconstruction of the economy and a request, from a weakened position to be readmitted to the club. The Brexiteer fantasy yarns of 1940 are inviting us to draw the wrong lesson from history.