Xenophobia, exceptionalism and Brexit: try not to mention the war

By Jill Segger
February 14, 2019

It is the business of people in my trade to have opinions and to make reasoned predictions. In terms of the Withdrawal Agreement and the ongoing political parliamentary shambles attending it, I have never felt so unequal to the challenge of doing the latter.

Not long ago, the BBC political correspondent Chris Mason, asked what he thought would follow the resignation of three members of Theresa May’s cabinet just hours after they had given their support to her draft agreement with Brussels, said: "You know what? People like me are paid to have insight and foresight and hindsight about these things, and to be able to project where we’re going to go. To be quite honest, looking at things right now, I haven’t got the foggiest idea what is going to happen in the coming weeks. Is the Prime Minister going to get a deal with the EU? Dunno. Is she going to get it through the Commons? Don’t know about that either. I think you might as well get Mr Blobby back on to offer his analysis, because frankly I suspect his is now as good as mine.” I’m with you, Chris.

We are living in a fog of uncertainty, a morass of division and oppositional thinking which thickens as identification by  silos of allegiance obscures the disaster which a No Deal Brexit would be for all but the very rich. And even they will eventually feel the wind as resentments grow and reputations, both national and personal, are degraded.

It is in just such circumstances that people grope for scapegoats and for targets upon which to focus their heightened state of arousal. It is a particular delusion of the English part of the United Kingdom to turn to a dubious narrative, largely created and frequently exploited by people who were born after the conflict which they seek to mythologise. It is no coincidence that a row is being concocted today around ‘Churchill – hero or villain?’

The second hideous conflagration to rip Europe apart in the 20th century began 80 years ago. Few who took part as combatants are still alive and even those who were affected as children are now old. Our ‘memories’ are more influenced by Boy’s Own-type comic strips, Hollywood and wishful thinking than they are by lived experience. Some of that wishful thinking is prevalent among the exponents of Brexit-at-any-price. The ‘spirits’ of Dunkirk and the Blitz are evoked. ‘Britain standing alone’ – a reconstruction of history which forgets the contribution of commonwealth forces and polish fighter pilots, to say nothing of the US and the Soviet Union – has become a rather self-satisfied trope through which we are invited to define a supposed national character.

The insult and damage which is caused to present day citizens of a modern and utterly transformed Europe (a continent which owes so much of that transformation to what we now know as the European Union (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/23056) is particularly painful. The bombast of Mark Francois, the Leave-supporting MP for Rayleigh and Wickford, was an ugly example of this tendency. Outraged at the carefully phrased warning of Tom Enders, the German born CEO of Airbus, that the aerospace giant might find it necessary to move its UK operation in the event of a No Deal Brexit, he incongruously condemned "Teutonic arrogance" and announced that: “My father, Reginald Francois, was a D-Day veteran. He never submitted to bullying by any German and neither will his son”, before stagily ripping up what he claimed to be to be a copy of Enders’ letter. Francois is of course, more a cartoon villain than a genuine menace. However, he serves as a focus for a damaging attitude and is presumably playing to his base.

We need to ask ourselves why this attitude has a base a and why it appears to be ready to fall for self-glorifying delusion. Germans today are our colleagues, trade partners, teachers, friends and family members. To hang current discontents on long past events is so out of touch with contemporary realities as to present a real danger to our relationships not only with Germany, but with the other countries of modern Europe. Veterans know it and young people know it. It is the middle-aged malcontents and armchair warriors who are its windily bellicose and willing servants.

I belong to the same generation as Mark Francois. In childhood I knew men who had lost limbs or eyes in World War 2. As I grew into young adulthood, I began to glimpse their wounds of mind and spirit. Every one of them reinforced to me that their enemy had been Nazism, not Germans. The cheap exploitation indulged in by Francois feeds into the angry, fearful and confused division we are currently experiencing. It encourages xenophobia and exceptionalism and gives comfort to the sour stupidity of the Defence Secretary’s ‘lethality’ and the Prime Minister’s poisonous ‘hostile environment’.

But we do not have to be complicit in this creation of false enemies: there are plenty of malignant forces against which we should be pushing back and unexamined nostalgic fantasy is the ordure in which they grow. There could not be a worse time to indulge in it.

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© Jill Segger is Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. You can follow her on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.