Finest Hour

I have recently read a wonderful book by Liv Olson called Last Hope Island, about the experience of countries in continental Europe that were occupied by the Germans - and what happened to their governments in exile in Britain, the last hope island of the title. It is a fascinating and moving story that sometimes had me in tears.

One thing that came over strongly is that the experience of all the occupied countries was uniformly horrible. For all of them it was about humiliation, starvation, dislocation, pain, and misery. There was nothing good about it; it was the ground zero of the national story, something that no one would want to experience again ever - certainly not the Germans or their allies for whom it bought the ultimate physical and moral destruction from which they have only recently recovered.

Contrast this with Britain for which WW2 was the zenith of our national story, up there with the Armada and the Napoleonic wars where we were on the side of the angels. For us, then and now, the suffering was heroic and it was our ‘Finest Hour’ when we stood alone against the ultimate evil and triumphed in the end, delivering the world to the ‘sunlit uplands’ promised by Churchill. We may have ended the war bankrupt and diminished but out moral star was at its brightest. This story was the the one our parents and grandparents experienced and which was absorbed by us in our mothers’ milk.

For those in continental Europe, it was ‘never again.’ They would do anything to avoid another catastrophic war and out of that came ultimately the EU which, for them, was existential. It had to work and it has to work. It is this mismatch of national stories that I believe lies at the heart of the British ‘problem’ with Europe that culminated in Brexit. For Britain it has always been transactional - are we getting more out than we are putting in? For those in continental Europe it is about survival - how can we stop ourselves tearing each other apart? There was a survey done within the EU where the question, to paraphrase, was ‘What has the EU done for you?’ In every reply in continental Europe, ‘peace’ was in the top three answers. In Britain it appeared nowhere. 

I am someone who is fiercely anti Brexit, but you do have to ask, given these fundamentally different national stories, if the UK’s membership of the EU could ever have worked. De Gaulle intuited this when he vetoed Britain’s attempt to join the first iteration of what become the EU and you have to consider, given what has happened, that he may have been right. Where would that have left us? Probably stewing in post-imperial nostalgia - in famous words of Dean Acheson we would have ‘lost an empire and not yet found a role’.  

Sort of where we are now.

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