LAST month we buried our mother. Her ashes lie in a peaceful, but well-frequented, English village churchyard directly under the highest point of the Cotswold hills; close to those of our father. At her funeral our sister spoke about mother’s service in the wartime Wrens and her work at Bletchley Park and Eastcote where she was an operator on the early computers used to crack the ciphers to the German Enigma code. Our father was a navigating officer in coastal forces who guided landing craft onto Sword beach as part of Operation Overlord on D-Day, 6 June 1944. Nearly a year later, on VE Day, 8 May 1945, he piloted a Fairmile into Rangoon harbour after the epic journey of the fourteenth motor launch flotilla from Milford Haven.
Apart from the fact that both were barely out of their teens, there is nothing particularly noteworthy about all this; just a matter of family pride. Millions of ordinary people worldwide joined armed and other forces in the struggle against fascism and performed tasks that but for war they might never have imagined. For those who survived intact in mind and body this cannot even be described as sacrifice since wartime experiences were often personally liberating, propelling them into responsible and productive adulthood. Exactly what each was fighting for varied, but of one commonality we can be certain: a better world.
Some far-sighted people had the desire to construct a Europe that could never again ignite a global conflagration. Once Britain, by and large gracefully, let go of most of its empire it was able to join in, albeit more than a quarter century after the war. And Britain benefited hugely, not just economically and financially but culturally. Instead of strutting imperially across the globe, Britain joined the world and became a genuine part of it, a multicultural society that ironically now benefits from reverse colonisation. The imperial past was done and dusted and thankfully consigned to historical debate.
That was before the 2016 referendum. Judging by the popular press, and the odious Daily Mail is a useful yardstick, Brexit* is now dogma, a toxic mix of xenophobia, nostalgia and perverse defiance to what is perceived as the establishment and any sort of intellectual endeavour; a two-fingered upward salute to the contemporary world by fantasists with warped views of the past and over-inflated egos. These are essential ingredients of right-wing populism, which in all likelihood is Britain’s fate if and when the disastrous consequences of Brexit kick in.
Walking away from the churchyard where two boxes of family ashes now lie I felt a great sense of anger about Brexit. It has no logic or rationality. If fulfilled, it will be self-defeating and destructive in a multitude of ways. Periodic doubts have been voiced about the British educational system, but it would appear that the rot is deeper-seated and older than realised. What were Brexit voters taught in history and related subjects at school? And what lasting impression did it make on them? Do they have any conception of the Holocaust or the families in which successive generations had their homes destroyed and became displaced people?
Our parents’ generation, almost all of them now dead, fought for liberal democracy, human rights and common decency against a vicious brand of right-wing populism. The Nazi cause was spread by skilful propaganda, a construct of lies repeated so often that it became truth to many. This sounds all too familiar: the Brexit campaign was fuelled by exaggerated claims and driven by social media that are far more adept at thought and behaviour manipulation than even Joseph Goebbels could have imagined. And behind the leave campaign are some extremely sinister characters, many of them better suited to the 1930s than our contemporary world.
Anyone who has recently watched a seven-day cycle of British television will know that World War II documentaries, some of them very good, are staple fare. This year two major films of dubious historical accuracy (on Dunkirk and Churchill) have been released. ‘The War’ is a highly significant factor in British culture to this day, much of it evoking a pride in ‘standing alone’ for a significant time against fascism. This is, indeed, historically true. But it is also dangerously prone to exploitation by right-wing populists and used to argue a case for British exceptionalism and rejection of international obligations. The country’s war record should be used to press the case for greater co-operation and involvement with Europe, not less.
Above all, Brexit is a betrayal of the past and of those who fought for a better world. They struggled for an international order that would promote security and prosperity, harmony and progress. By and large the organisations that sprang up after World War II provided this and the European Union was eventually one of them. Brexit threatens a loss of all that was gained post-war and made possible by the Allied victories over Germany and Japan in 1945. It opens up further possibilities for terrorist groups like ISIS, autocracies with imperial ambitions like Russia and China, and a wave of populism that threatens liberal democracy.
It makes the world a decidedly more dangerous place. Our parents were on the right side of history in 1945, but the possibilities they created to break down nationalist animosity have been thrown in the rubbish bin by those who concentrate more on people’s differences than their common humanity and aspirations. We know from history that this is a dangerous path to tread.
And betrayal is too banal a word to describe the pending destruction of the post-war legacy.
*Brexit is a misnomer. It is a problem created by the English and the Welsh, not the British as a whole, but I cannot find a suitable term to replace it. Wexit?