Book Excerpts · Books

With the UK leaving the EU at the end of the week we finish a process that began long before June 2016

We have not been driven into the quagmire of Brexit at the point of a gun or out of economic necessity. It is the consequence of 70 years of indecision about the closeness of our relationship with our continental neighbours and what our role should be on the world’s stage.

From John Elsom, ‘Never Again’, State Paralysis (Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press: 2019), pp.1-5 Order now.

‘I was nine years old during the days of the Normandy invasion and can remember kneeling beside my bed, praying for the Allies to win. I used to watch the shadows of leaves, cast through the window and playing upon the sheet, and pretend that these were the shifting front lines of the opposing armies. Even as a child I knew what was at stake. In June 1944, we were accustomed to the disciplines of war: rationing, sirens and blackouts. I was always sent to bed before the BBC Nine O’Clock News but I could guess from the tone of the voices downstairs whether the news was good, bad or simply terrible. The BBC had gravitas. It was careful not to be alarmist or over-cheerful, and to keep its emotions in check at all times, for there could be no victory without sacrifice. The formal voice suppressed the anxiety.

But D-Day was different. We were on the front foot and not the back, to use a phrase from cricket, attacking not defending; but this push towards victory held many risks. We were throwing hundreds of thousands of men against a well-fortified coast across the Channel and nobody knew what would happen next. In Cheltenham, the garrison town to which my family were evacuated, wards in the hospital were cleared of all but emergency patients. That was how we knew that something was going to happen but ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’, as the posters said, and so we kept quiet and said nothing, and waited for the BBC Nine O’Clock News.

This book is not intended to be about my personal memories but about the climate of opinion in Britain, our changing culture, that led to Brexit and the out-in-out relationship with our continental neighbours that upset what had seemed to be the world order in 2016. But memories do play a part. Within the mixture of motives and facts, legends and myths, that characterised the European Union (EU) Referendum in 2016, there were many echoes of World War II, and the time when Britain stood alone, and then not quite alone and, finally, with the help of the Americans, Canadians, Poles, Australians and divisions from what was still the British Empire, we managed to push back the Axis forces and won a glorious victory.

That is now the national narrative, celebrated in books, films and YouTube clips, and passed down from parent to child in what has become a collective memory. It is not exactly false or fake but censored here and there, simplified and turned into a ripping yarn. The facts stay the same but certain elements are missing, which prevent the well-documented history from sounding wholly truthful, all Brylcream and stiff upper lips. From my stock of childhood memories, however, I can still remember the ferocious uncertainty, expressed in the voices downstairs, the fear and over-determination, repeated twice a day at school and at bedtime, to believe that God was on our side and would eventually prevail.

This narrative is woven into the fabric of British culture, a distinctive feature, which we take for granted, but from a few miles away, across the English Channel, may seem one-sided and even complacent. That is what a national narrative is like. It offers a useful framework, part history, part legend, in which we can place who we are, where we come from and what our native qualities may be. But when we examine this structure closely, we can notice how fragile it is, how much guesswork went into its making and how under pressure, it can buckle and snap, leaving us with little sense of national identity at all. Where was the Battle of Stalingrad in the British narrative of how we won the war? Just outside the frame.

In his Preface to A History of the English-speaking Peoples (1956), Sir Winston Churchill wrote that: ‘For the second time in the present century, the British Empire and the United States have stood together, facing the perils of war on the largest scale known among men . . . and [we] have become more conscious of our common duty to the human race.’ The special relationship was born, and handed down to Macmillan and Kennedy, Thatcher and Reagan, Blair and Bush, May and Trump. Although his vision was less than messianic and did not preclude ‘the erection of other structures like United Europe’, Churchill expressed his belief that the English-speaking peoples with the common ‘language, law and processes by which we have come into being, already afforded a unique foundation for drawing together and portraying a concerted task’, which was to create, although he did not exactly say so, the New World Order.

And so another thread was woven into the fabric, the ‘English-speaking peoples’, but General de Gaulle, isolated in his country retreat in France, might well have been irritated by the way in which Churchill with such becoming modesty sought the leadership of the Free World for the English-speaking peoples and won a Nobel Prize for doing so. In his War Memoirs, published in the same year, de Gaulle complained that during the war he was kept away from the top-level meetings between the US President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Churchill, although

he was the Commander-in-Chief of the Free French Forces and the head of the French Committee of National Liberation, the provisional French government-in-waiting. De Gaulle’s resentment was not only personal, but felt as a snub to France itself, whose language, laws and culture were in danger of being side-lined after the war, although they too had influenced ‘the destiny of the world’.

‘Culture’ is one of those awkward words which can be used to cover almost anything. In English, it can mean something broad and generic, like ‘Chinese culture’, or something rather narrow, to indicate ‘the arts’, which are supposed to be cultural, as opposed to mere entertainment, which is not. In Eastern Europe under Communism, the ministries of culture were the censors-in-chief as well as being responsible for the churches and appointments to bishoprics and sees, for which they as atheists were the state guardians.

In this book, I will be using the word culture in an equally all-embracing fashion to mean the way in which we as humans think – our habits of mind rather than the neurological functioning of the brain. I would like to be more precise and to demonstrate with the certainty of a phrenological chart that the right side of the brain controls the imagination, while the left organises reason and mathematics. But culture is not like that. It is acquired, rather than innate, and comes from many sources, some of which are derived from society at large, such as a national narrative, while others are very personal.

A culture may contain assumptions or myths that we take for granted, although we cannot prove that they are factually ‘true’, because they provide a useful way of understanding the world. But they can also be misleading, at odds with other myths and disruptive. We are often told, and have come to believe, that culture is at the heart of civilisation, and so it is, but it is also at the heart of wars, pogroms and genocides.

A culture is many-layered. It may change and evolve but never fully discards. I have past and present memories that influence the way in which I think, although some are very faint, like the echoes from a distant star, while others are close and shine daily, like the sun. I can remember most clearly those events that have been placed in some order, like a mental filing cabinet, which might be a narrative, a religious faith or even a language, for it is hard to think of something without having a name for it. Medieval authorities called them Memory Theatres. These ordering systems belong to our culture as well, and may break apart, or even explode, so that everything that we have trusted before is hurled into doubt and chaos, which may happen on a personal or a collective level. It can happen to whole nations.

Culture is the driving force behind commerce and industry. What is money but another language, which loses its value if we play around carelessly with it and gains in value if we respect its limits and what its symbols are supposed to represent? Nor have I mentioned the so-called

‘cultural industries’, which have often been cited as second only to ‘financial services’ as the largest earner of foreign currency to the metropolitan city of London. The ‘creative industries’ are something different, as I hope to explain, but both contribute to what we mean by culture. If it seems that I am loading too much into one hapless, two-syllable word, I must point out that whole sections of the IT industry are devoted to analysing our likes, dislikes and websites that we visit in order to provide algorithms of our behaviour and how we think – in short, our culture.

We allow them to do so. When a website such as Google asks our permission to allow cookies on to our laptops, so that it can follow our tastes and offer suggestions about other websites, few say ‘No’; and it would be inconvenient if we did, because it would probably mean that each site would require a separate password. Some are tracking cookies, which provide an overall picture of the user’s likes and dislikes, so that he or she can be targeted with posts and images that stimulate predictable reactions. In 2016, Facebook went further. It promised a news-and-information service, tailor-made to the views of their consumers, so that they only saw those news stories in which they were likely to be interested, a news-feed that was ‘subjective, personal and unique’.

When this principle is applied to politics, the prospect of receiving news from only one point of view runs the risk of polarising our debates still further. The Internet becomes a better tool for demagogues than democrats, for do we really think for ourselves, if the pre-selection process is done for us? We may have more sources of information, a vast number, but do we still have our own consciences? I belong to a generation that remembers what it was like to live without the Internet, cookies or algorithms, when we took decisions in which the conscience of the individual was expected to play a leading part. This is not to suggest that Millennials do not have a conscience, but that when so much of the pre-selection process can be done in advance, it may seem less essential.

Sometimes this quirky and unpredictable phenomenon, for which there is still no biological explanation, changed, or so it seemed at the time, the course of history.

In 1945, to the shock of the world, the British in a general election voted out their inspirational war leader, Winston Churchill, at the height of his fame and elected instead his second-in-command in the wartime coalition, the Labour leader Clement Attlee, with a mandate for social change. It was not just a choice of political leaders or parties but about what kind of country we hoped that Britain would become. Did we share Churchill’s vision for the English-speaking peoples? Were we reformers like William Beveridge, an economist and Liberal MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed, who lost his seat in the 1945 Election and had to be elevated to the House of Lords? Or were we like Willie Gallagher, the Communist MP for West Fife, who thought of democracy as a stage in the class struggle. Tensions ran high. The firebrand Labour MP, Aneurin Bevan, called all Tories ‘vermin’, while the Conservative MP, Robert Boothby, called all Labour supporters ‘scum’.

Nobody in my immediate family was killed in World War II, although a family friend, Bill Blenko, a rear gunner who stayed with us in Cheltenham, died in the Battle of Britain. World War I took a greater toll. My father’s brother, Harry, was blown up in the trenches; another died from gas poisoning. My mother’s eldest brother, Percy, whom she adored, was killed within days of the Armistice in 1918. To the end of her life, she would murmur, ‘How Percy would have loved this!’ when she listened to music.

From the broad ranks of human misery scattered across Europe by the two World Wars, ours was still a fortunate family. We knew that we were. We were evacuated from the Thames estuary to be out of bombing range from the continent, but my grandparents refused to move. When my grandfather died in 1943, we returned for his funeral, passing through a gutted London and I saw an aerial dog-fight. But we lived in the upper three floors of a Regency terraced house, 3 Pittville Lawn, with friends and refugees, in a household which varied from nine to fourteen people. It was always crowded but I can remember my mother, grey-faced, standing by a window as a van passed with a loudspeaker, asking for spare rooms for those bombed out of their homes after a raid on Birmingham. She was weeping, because she could not help them.

In times of war, the worst hardship is to have nothing useful to do. She worked part-time as a hospital nurse. My father set up a factory in a garage to make rubber gloves. They were ceaselessly active, ceaselessly touching wood or keeping their fingers crossed and, when the war was over, they prayed that the spirit of common purpose should not desert them in peacetime, so that, with everyone else, they could build a better future. Above all, nothing like this, no wars, no slavery, no genocide, should ever happen again. My father quoted from his favourite play, King Lear: ‘Never, never, never, never, never’.’

Need to know more?

State of Paralysis analyses the climate of opinion in Britain since the end of World War II. These decades have witnessed revolutionary changes in power, knowledge and global politics. We have seen the rise of the Internet, space travel and the nuclear industries. The old European empires have collapsed, the Cold War has become a distant memory and global warming is posing an additional threat. Would Britain be better equipped to face these challenges on its own or as part of the EU? This was the question posed by the 2016 EU Referendum, but has it been answered?

John Elsom describes how the party political system has broken down, its constitutional implications and how it influences our sense of national identity. He brings to the debate the perspective of a political and cultural commentator who has witnessed at first hand many of the events that now shape our lives.

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