Claims about Britain’s past are made regularly in the referedum debate. But claims about Britain’s historical place in the world – courageously standing alone, being outnumbered and outgunned but in the end outperforming everyone – are not based on fact, writes Mike Finn. These myths could nonetheless have very real consequences: this is the self-image that the Brexit campaign portray and which many think they will revive by voting to Leave.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Michael Gove, who as former Education Secretary trumpeted the virtues of ‘our island story’ in the history curriculum, should have emerged as a leader of the Brexit campaign. Nor is it surprising that Boris Johnson, who penned a book to situate himself in comparison with Winston Churchill, should do the same. Both consider themselves to be historians of sorts, articulating Britain’s place in the world in historical terms. But the visions of Britain’s past they draw on are rooted in myth, not history, and this has implications for the decision they are asking us to take.
The ‘standing alone’ myth
For Gove and Johnson, Britain is the nation who stood alone in 1940, a great nation, heir to Anglo-Saxon culture and ‘first in the world for soft power’, owing to Britain’s supposed ‘invention’ of representative democracy. For Johnson, Churchill was a man of ‘vast and almost reckless moral courage’, the encapsulation of all that is good about Britain, not least British pluck. As Gove puts it, those who believe that the prospect of Brexit is a terrible idea are actually arguing that Britain is ‘too small and too weak…to succeed without Jean-Claude Juncker looking after us.’ Johnson went further, comparing the European project to Hitler’s attempt at territorial domination. Both agree that, as in 1940, Britain can, and should, stand alone.
But standing alone has been the exception, rather than the norm. Apart from those heroic months in 1940 and early 1941, Britain has faced the world – in war and peace – with allies. As historians of post-war Britain are only too aware, the ‘financial Dunkirk’ and imperial retrenchment in the years prior to the Suez crisis represented the beginning of a balancing act between Europe and the United States, which continues to this day. For several decades after the war, Britain, in David Edgerton’s words, was keen to maintain ‘a sharply-differentiated third place in world affairs’. The question was how.
A culture of escapism
Ever since, successive British governments indulged in realpolitik and self-delusion in equal measure. Macmillan famously courted American presidents, not least John F. Kennedy, in the belief that Britain could be ‘Greece to America’s Rome’. This attempt at defining a ‘special relationship’ owed much to British culture and snobbery; Americans might have the money and the power, but they didn’t have the class or the guile. On those scores, nobody did it better than Britain.
In popular culture, this ‘escapism’ was represented by Britain’s hero of the post-war era, James Bond 007. Bond was the living embodiment of Britain’s self-delusion, superior in every way to his American counterparts. Successive generations of Britons internalised the Bond mythology; Britain might be outnumbered and outgunned, but in the end nobody does it better.
The Bond mythos runs through depictions of the UK armed forces. The performance of the Special Air Service in the 1980 Iranian Embassy siege seemed to highlight the vitality of Britain’s ‘specialist’ qualities, so much so that there is now a ‘special forces myth’ in popular culture. Their supposedly-supernatural powers are invoked by the tabloids, politicians and pub pundits alike for any crisis Britain may wish to involve itself in. ISIS? Send in the SAS. Or bomb them with Brimstone, a special weapon that Britain has but the US doesn’t. Nobody does it better.
But these historical myths and their influence on Britain’s contemporary self-image have consequences. Britain’s armed forces, heresy though it may be to say it, are not, as Michael Gove claims, ‘the best in the world’. Today’s Royal Navy has no aircraft carriers and it is questionable whether it can really consider itself a ‘bluewater navy’ given its lack of organic air support and dwindling numbers of escort vessels. At least in part this is due to coalition cuts which Gove was a party to.
The Royal Air Force, itself part of the ‘British specialism’ narrative due to its undeniable heroism against superior numbers in the summer of 1940, now operates clapped-out ancient Tornado airframes. Even before the recent vote to additionally intervene in Syria as well as Iraq, one RAF source told the BBC that operations from Cyprus were being conducted with ‘broken jets and tired…fed-up people’. And the two conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan, followed by subsequent defence cuts, have dealt huge blows to the army’s ability to operate autonomously.
In fact, British defence planning has increasingly moved towards models of co-dependency on allies for resources the UK simply cannot provide. But whether one takes a positive or negative view of such dependency, it is the reality. Our dependency also extends to intelligence-gathering – more than anywhere else. The US National Security Agency has maintained listening posts on UK soil for decades, whilst the US Air Force still maintains a significant presence. The rub is that Britain gets access to US intelligence and partners with the US on numerous technologies, from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to Trident (though neither is free from controversy).
Of course, none of this would be in jeopardy – at least for now – in the event of Brexit. But it serves to undermine the mythology of Britain standing alone. It doesn’t, and generally it hasn’t. And in future it won’t. The Bond view of Britain’s place in the world, ‘our island story’, is nothing more than comforting ‘escapism’ as Cannadine described it. Britain is and remains as it was: a second-rate power trying to best maximise her influence against the challenges of a globalising world. And here the EU is far more of an asset than a weakness.
Conspiracy or choice? Why we joined in the first place
The closer defence partnership with the US fostered by the brutal subordination of the British at Suez in the 1950s was mirrored by Britain’s attempts to join the European Economic Community. The British government – for all its delusions – knew that Britain had to retain as much global influence as possible. When Harold Macmillan’s government attempted to join the EEC in 1961 this was not a reflection of Britain sacrificing her power, but an attempt by Britain to ‘to achieve national objectives they could not achieve on their own’. Outside looking-in wasn’t working; the Commonwealth could not compete with Europe as a market, and the greater European unity engendered by the war experience meant that as long as Britain remained on the outside, it was politically marginal in her own backyard – not least in the eyes of a United States who sought influence in Europe through political structures and NATO.
The US, meanwhile, still retains its interest in Britain remaining in the EU, following President Obama’s stark warning to the British people. It is not possible to be an Atlanticist and a Brexiteer. Britain’s withdrawal from her largest economic ally will alienate her most powerful political one. Not for long will Britain survive as the oft-cited ‘fifth largest economy in the world’ if it chooses to walk away from the world’s largest single market. But there’ll be a quick trade deal, of course, or so we are told – even though both Obama and the German Finance Minister say otherwise. On this, the Brexiteers again are betting on Bond; somehow Britain will pull it off. Fantasy politics has a seductive appeal.
The macro-level of debate of Brexit is important, because it will decide people’s votes. But it is also the most nebulous and the most given to sentiment over sober judgment. It is the level most anchored in identity politics (which is important) and its subjectivities. But it obscures the many micro-level issues, such as the impact on the science base, the cost to Britain’s students, the impact on homeowners and those seeking to buy, those with pension funds, those in the armed forces, every British citizen’s life in some way or another. The failure to grapple with the Gordian knot of Britain’s place in the world, instead elected for the safety of self-delusion, has brought the country to this place.
When Brexiteers engage with the macro-level, it is customarily in terms of offering examples of other countries who apparently stand alone – but who on closer inspection turn out not to, or who in fact pay a tremendous price to get less from an organisation of which Britain is already a leading member. But nonetheless there is evidence that such Brexit claims are working. Brexiteers espouse what Niblett calls a ‘myth of sovereignty’, implying that the EU has been a sinister continental conspiracy when it was in fact an elective choice of successive British governments to give the country and her citizens more power. For decades, the EU has been an easy target to pass the buck for British politicians keen to abdicate responsibility for their own choices.
This week, their ultimate abdication will take place. For several generations, Britain’s politicians told themselves – and their publics – comforting lies about Britain’s place in the world. Now, for reasons of a petty party squabble, the British public is expected to sort that out for them. The outcome of any Brexit, however, will more than likely be an ever-diminishing return on Britain’s post-war fantasies.
Mike Finn is Principal Teaching Fellow in Liberal Arts at the University of Warwick, and Honorary Research Fellow in Politics at the University of Buckingham. He is the editor, with Matt Qvortrup and Gillian Peele, of The Referendum Effect (forthcoming, Cambridge University Press, 2016). His previous books include The Coalition Effect, 2010-2015 (edited with Sir Anthony Seldon, Cambridge University Press, 2015) and The Gove Legacy (Palgrave, 2015).
Β)Who’s to blame for Brexit? Education, Education, Education…
I became a teacher four years ago because I wanted to make a difference to our collective future. I’m not a pessimist but I know enough to know that politicians are corrupt, the rich are too rich, the population’s too big, and the ecology’s about to collapse. Overall, I knew enough to know that trouble was brewing and that I wasn’t helping by working in my old job.
So I became a teacher, genuinely believing that I could make a difference.
But the truth is that there is only so much you can do when the curriculum expects you to prioritise the teaching of 16th Century verse over any real understanding of what’s happening today…
As part of finishing my training I wrote an essay on what English means in modern education. I gave the kids a chance to give a WWW (What Went Well) and an EBI (Even Better If) back to education. It was basically a chance for them to say what they liked and what they didn’t.
The question: how well do you feel your education prepared you for the rest of your lives?
The answer: “it didn’t”.
The school I was working at was an Outstanding independent academy in Richmond, South West London, and the kids were amongst the brightest I’ve ever taught. One met me in the eye and said: “Do you know what sir, I reckon I could calculate the velocity of a ball dropped from a tall building on a windy day, but I couldn’t tell you how to work out the APR on a credit card.”
That really stuck with me.
Today, it’s easy to get drawn into small bubbles that reaffirm the things we already know. The case against social media has been made, but it’s really not exposed anything that didn’t exist already: it’s easier than ever to share posts that support our own beliefs, but it’s (arguably) harder than ever to break out and see through the eyes of someone who’s come from a completely different world.
One of the great things from working in a school is that you get to meet people from all walks of life, and one of the most surprising things I’ve discovered is just how profoundly naïve and stilted some students’ visions on the world is. I’ve met kids who wanted to leave the EU because of the fucking Syrians. Very few children could name any core ideals of either major political parties. I even met one kid who thought the south pole was a desert because it gets hotter when you go south: “It makes sense though don’t it.”
At the same time, though, certain constant truths remain: all of them want to learn about the world around them; and all of them are sick to the back teeth of hearing about what went on without being told what’s going on; and, increasingly, all of them are scared of a future that they don’t understand because it will take place in a world that no-one is taking the time to explain to them.
Even the most insular kids are aware of Daesh, climate change, the threat of recession and the unemployment it produces, and the fact that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer.
And because of the propagation of fear that our media has mastered, they’re increasingly becoming scared of them. They’re scared of a recession despite the fact that they don’t know what one is; they’re scared of IS because they’re all landing in Dover, with the Syrians; and they’re not even remotely as scared of climate change as they should be.
In short: they are being trained to become the very citizens I went into education to stop them becoming; but I can’t stop them becoming those people by teaching them this curriculum.
I asked a humanities teacher in one school if his students ever study the parliamentary system and he said of course, they do it when they study the Civil War and the beheading of Charles the First. I said no, I mean do they ever study the modern political system. He said not really, that’s up to the parents.
It’s not on the curriculum you see.
Now, bearing in mind that the politicians set the curriculum, it would be easy to pass this off as a political issue and bang a drum at the gates of Westminster, but it’s not really that simple.
You see I’ve asked to reduce the emphasis on Elizabethan verse and found that the English teachers will be the first to rise in his defence. At some point they’ll always resort to the fact that he’s on the curriculum, but surrounding that is a deep belief that within his work you will find the wisdom of the ages – enough to answer any question – and that it should be prioritised at whatever cost.
I once had to teach Much Ado About Nothing to a 13-year-old from Lithuania who spoke no English; my head of department who told me it would give him a good grounding in his new language.
The truth is that, as a result of Shakespeare, I spend more time teaching my students about Elizabethan society than I do teaching them about the world they live in.
This is fundamentally wrong.
Our education system currently prioritises an understanding of 16th C. verse over an understanding of the modern media; it views learning how to calculate the internal angles of a triangle as being more important than learning how to calculate the cost of a loan; learning about the struggles of chimney sweeps is currently more important than learning about why food banks are coming back.
As a result of this, most students grow up in a malaise of information, the priorities of which are completely upside down. They can’t spot what’s relevant to their lives from what they can comfortably forget after their GCSEs, and, eventually, they leave education having learnt nothing except that learning itself is largely irrelevant.
Having come from our current education system, it’s no surprise that the general populace isn’t capable of making a decision as important as whether to stay economically tied to the EU; or that the reasons they made the decision they did were rooted in a shallow emotional response rather than an in depth rational argument.
The truth is that people voted for Brexit because they’d never been taught how to engage in the 21st Century as civil members of a contemporary democratic capitalist society. Most kids wouldn’t even know what those four words mean.
And if Trump is elected in November it’ll be for the same reason.
UKIP and FN are growing in power for the same reason.
The media is allowed to puppet the people for the same reason.
And the world is tumbling towards ecological disaster for the same reason.
The truth is that we don’t need to change the way we’re educating our children – which has been the drum for the past twenty years – we need to change what we’re educating them.
And for that, we need to stand up and demand a modern, relevant, intelligent and reformed education system that prepares our children to take part in a 21st Century that is currently in danger of slipping into a place so very dark that it will leave history looking like a holiday park.
End of rant.