When I remember the summer of 2019, I can almost feel the heat. It was, of course, a hot summer – the joint-hottest on record in the UK, as it happens. But the temperature was ratcheted up further by the generalised feeling that everyone had, well, gone a little mad. This was, after all, nearly the denouement of the Brexit psychodrama, and it sometimes felt like all the politicians had heatstroke. Boris Johnson was steamrollering his way towards Downing Street, after Theresa May finally decided to pack it in. The Brexit Party was riding high in the polls while MPs defected en masse to the Lib Dems. And nobody, from the most pompous Westminster correspondent to your average Love Island contestant, had any idea what was going on.
It’s a heady cocktail to revisit, I know – you’d be forgiven for never wanting to think about it ever again. But as we blearily stagger out of lockdown into a world that looks increasingly like that last summer of freedom, my mind keeps returning to that surreal summer, familiar sensations bringing back old thoughts as though they were buried under melting ice. So while we’ve not got much else to do, humour me for a minute while I try to articulate an answer to a puzzle that I can’t quite put away: how did we get there?
Yeah, I know there was a referendum. I heard. The number of books that have been or will be written about the EU referendum campaign, or the post-referendum battles in Parliament, or Boris Johnson’s role in it all, are essentially infinite. And as far as I’m concerned, they’ll all be interminable. Few, if any, will pause from their national self-absorption to ask: why us? Brexit wasn’t followed by Frexit, or Grexit or even Italexit, and there’s no obvious reason why. People hate immigration in this country, but so do large numbers of people across western Europe. It can’t be just the simple experience of having had an empire that did it – the French had a vast and monstrous empire too, but exiting the EU won’t be on offer from any of the mainstream candidates in next April’s presidential election. And no, British people are not the only ones who know what “sovereignty” means.
The almost head-bangingly obvious answer is that people in the UK don’t feel European. Poll after poll from the Eurobarometer survey has reported that the UK had the lowest proportion of its population identifying as “European” of any of the EU’s member states. We might love our holidays to Mallorca or Tuscany or Malta, but very few of us see ourselves as part of any shared community with the people there. And people who identify as part of a community are more likely to feel at ease with a government that represents and, well, governs, that community. You can see that here in Scotland, where people who identify as British are more likely to support the UK union.
That is the deceptively simple answer, which doesn’t begin to address why that would even be the case. For many, it’s almost axiomatic that Britain should be different because, unlike the majority of EU member states, Britain is an island country. This explanation only really holds water, however, if you’ve never heard of Ireland, Malta, Cyprus – all island nations, none of which will be “exiting” anytime soon. No, it has to be something a little deeper than geographic accidents.
In the early 1980s, the sociologist Benedict Anderson tried to answer a pretty big question: what are countries, and why do they exist? The result of his research, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, is a dry and sprawling narrative, and not really poolside reading (unless you’re an absolute freak like me). Anderson essentially touches on all of recorded history in his book, so it would be insane to try and give a fair summary of his arguments here. But a common thread throughout his tome is the central role he assigns to shared memories, as the foundation of modern nations. Nations are too big to be real communities – even in the tiniest states, it’d be basically impossible to ever even hear about everyone in the country – so people have to be bound together by a shared idea. The simplest way to do that is to call memories of a shared national past.
People in the UK never shut up about the Second World War. Even before the uneven lethality of the coronavirus made intergenerational conflict more explicit than ever before, young people had always been castigated by the more reactionary among their elders for lacking the “Blitz Spirit” (the fact that most of these people were Baby Boomers who never experienced the Blitz never comes up, for some reason). If England plays Germany in the Euros this year, I’d put (proverbial) money on the fact that the rowdier England fans will be singing “Two World Wars, One World Cup” at some point. And of course, there’s the fact that Britain’s history in World War II is so emotive to many people that they react angrily when lefty students so much as mention Winston Churchill’s… less storied pre-war career.
The UK isn’t unique for its cultural obsession with the Second World War. In much of the former USSR, the war is even more central to national self-understanding than it is in the UK. And in Germany, France and much of Western Europe, it is commemorated in appropriately sombre tones.
What sets Britain apart isn’t that we’re obsessed with the war, but the specifics of the way the war is remembered. The general, well, “vibe” of the memory is almost positive. Britain was relatively untouched by the fighting, compared to the mass slaughter on the Continent, and had the good fortune to be on the winning side. It is largely remembered, therefore, not as a senseless tragedy but as a sort of daring adventure, where good old Blighty swooped in and saved those feckless Continentals from their own foolishness. The way the home front is talked about makes it sound less like an attempted siege, and more like a character-building summer camp. Already, in this narrative Britain is positioned as apart from the continent – not unreasonably, given how different its experience undeniably was. But we can’t talk about how the war itself is remembered without talking about the aftermath.
In his exploration of the cultural roots of Brexit, Heroic Failure, Irish writer Fintan O’Toole sketches out how the post-war settlement was imagined in the British national consciousness. Compared to the other two western powers which were inarguable winners of the war – the USA and USSR – Britain was in a sorry state. The economy was in shambles, and the Empire was quickly crumbling. Meanwhile, American and Soviet money was pouring into Germany, Italy, Japan, and all the other countries Britain had, varyingly, defeated or rescued. This, O’Toole argues, led to a powerful sense that Britain was unfairly thwarted of the fruits of their victory by an ungrateful continent. When the UK finally entered the proto-EU in 1972, it was only reluctantly, once all other avenues seemed firmly closed.
For the sake of your precious time, I won’t elaborate on the more conspiratorial implications of that worldview. The most relevant implication is this: how can you see yourself as part of a community that seems determined to exclude you? None of this is to say that people were literally thinking about the war, or the Empire, or the Marshall Plan, or whatever, when they voted Leave in 2016. But all ideas, especially ones as intangible as “European-ness” have to start somewhere. The experience of the war and its aftermath, so central as a national myth, are not a sound basis for constructing a sense of Britain as a “European” country, despite centuries – millennia even – of cultural exchange with the continent.
The (apparent) end of lockdown means that European holidays are gradually returning, albeit with new and irritating safety precautions. Many of the people who go on them will stay within the compound-like outposts of tourist resorts, safe within a facsimile of a hotter, drier England. For those who venture beyond, into the untamed wilds of the interior, you have to wonder whether there will come a point where the divide between “Briton” and “foreigner” starts to weaken a little; whether a sense of some shared self and community can ever emerge. That, I suspect, would require a nation with a rather different sense of its own past.
Or maybe it really is because we’re crap at Eurovision. Who can say?
[Aran Prince-Tappé – he/him]
[Photo credits: Marilli Kataki]