The Fallacy of National Nostalgia

The Conservative Party just won a historic victory in the UK election; they achieved their greatest majority since Margret Thatcher in 1987. Their leader, Boris Johnson, promised voters that the nation will no longer be a member of the European Union by the 31st of January, 2020. As the party now occupies more than 56 percent of the seats in parliament, it is almost a certainty that he will achieve this. Brexit was the defining policy of the election and Johnson’s promise to finally get it done pushed lifelong Labour supporters into voting Conservative for the first time. But how did an international political and economic union come to define the last decade of British politics? Politicians and journalists have employed all kinds of techniques to push a pro-Brexit agenda, but one that is particularly prevalent and harmful is the nostalgic rhetoric that glorifies the Second World War and Britain’s now collapsed empire. 

As a child, I thought Britain and the USA were at the centre of the universe. My favourite things were Hannah Montana and Harry Potter. Aged seven or so, I thought to myself: thank God I was born in the UK. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have a hope in hell of becoming a famous author. Due to my limited knowledge of the world, I assumed that if you weren’t from either of these two countries, you couldn’t become an actor, a popstar, or the next J.K. Rowling.

Of course, I quickly discovered that British and North American literature, although full of treasures, make up only a slice of the world’s stories. I grew up and, like everyone else, my world got bigger. I had the luxury of discovering films, books, and music from all over the globe. Yet, the nationalist and nostalgic branch of pro-Brexit discourse seems to be trying its very hardest to make our world smaller and smaller. It wants us to look backwards rather than forwards, inwards instead of outwards.

Memories and stories about The Second World War have been present throughout every stage of Brexit. It provides a very simple but powerful narrative: we fought the Nazis, therefore we are the good guys; we won, therefore we are the heroes. When the war is simplified to this extent, all nuances are lost and the glory overshadows the trauma. It is easy to create binaries between good and evil when Hitler is the enemy. What we forget is that Churchill’s wartime policies contributed to the 1943 Bengal famine, killing 3 million people, and that there were allegations of torture in a London prisoner of war facility

A simplified framing of the war reassures voters that there was a time when Britain was a key global player, had political and economic control of 25% of the world’s population[1], and fought to eradicate fascism in Europe. By alluding to this at every opportunity, pro-Brexit rhetoric suggests that by leaving the EU we can reach this kind of ‘heroism’ and power again. Unlike World War II, Brexit does not have any clear winners or losers and the future of the country is uncertain. To make sense of all this, reminiscing about wartime Britain has become a national past time. Hundreds of British war films relive its former glory, wartime propaganda posters are printed on mugs and sold at supermarkets, and some people even pay thousands of pounds just to ride in a spitfire aeroplane for an hour. Nostalgia is equally prevalent in politics; at rallies for his Brexit Party, Nigel Farage walks on stage to the sound of the air raid siren that rung when German bombers were approaching (it then transitions into a Macklemore song?!)[2]. This crass attempt to evoke nostalgia not only has nothing to do with the EU but also grossly romanticises a war that destroyed lives and homes.

Why is a sound that is inextricably linked with suffering played to hype up the audience at a political rally? It only really makes sense if you understand Britain’s relationship with WWII. As I was brought up in England, a belief in the greatness of Britain during the Second World War was instilled in me from a young age. In our history lessons, we were taught about how we kept calm and carried on throughout the Blitz bombings, about how we defeated the horrors of Nazi Germany, and how Churchill met with Stalin and Roosevelt to discuss how to organise the post-war world. The message is clear: we were one of the key global players and an instigator of lasting global peace. The media capitalises on the nationalistic propaganda we have heard throughout our lives to push a pro-Brexit agenda. In a newspaper article titled ‘Leaving the EU will make Britain great again’, the writer tells readers that “the British showed the world what we are made of in 1940”. Headlines like this mythologise the war and make readers nostalgic for something that caused millions of deaths.

The fallacy of national nostalgia is underpinned by research that shows British citizens who were alive during the war are the second most pro-EU generational group, after millennials. Those who witnessed the devastation and hardships caused by WWII are more likely to understand the value of being part of an international community that seeks to maintain peace. On the contrary, baby boomers have been fed a lethal cocktail of heroic war films, remembrance days, and wartime memorabilia while never experiencing the war first hand. The potency of this mixture is so great that many think they would be a whole lot better off living during the war than in twenty-first-century Britain.

Cartoon by David Low, published in June 1940, depicting a British solider defiant and alone after the fall of their allies.

The vagueness of the nostalgia is key. It means that Britain’s declining global influence after the loss of its empire can be equated to individuals’ own feelings of powerlessness. There is a mood that things aren’t quite as good as they used to be. Some might point towards a dying community spirit, or jobs that are being taken by immigrants, or the break-down of a cohesive ‘British’ identity. In search of better days, people look to the war. It was a time when communities helped each other out and, most importantly, a time when Britain won. In a speech on the eve of the Brexit referendum, Boris Johnson declared that “it’s time to take the chains off the giant, unshackled Britannia and let the lion roar again!”.  Like most pro-Brexit rhetoric, Johnson manages to construct an evocative image but does not actually say anything meaningful. Nevertheless, it harkens back to a time when Britain had power and purpose. If you have a lack of autonomy in your daily life, or if you feel as if your voice is not being heard, the image Johnson creates can be incredibly potent. If Britain becomes glorious once more, perhaps your life can have a little more meaning installed into it too.

The issue is that Britain never did stand alone at the head of the world table. During World War II, Britain was supported by four and a half million soldiers from its Commonwealth nations[3]. To assume that breaking apart from the EU will restore glory and power is unfounded and impossible because Britain has been propped up by its empire since the sixteenth century. So, when Brexiteers demand their country back, it begs the question: what country? Without the support of African and Asian soldiers (who were paid less than their white counterparts), we may have not been able to win the war as quickly as we did, or at all. Patriotism for wartime Britain brushes over the topic of colonialism because it muddies the message. Even when learning about the Second World War in school, the military support of the British empire was conveniently left out.

The faults in how we discuss and learn about Britain’s past fuels modern day xenophobia and right-wing nationalism. In rhetoric like that displayed in this poster from Leave.EU, an unfortunately influential political campaign group, politics from the 1930s and 40s are rehashed to shape how we discuss Brexit today (thankfully, they did apologise for the poster). But what does Angela Merkel have in common with Hitler? Not much, I would hope. But posters like this suggest that modern international politics should always be framed by a nation’s actions in the first half of the twentieth century. 

Membership to the EU grants the UK access to the world’s largest trading bloc, tariff-free trade with other members, protects consumer rights, and provides guarantees on workers’ rights such as annual leave and protection from discrimination. More personally, being an EU member has allowed me to study, relatively cheaply and easily, in the Netherlands. The EU’s Erasmus program is helping fund my study abroad year and without it, I probably would not be able to live here. Leaving the EU will prevent future students from receiving the Erasmus grant and limit many from being able to study outside of the UK. After university, I would love to take advantage of the freedom of movement allowed within the EU and work in another country. But, if we leave, deciding to work in Europe will mean an onslaught of documents, visas and costs.

In the twenty-first century, being a member of the EU has absolutely nothing to do with the Second World War, but the rhetoric pushed by pro-Brexit politicians and journalists has led many to believe otherwise. Wartime Britain has been mythologised to such an extent, it seems like an enticing alternative to complex modern politics. This is not based in fact; the Second World War was a result of equally confusing and multifaceted international relations. But when politicians reference it, we feel weirdly at ease. It is probably the historical event that British people are most familiar with and one that reminds us of our military power and anti-fascist principles. Rhetoric that taps into this is potent and has distorted the way Britain understands global politics. If we are to move forward and tackle Brexit with grace, diplomacy, and British citizens’ best interests at heart, nostalgia for our (violent, bloody and racist) national past must be left out of the conversation.

[1] Stephen Leacock, Our British empire; its structure, its history, its strength (1941) pp 266-75.

[2] please watch this video it’s one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen

[3] Jackson, Ashley. The British Empire and the Second World War. Hambledon Continuum, 2006, p.563.

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