Traditionally, the British have two ways of responding to disaster. The elites are prone to panic. They wave their arms, indulge in lamentations, wish they could turn the clock back and then recommend orderly surrender. Ordinary people, by contrast, tend to make the best of a bad job. This state of mind is often summed up in the Second World War slogan “Keep calm and carry on”.
The release of Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk provides a welcome reminder that there have been bigger disasters in British history than last year’s referendum vote to leave the European Union. We have made the best of worse jobs.
May 1940 was, as Churchill said at the beginning of his peerless “finest hour” speech, a “colossal military disaster”. Nolan’s film is a powerful and moving work, but it still understates the magnitude of the calamity. The German newsreels of the time are more chilling for their black-and-white sobriety. For once, Goebbels had no need to exaggerate for propaganda purposes: Hitler’s forces really had inflicted a crushing defeat on Britain, not to mention France and Belgium.
So chaotic was the retreat of the British Expeditionary Force — accompanied as it was by rumours of a “fifth column” supposedly sabotaging the allied effort behind the lines — that the shattered survivors had to be quarantined on their return for the sake of civilian morale. As one corporal in the Royal Engineers put it: “We were beginning to think that the Germans were almost superhuman . . . At every turn [they] seemed to have the answers.”
Discipline came close to a complete breakdown. One officer was shot in the face by one of his own battle-fatigued men. In Calais an old woman was gunned down by a soldier in Queen Victoria’s Rifles in the belief that she was one of the fifth columnists, as the Germans were reputedly masters of disguise as well as of warfare. Belgian civilians suspected of spying — including farm labourers accused of mowing grass “in the formation of an arrow” to guide Stuka pilots to British troop formations — were summarily shot. In the final, frantic scramble for boats at Dunkirk, some French soldiers were fired on by their own allies.
The key point about Dunkirk, however, is that it could have been much, much worse. In a fateful decision often wrongly attributed to Hitler himself, Generals Gerd von Rundstedt and Günther von Kluge recommended that the German forces around Dunkirk should halt, at a moment when their marauding panzers might well have finished off the encircled BEF. The killing or capture of around 338,226 allied troops — the total number evacuated in Operation Dynamo, of whom roughly a third were in fact French — would have been a devastating blow from which British morale might never have recovered. The miracle of Dunkirk was thus a combination of British pluck and German misjudgment. Even so, more than 40,000 British servicemen ended up prisoners of war, and much of the army’s weaponry was left behind on the beaches between Nieuwpoort and Gravelines.
“Wars are not won by evacuations,” as Churchill rightly said. There were many in the summer of 1940 who argued that he should seek a negotiated peace with Hitler, among them the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, who favoured Italian mediation between London and Berlin, and the recently ousted prime minister Neville Chamberlain, who remained a member of the war cabinet. They were far from alone in thinking that the war was no longer winnable. It took all Churchill’s rhetorical genius to overcome the defeatists. “If this long island story of ours is to end at last,” he told his colleagues in the decisive full cabinet meeting of May 28, “let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”
Brexit is not Dunkirk. It may be a bureaucratic mess, but it is not a colossal military disaster. Nevertheless, in the air of Westminster and Whitehall there hangs once again the whiff of defeatism. A former prime minister — Tony Blair — has warned that “if a right-wing populist punch in the form of Brexit was followed by a left-wing populist punch in the form of unreconstructed hard-left economics, Britain would hit the canvas, flat on our back, and be out for a long count.”
The retired diplomat Lord Kerr and the former defence secretary Lord Robertson have called for “a UK-wide debate about calling a halt to the process and changing our minds” because the “disastrous consequences” of Brexit are “becoming ever clearer”. In the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman has predicted “national humiliation”. Even in The Spectator Matthew Parris urges soft Brexit.
I have the utmost respect for all these gentlemen, and I have some sympathy with their arguments. Last year I warned that the Brexit vote risked sending the United Kingdom down a “stairway to hell”. There is little question that many of the blithe promises of the pro-Brexit campaign — more money for the National Health Service, a bundle of easy free-trade deals to be signed — have been exposed as the tosh I and many others said they were at the time. Theresa May bungled her snap election by rashly seeking a mandate for hard Brexit; the unintended result is that Jeremy Corbyn, the worst leader in Labour’s history, could conceivably be our next prime minister.
Yet it remains very difficult for me to imagine exiting from Brexit. I certainly see no way of reverting to the status quo ante, even if the public were to swing decisively against leaving (which has not yet happened, if the polls are any guide). Now that article 50 has been invoked, the remaining EU member states have us at their mercy; any return to EU membership would be on the standard terms, not the special, privileged relationship successfully negotiated by Margaret Thatcher and John Major. We would, for example, be asked to commit ourselves to joining the single currency. That alone makes it clear how politically unpalatable a volte-face would be.
My conclusion is not, however, that we should “Keep calm and carry on”. For the truth about that popular slogan is that it was never used during the war and only exhumed in 2000. Though millions of copies were printed in 1939, it was decided not to distribute them, and most were subsequently pulped. The poster slogans that did see the light of day were different and, I think, preferable: “Your courage, your cheerfulness, your resolution will bring us victory” and (best of all) “Freedom is in peril. Defend it with all your might”.
I was against Brexit a year ago, but subsequently came to the conclusion that it would be better for both the EU nations and the UK to get a divorce, for they want a federal Europe and we never did. Put less politely, they are prepared to put up with German predominance and we are not.
As I said before the referendum, this divorce will cost a lot more and take a lot longer than the leavers claimed. But this is not the time for second thoughts — any more than May 1940 was the time for peace talks.