London: For the French, the Dutch, the Belgians and the Germans, World War II is an important reason to be part of the European Union. For many Britons, it’s a reason to leave.
Former London Mayor Boris Johnson was only the latest of those backing a so-called Brexit to evoke the war when he told the Sunday Telegraph newspaper that the EU is an attempt “by different methods" to unite the continent under a single government. “Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically," he said.
Messages like this are targeted at older voters. While few people under 80 can actually remember the war, most Britons over 50 have strong cultural memories based on the movies of their youth, from The Dam Busters to Battle of Britain and A Bridge Too Far. These tell stories of a nation outgunned and surrounded, but standing together and determined to fight on and defeat the Germans.
“There was a huge postwar industry producing the memory of a war which made the British feel good about themselves at a time when other things weren’t going so well," said Glen O’Hara, professor of history at Oxford Brookes University. “If the ‘Remain’ side have won the economic argument, then what ‘Leave’ have got left is these cultural triggers."
‘Hit the beaches’
The Bank of England and the International Monetary Fund have both raised the possibility of a recession if Britain quits the bloc, while the UK treasury’s analysis is that it would cost as much as £2,100 ($3,000) per person. But last month Arron Banks, the entrepreneur behind the Leave.EU campaign group, rejected the idea that potential damage to the economy should matter to voters, invoking the war in the process.
“I don’t think people when they hit the beaches of Normandy were saying this is going to cost us 2,000 quid," Banks told parliament’s treasury committee. “They were fighting for democracy."
For those on mainland Europe, World War II was an experience that saw fighting through their towns, totalitarian government and military defeat. But while Britain was bombed, it wasn’t invaded, and it was ultimately victorious.
That difference has shaped the national attitude.
Justice Secretary Michael Gove complained 19 April that the European Court of Justice has “seen it as appropriate to interfere in our own security rules." Britain is one of very few countries in the EU that has no cultural memory of an oppressive secret police, meaning voters can’t immediately see why international courts intervening in domestic security matters might be an advantage.
Spirit of 1940
A crucial part of those stories, from the point of view of the Brexit debate, is that Britain fought, in Winston Churchill’s 1940 word, “alone." Those classic war films tended to play down the eventual importance to victory of fighting by non-British forces, from the Empire, the US and, most of all, the Soviet Union.
While nostalgia for wartime heroism may encourage a sense of glorious isolation, the real lesson from that period is very different, said Steven Fielding, professor of politics at Nottingham University. Britain should have engaged with Europe much more during the 1930s, when Hitler was pursuing an expansionist foreign policy, he argues.
“It’s an abuse of history to see it as justifying leaving Europe," Fielding said. “It’s the very reverse lesson we should be drawing."
Yet the power of the war as a story of national identity goes beyond the historical arguments. The “Remain" campaign has tried to neutralize this, releasing a video of World War II veterans arguing that the EU helped secure peace. But polling suggests that older voters are both more likely to take part in the referendum than the young and more likely to vote for Brexit.
“It’s deeply emotional: All I have to do is listen to the music from one of these films, and I can see a Spitfire," Fielding said. “For people who weren’t old enough to have fought, but have a romantic image from the movies, the war is a ‘Leave’ issue." Bloomberg