I recently attended a screening of Christopher Nolan’s Second World War epic, Dunkirk. The movie is excellent, deeply immersive, unsettling, and nerve shredding. In actual fact, such was the tension, my movie going companion strained a muscle in their neck. Nolan captures the trauma of war with great style and transmits to the audience with brilliant effect the pathos of war. Dunkirk is more than a movie, however; it is part of the British popular imagination, ‘the spirit’ that stuck two fingers up to fascism and refused to capitulate to tyranny. It is a great story and is part of modern British identity. It is for this reason that the movie has become such a political talking point.
Identity is the hobby horse of the left-wing media, every political conundrum and inequality can be explained by identity. What follows then is a natural logic, in their mind at least. British identity and a yearning for Empire resulted in Brexit; British identity centres on Dunkirk; Dunkirk tells us something about Brexit. Such logic has led to a crazed mania for Dunkirk/Brexit articles. These articles are fancy speculations; I would trust Gypsy palmistry for stock investment before investing in these articles for a return in intellectual currency. How do we make sense of these articles?
Naval Gazing and our Obsession with British Declinism
Instead of focusing on larger forces, journalists obsess about Britain declinism. Ever since the Suez Crisis the British left forwarded the narrative of British ‘declinism’ and have been obsessed by it. For many, the advent of post-colonialism and national self-determination heralded the end of Britain as a Great Power. In 1946, reflecting on the new world order, Keynes remarked that ‘Britain was not prepared to accept peacefully and wisely the fact that her position and her resources are not what they once were’.
Importantly, declinism continues to haunt and influence the British left, shaping political language and foreign policy. In the recent debate about military action in Syria, the left persistently opposed airstrikes, citing intervention as an act of British chauvinism; history and Rule Britannia was theneeded to accept her diminished role in the world. For the left, Brexit is an act of national chauvinism with twitching limb of Dunkirk acting as a sentinel of nationalist sentiment. The left’s post war obsession with British declinism goes a long way to explaining their criticism/connection of Dunkirk with Brexit. Dunkirk is nostalgia for the empire reloaded; Brexit is the Empire 2.0. “Move one, already” they scream “the Empire is gone!”
In truth, we were never in decline. The problem in 1973 was lack of level-headed leadership. Fearing the rise of America and the demise of its Empire, Britain believed it was in a state of decline. It wasn’t. The other nations had just caught up and surpassed our power given greater natural resources and larger populations. The immense growth in the German and French economies was based on huge investment in rebuilding their nations after the war. We wrongly believed this economic miracle was down to the EEC and European integration. Once the rebuilding of Europe was completed, economic growth was largely the same in the UK and the continent.
The Outward Forces: The EU Empire and Globalisation
There are bigger elements at play. One contribution to Brexit was Globalisation and the EU is an institution of Globalisation. There seems to be an intellectual fashion that comes with criticising the British Empire or calling Brexit Empire 2.0 or the Empire Strikes Back. Fine. But criticising the EU, a transnational institution that is clearly an empire – though one that democratic countries voluntarily enter, is an act of a modern troglodyte. The media refuse to acknowledge the plain fact that the EU is an empire and has glaring flaws.
Brexit occurred because this modern Empire could not reconcile what Harvard political theorist Dani Rodrik calls the Globalisation Paradox. In short, there is a tension between democracy and globalisation. One, we can restrict democracy in order to gain competitive advantage, a strategy employed by the likes of Singapore. We can limit globalisation in order to build democratic legitimacy at home(Brexit). Or we can globalise democracy at the cost of national sovereignty (EU). What we cannot have is hyperglobalisation, democracy, and self-determination simultaneously. Increasing interdependence and independence are antithetical.
In an effort to swerve this problem and avoid committing to any serious resolution, leaders sought to redefine “democracy” and “sovereignty”. One example of this was during the lead up to the referendum last year. Nicola Sturgeon was asked whether her Remain position contradicted her lust for independence. To which she stupidly replied, “You can have Scottish sovereignty while sharing that sovereignty with others’. A laughable statement that redefines sovereignty. The truth is the EU couldn’t solve this problem. It danced around the edges. As, Ivan Krastev, noted, ‘the outcome is unworkable: you end up with democracy without choices (Greece); sovereignty without meaning (Ireland) and Globalisation without legitimacy (EU).
Understanding Brexit as History
The movement of the oceans are often invoked as a sound metaphor for understanding history. Imagne the world as an ocean, we ride the waves, feel the winds of change, waters can be rougher than others, and violent waves pass for pacific serenity. That is what we see and experience every day. What occurs underwater goes unseen but it importantly has greater influence. Huge currents meet and mingle and direct the movement of the oceans, vary in power and force, shaping what happens on the surface. Brexit is the biblical storm of our time but our understanding of why it unfolded remains anchored in the same narratives of decline and Empire. There are forces at play beyond our comprehension. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is not an ocean current. It’s a movie. So please just stop, Brexit and Dunkirk are unrelated. There are deep historical reasons for our exit. Shoe-horning Dunkirk into your long narrative of declinism is tedious, errant nonsense.