At the London Conference last week, Michael Heseltine seemed positively sprightly despite his 86 years. Interviewed by my boss Ben Rogers, he reflected on how his interventions had transformed urban policy in England.
It was only at the end that Ben asked about Brexit, and what made Heseltine so fervently pro-EU. \”I was a product of the Second World War,\” Heseltine replied. \”I was born in 1933, on the day Hitler came to power in Germany. Even now I can hear Neville Chamberlain announcing the declaration of war in 1939, and I can remember the the bombers that came at 9 o\’clock every night when we were living in Swansea. It Must Never Happen Again. It is why Europe is what it is.\”
This was a powerful expression of a common narrative among the generation that estabished and strengthened the European Union, that it is a bulwark against the genocidal forces of nationalism and fascism that tore the continent apart twice in the 20th Century. It was what Heseltine said next that was more striking.
Britain had won the war, but \”perhaps the psychology of victory had its own problems. We had stood alone. Without us, what possible victory was there? We had a special relationship with the US, we were head of the greatest empire the world had ever seen. How could we throw our lot in with these defeated boring people?\”
This sense of proud isolationism, so iconically captured in Low\’s June 1940 cartoon above, seems as powerful a force in anti-EU sentiment as the narrative of \’never again\’ is among the Union\’s advocates. It is reflected in the endless invocation the spirit of the blitz, in talk of treachery and enemies, in complaints of \”bullying by Germans\”, in romantic notions of trade alliances with former colonies.
And there of course is the point. Britain was never truly alone. 3.5 million troops from the British Empire fought in the Far East, the Mediterrranean and the Atlantic, 5 million Russians pushed the Nazis back on the Eastern Front, and 16 million US troops fought (2 million in Europe). But the myth is powerful, and underpinned by the endless cyle of remembrance of battles and – perhaps most poignantly – defeats such as Dunkirk.
But Britain really could be alone after Brexit, even more so if Scotland and Northern Ireland secede. Myths of military glory, of victories snatched from the jaws of defeat, of davids knocking down goliaths, are part of every nation\’s narrative patrimony – harmless if sometimes distastefully jingoistic. But they shouldn\’t be mistaken for political prescriptions, or blind us to the messy realities of yesterday and today.