Tuesday 28 June 2016

Standing Alone on the Edge of Europe by Julie Summers

Earl Grey 1764–1845
© Lord Howick
I woke up on Friday morning in a strange house in an unfamiliar county with that lovely feeling of being somewhere new and exciting. That was until I went downstairs, passing the magnificent 1828 portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence of the second Early Grey, the prime minister who introduced the Great Reform Act of 1832. In the kitchen a television was blaring and with a sense of growing disbelief I heard that British voters had opted to leave the European Union by 52% to 48%. My city of Oxford had voted 70/30 in favour of Remain and so wrapped up had I become in the bubble that is our lovely city that I had not realised the enormous determination to leave that had spread to other areas of the country.

The campaign was fought on both sides with dirty tricks, lies and some of the most unpleasant rhetoric and scaremongering I have ever heard. Claims and counterclaims about EU funding, EU rules, an EU army, EU migrants flew around like swarms of angry bees. Amid the cries of joy, horror, sadness, despair, disbelief, excitement and any other sentiment you like to attribute to the sentence, a few thoughtful voices have been heard. I thought I might take time to reflect on one of those for my piece this month, rather than writing about 'the true cost of war' as I had planned. That will wait until next month when it might turn out to be rather topical if negotiations go badly...

Anthony Beevor is one of those rare historians who writes history that is both thoroughly readable and wholly to be trusted. He is a researcher par excellence and has an overview of history that is, in my opinion, almost unparalleled. He suggested that looking at history would be an interesting exercise in contemplating what Britain thinks it can achieve while standing alone. How will the country (or should it be countries because England and Wales voted out and Scotland and Northern Ireland vote to remain) defend itself in the future. He wrote:

'Ever since the late 17th Century, we have relied on continental coalitions to oppose the over-mighty oppressor threatening the peace of Europe. Britain alone was never strong enough in manpower to confront a major power alone on land.'

Howick Hall was used as a convalescent hospital for Other Ranks from 1941-1945.
Over 11 different nationalities were treated there including Finnish, Greek, Polish,
Czech, Dutch and Commonwealth soldiers, sailors and airmen.
Fast-forward to the twentieth century and that was more evident than at almost any other time. I am currently writing a book about houses that were requisitioned in the Second World War and used for a variety of purposes, including of course the housing of troops. In 1940 Britain faced the full force of the German war machine on its own. France had fallen. Belgium and the Netherlands had been invaded and we were, as is so often repeated, completely alone on the edge of Europe. Heroic little Britain as we will be in the future. Except that we were not alone. The country was full of friendly fighters who supported us in our hour of need. There were 30,000 battle-hardened Polish soldiers and airmen who knew a thing or two about fighting the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe. There were 5,000 Czechoslovak troops and pilots who had arrived in Britain in July of that summer. Pilots from both nationalities flew bravely in the Battle of Britain.

Canada had already sent thousands of troops to our shores in December 1939. They were joined by more divisions over the course of the war including the Canadian Royal Air Force. We had over three million American GIs in 1944 in the build up to D-Day, not to speak of Australian and New Zealanders who helped to defend these shores both on land and in the air. Far from standing alone, we were very much 'in it together'. Churchill knew that he could not win the war without Allies. He once said: 'There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.' That appears to be a risk for our future at the moment.

Anthony Beevor wrote in his article in the Mail on Sunday: 'No British politician will ever again dare to say that we are punching above our weight.' He concluded: 'We will be the most hated country just when we need to win friends.'

On this occasion I sincerely hope that he is wrong and that we will win back friends so that we have allies in the future but from this perspective and at this moment in time, it looks like we have precious few of either.


Janie Hampton said...

Great and timely post, Julie. And sadly, all too true.

Penny Dolan said...

Thank you, Julie. Glad to read Beevor's pointed reminder that Britain did not truly "stand alone" through WWII however inspiring the rhetoric and the many screen-versions since.

One of the saddest sights I saw post Referendum was a elderly ex-soldier weeping not because of the break with Europe but with joy because he could not bear "being ruled by Germany." History lasts such a long time.

Leslie Wilson said...

Penny, that is really sad, and what shocks me is the level of ignorance it betrays, because really, we have not been ruled by Germany. However, when a German woman, who's lived here since the 70s, tells a broadcasting station that she daren't go out of her house, some of her friends aren't speaking to her, her neighbours are blanking her, and that she's had dog faeces dumped on her doorstep, it's clear that the longstanding hatred has been whipped up again. It used to be the French, before World War 2. Maybe people didn't vote for racism, but it's clear that a violent minority are interpreting it that way.
Julie, I so agree, because of course, we've always needed other nations. The victory at Waterloo needed the Prussians - Wellington would have been lost without them.If you look back at history, you'll see that Britain has always traded with continental Europe, and cultural influences have flowed both ways. Even pre-Roman Britain had wider trade links, and we used to supply tin to the whole of Europe, and presumably buy products from them in exchange.
What the Brexit enthusiasts need to realise - unless they believe in the total overthrow of the capitalist system - is that we have to belong to some wider trading system, and that all of those systems involve transnational regulations, which those participating in have to keep.