I have come across this intuitive article in the Guardian – The paranoid fantasy behind Brexit. Ironically, as I write this little posting, I am listening to a CD I have just bought of the choir of York Minister in the “old days” of Dr Francis Jackson – featuring private recordings by one of the songmen. In particular, there is the monumental eighteenth-century anthem of William Boyce, O where shall wisdom be found? Indeed, where is wisdom found in the current events in Westminster?
You will doubtlessly read the article and come away from it with your own ideas. What particularly struck me was the place of the second world war in our lives, the last time every civilised country had to fight against a regime of madmen and criminals, namely Nazi Germany. I am aware that this event has been a powerful archetype in my own life, even though I was born a few days more than a mere fourteen years after the Führer blew his brains out in the bunker. My parents were in the thick of the war, but too young for active service. My grandfather was a Captain in the Green Howards Regiment, was captured at Dunkerque fighting to the last and sent to an Oflag near Linz. Every Remembrance day, we honour and remember all those who were killed in action or who died from their injuries. It brings tears to my eyes as if I were personally involved in either of those conflicts. Last Sunday, I joined my Bishop, a few of our priests and his congregation in this act of Remembrance and the blessing of a seat permanently installed outside the church. We were as present in this intention as the Queen herself at the Cenotaph in Whitehall.
My childhood was filled with films like the Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare. There were many such operations in real life involving self-sacrifice and heroism. I still watch the golden oldies from time to time. This is the way we English boys were brought up. We even had play battles between groups of boys calling ourselves Allies or Germans. I even had the fantasy as a child of offering my life for my country in battle, a martyr of England! The reality is somewhat better portrayed in the more recent film Saving Private Ryan. There is nothing glorious about war. It is futile and a horrible waste of resources and human lives. It was necessary against Hitler, but it was all caused by the victors of World War I wanting Germany’s pound of flesh. Had there not been such financial pressure against Germany, Hitler would have remained a failed art student and unknown man in the streets of Vienna and Munich.
I know what it is like for my compatriots because I am myself English. I remember the independence of Rhodesia from the dwindling British Empire on the news in the 1960’s. Since I came to live in France and a couple of other European countries, I enjoyed joking about pompous gentlemen from the 1900’s and men old enough to remember the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, coughing through their snuff-stained moustaches. In a way I became a caricature of my Englishness as I enjoyed the antics of the Romantic Ladies in their imaginary Empire of Romantia. I am not so sure about their sado-masochistic antics with their pupils, but they wrote funny stories in their reviews and were very amusing on their Imperial Home Service cassette tapes. They still have documentation on Romantia.
The jokes and humour fade when things become serious, and grown men in the British Government start thinking along the same lines, trying to out-churchill Winston Churchill and his Finest Hour. We are not at war, and the countries of the European Union are not anyone’s enemy. Sure, things need to be improved as in any human organisation, but the founding ideas are based on the rule of law and human rights. This European aspiration goes back to the League of Nations founded after the Armistice of 1918 and developed into the United Nations after 1945. The UN developed along cosmopolitan and globalist lines (which can lead to evil in the hands of the wrong people) and the Common Market came in for questions of money and trade. That became the European Economic Community and the European Union. The EU was blamed by the British press for many things, like the shape and size of bananas, all of which turned out to be myths, totally untrue.
The idea of being in a state like May 1940, when the Drôle de Guerre was over and Hitler launched the Luftwaffe against Britain, gives us the comforting idea of being a united people and a proud nation. Which schoolboy has not been inspired by that great film of the 1960’s The Battle of Britain? This is what people do in times of adversity and threat. We put aside our differences and we fight the enemy. But the EU is not Hitler, and no planes and ships are being sent to invade Old Blighty! I almost wish Macron would sprout a bicorne and become the new Napoleon, but it is a stupid fantasy. The enemy in war is war itself.
Much of the Guardian article is centred on Len Deighton’s SS-GB and Robert Harris’ Fatherland, novels of alternative history and Germany winning the war. Deighton is a good thriller writer, and I ought to be getting this book for bedtime reading or while travelling by train or waiting in a waiting room at the doctor’s, etc. The psychology portrayed is significant: cosmopolitanism against nationalism. In Deighton’s book, the political elites go along with the SS goons, collaborate, and only nationalists resist. It didn’t quite happen like that in France, where many of the resistants were Communists, but by no means all. My grandfather-in-law was a devout Frenchman, and helped a good number of Jewish people to escape the concentration camps. Others sabotaged the railways and the infrastructures the Jerries needed for their logistics. The point here is blaming cosmopolitanism for the kind of people who would collaborate. It is not always as dualistic as some of us might like.
The other point is nostalgia for the old Empire, and I am no longer talking about dotty ladies in the north-east London suburbs! Those of us with a smattering of historical knowledge would know that the British Empire committed many atrocities in India and invented the concentration camp in South Africa. To what extent was this Empire a civilising factor rather than the rape and pillage of peoples for their wealth and resources? I prefer to come to terms with the more bitterly realistic version. We have sinned and must atone. It seems to mean the mass immigration now happening, though many immigrants die on the way and are deported as soon as they are discovered to be illegal aliens. One idea persisting in our country is that we are either an empire or a colony, a vassal state of a corrupt superstate. There is a third possibility, of being a country with our culture and talents to offer the world, all in working for a peaceful world where people will no longer be oppressed, raped and pillaged.
In my various readings of articles, I find that there is a greater risk of some ideology along the lines of Fascism or Nazism among nationalists than cosmopolitans or globalists. The populist movement is highly nebulous, and can only have any effect if it gets a political authority on board or the armed forces. Otherwise it have to work through mainstream politics, and can be carefully watched. I find some Fascist themes in the new regime in Italy, where the economy is going badly, worse than Greece a few years ago. That being said, the militaristic and occultist themes of Nazism are nowhere to be found today, at least in mainstream politics and not confined to groups of fanatics. We feared the reunification of Germany. Neo-Nazism in Germany remains marginal even if its popularity is alarming.
I am no expert on these matters, but I have read quite a lot on the 1919-45 period, William Shirer in particular. Nazism was a unique phenomenon and cannot be reproduced now. It involved the personality of Hitler, the circumstances around the Treaty of Versailles and the war reparations. France was the most exacting in the person of Georges Clemenceau. Hyperinflation and poverty radicalised the population and Hitler played on all the old archetypes involving anti-Semitism and the old Teutonic myths reflected in Wagner’s operas. It all went together in a unique historical construction. Other regimes have been cruel and insane, but nothing on the scale of Nazi Germany. Were the combination of circumstances to happen again, what would make any of us go along with it? Did not some of these horrors occur under the British Empire?
We remember and honour the dead of the two wars, but we must cease to allow them to be our references – other than learning from history. We don’t need the Allied victory to be a country to be proud of or affirm our national unity in virtue and humanism. We can try to be a Christian leaven in the wilderness and rise to the sublime heights of the human spirit. I live in France, a country that suffered the Occupation and the settling of scores in 1944, but French people have got over the war.
I also see things as an Englishman who has learned to live in France, Switzerland and Italy. I am also a Germanophile, admiring the culture of that country’s great composers, poets, writers and philosophers. My German isn’t very good, but I love that language, hearing the poetry of Göthe, Novalis and others. How that country became Nazi beats me. It was certainly the German’s love of order and deference to authority. We too in England tend to trust our leaders and abide by the law. I had German friends at Fribourg University, and this marked me profoundly. I feel more sympathy with German Idealism than with Thomism or Aristotelian scholasticism. There is also a fervent mysticism in Germany that filtered its way to England in the middle ages.
I have felt misled by reactionary ideas in alt-right websites, and I try to see reality in the light of Ockham’s Razor. Seek the simplest explanation and be extremely careful of unverified conspiracy theories. The left-wing “snowflakes” and “liberals” have been caricatured without mercy by conservatives, though some of them have behaved in ways that deserve their reputation as the most illiberal and intolerant. Life is not binary or Manichean. There are shades of grey between the extremes.
Here in France, I have often heard that the EU was remotely Napoleon’s idea. Again the historical circumstances do not match in any more than distant analogy. Maybe Hitler wanted to unify Europe, but the EU has been in place for decades, but no one is being tortured or put in concentration camps. Could the EU become a superstate like the United States of America? Perhaps that would be a good idea. There is cultural diversity in the USA, and even diversity of languages. I managed to learn French, and a reasonable level of Italian and a bit of German. It is good for us to learn languages and learn about people in those countries. I had a most unpleasant time visiting Dachau, but I felt it to be duty when I visited Bavaria in 1999. I then visited Munich, its lovely churches, drank some delicious beer and drove through the mountains to Salzburg in western Austria. What a beautiful country!
We have a lot to get over, isolated as we are on our isles. It takes only an hour and a half to travel by sea from Dover to Calais, half an hour by plane from London to Paris. Our communications are instantaneous all over the world by internet. I love my country and my culture, but not our insularity.
I remember the Falklands war in 1982, just before I set off for France. In the summer of 1982, I arrived by ferry in the port of Portsmouth and saw a naval frigate with a massive black hole in its side – one of the Junta‘s missiles bought from some shady arms dealer. I had worried, as a lad of 23 years that I might be conscripted and sent to war. But, this was not World War II, but something eight thousand miles away needing only the professional Navy and Marines. I remember the jingoism, but which was wearing thin already with many of us. There was no risk that I would be sent over the top as cannon fodder! Many did lose their lives, and nearly all the inhabitants of the Falklands wanted to remain British. I think Thatcher did the right thing, but could have been a little less jingoistic about it.
I continue to follow the news, and many of us entertain a theory according to which Theresa May is playing the game to the very end, ready to press the “Kill Brexit” button just before she gets ousted and replaced by someone like Rees-Mogg. Over the past day, several Cabinet ministers have resigned, and she knows that the most recent agreement with the EU will not be accepted by Parliament. A no-deal Brexit would be too devastating for any other than someone thinking of emulating – – – Hitler. “My way or the highway”, me or chaos. The enemy isn’t Brussels, but elements in Westminster that need to be got rid of but without creating blowback. Could Mrs May be ready to sacrifice herself, knowing that she would go down in history as a hypocrite and a liar?
This whole thing has become very divisive, and I have to accept that “leavers” voted out of conscience, doing what they believed to be right for our nation and native country. We have to respect each other, and try to get the best understanding we can by reading the right sources – not just the newspapers. I would probably have voted to leave two years ago, influenced as I was by the propaganda – not only in England but also here in France. France too has suffered from uncontrolled immigration, a very heavy weight on the social system and also from the increase in the number of countries in the Union. There are real problems. Brexit will not solve them. The EU is not Hitler.
My country needs to come to terms with no longer being an empire. Perhaps the Monarchy will go in time. I am attached to the Monarchy because it is a symbol of national unity and part of our culture, and I hope it can have its place in a state belonging to a wider Union. I don’t see why it can’t. Republics are not always the best things, and they can be quite boring! But, history goes on and things will happen in the future. We must resist the temptation of nostalgia for war. War destroys and kills, and brings nothing good.
I believe that the Brexit now being attempted will fail and Britons will recoil from a no-deal Brexit. The UK has always had a singular status in the EU. We have been allowed to keep customs and immigration controls at our borders. We have kept our currency, so that we can, theoretically, survive a failure of the Euro. We use both Imperial and Metric weights and measures. These differences have been respected and tolerated. The only way ahead is to rescind Article 50, with or without a second referendum (the first in 2016 was vitiated by illegal finance and misleading propaganda), and participate more fully in an institution that needs reforms and more transparency in things like regulations and flows of immigration. If things were improved in countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Irak, people could live in their own countries instead of being so desperate. Surely the UK could help to this noble end of helping the victims of greedy billionaires and religious fanatics. Perhaps we could build an Empire of Love and Humanity, but we can only do that with other countries.
May the coming feast of Christmas bring peace and understanding into our divided families and communities. This is truly a time to turn to Christ.