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March 5, 2021

Brexit, WWII and the lost empire

History, whether more recent or not, exercises today, anywhere, a major influence on the public opinion. Shaping the public opinion on certain events of the past can become a long-lasting vector of national identity, potentially for several generations. Everything that does not fit the thus-created “procrustean bed” is rejected or shunned and, even more, deemed deleterious for and inimical to the future of the nation.

An enormous mistake is made when one neglects the influence that the way of interpreting certain events of the past has on the collective mentality, or when one considers that by focusing on the future we are not carrying, unnoticeably, our own image of what our nation was (or we think it was), an image cultivated in school, in the family, widely shared throughout society. We enter the future undeniably – but also intangibly on the wider scale of society, the elites being accountable for this – bearing the past, as we choose to interpret and inoculate it from generation to generation. An inoculation achieved through various means, firstly via education and the way this past is shown to the young generations.

I meditated on that after recently reading some texts concerning the public opinion’s orientation in the United Kingdom, now that the negotiations on exiting the EU are moving forward and the deadline – March 2019 – is moving closer. Here is what the recently retired German Ambassador to London Peter Ammon says (he was ambassador to Paris and Washington too, so he must be credited with a superior understanding of what is happening in the Euroatlantic space) concerning the referendum that imposed Brexit as the UK’s grand strategy in June 2016: “The image of Britain standing alone in the second world war against German domination has fed Euroscepticism in the UK, but does little to solve the country’s contemporary problems.”

He also adds, in the same sense, that “Britain was rightly proud of its history, but some Brexiters were motivated by a sense of national identity built around Britain standing alone in the second world war.” I confess it is the first time I read or hear a German official – even at retirement age – referring to such a sensitive dossier as to the clash between the UK and Germany in the last world war (particularly at its start, basically for a few months after Dunkirk) in order to describe what is happening now. Indeed, this is the historical truth: Britain stood alone against Germany after the withdrawal from Dunkirk (May-June 1940), and in the glorious Battle of England that followed it knew how to resist in the face of the imposing German air force and to turn the tables of the world war in its favour.

But, Ambassador Ammon added, to base large-scale political actions today and in the future on a backward-looking baggage, albeit true but otherwise carefully selected and singularised for the knowledge of young generations, is a mistake that will exact its revenge. History offers grounded reasons of pride to today’s generations, and these feelings and their beneficial action at macro-social level cannot be underestimated. Ammon: “but if you focus only on how Britain stood alone in the [second world] war, how it stood against dominating Germany, well, it is a nice story, but does not solve any problem of today.”

The position adopted by the German ambassador to London is a belated but the more so significant reply – proof that some things are not forgotten in international relations – to one of the major topics of action of the Brexit camp in 2016: we resisted the German assault during the war and now we must submit to German domination? To receive orders from Brussels, which are decided in Berlin? We do not know what the weight of these topics of “propaganda” campaign (as Ammon calls it) was in the outcome of the referendum, but something else catches our attention in the ambassador’s statements. That such a recourse to history is not useful and he, in this sense, is very open and says what the UK should expect in the current negotiations with the EU.

Ammon finds it clear that the UK will lose the international influence it enjoys today. Similarly, that one of the country’s economic growth stimuli – namely European immigration – will now cease. Not because of the stance of the Brexit camp, but because of the resumption of economic growth on the continent. Likewise, that Brussels will not accept a kind of mixture with Canada and Norway’s position in the relationship with the EU, as hoped in London. Moreover, that the “divorce” that will take place will trigger – as happens in such cases, including at the smallest level, the family level, and in the face of negative consequences – a “blame game.” Mutual blaming.

The aforementioned symptom identified in the British public opinion and mentality is not the only one. Since the publishing of an article signed by a professor (Bruce Gilley), titled “The Case of Colonialism,” in the “Third World Quarterly” magazine (September 2017), a strong debate on the British Empire – over which the sun never set in the 19th Century – and on its historical role has grown. This debate offers the opportunity to identify other traits of the current British mentality, obviously connected with Brexit too. Of course, the positions outlined in the context of this debate continue.

But, I believe, the results of recent opinion polls speak volumes in what concerns the orientation of national mentality. According to one of these polls, 43 percent of the British people consider that the British Empire was “a good thing,” and 44 percent believe it was “something to be proud of” (in contrast to the negative opinions, which stood at 19 and 21 percent respectively). The conclusion is that the debate must take place, because it will have positive results. The question raised – why this clash of opinions at the heart of British society appeared right now? – has found a simple answer: because of Brexit. Support for this process appears to be based on nostalgia for a past considered glorious, an imperial past imputable to others (Russia, even China).

Obviously, aside from negative economic consequences – as shown by a recently leaked official analysis –, Brexit will include an ample process of confrontation – on the part of the UK public opinion, of the national mentality – with the more or less recent past. The benefit of such a confrontation seems clear.

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