Retrofitting the nation

The people of the UK are not happy with Michel Barnier‘s comments regarding the nostalgic wave which has immersed them. Or at least, according to the Brexit Party, ’the 17.4 million who deserve to be heard’, because the other 16.2 million who voted Remain apparently do not. The domestic yearning to restore Great Britain’s profile to that of brave, stoic and esteemed has been well-documented, but this is no longer about sentimentality. Wistfulness has hardened into desperation for the reinstatement of a simpler time when we knew who we were.

I’ve never understood the appeal of past eras, since health, wealth and freedom have advanced incrementally every year during my lifetime. If I remind myself that my father had no shoes before the age of three and left school at thirteen to work on a coal lorry, my own life of extended education and choice has, in comparison, been much better, even blissful. It seems, however, that people’s dissatisfaction lies elsewhere - in the loss of personal pride, national influence and global dominance, the entirety of which is blamed on our EU membership. Virtually no living person has experienced the British empire in full swing but somehow, people still feel its self-righteous authority in their bones.

What makes us small islanders think so big? Family testimony, school history lessons, the media…these all impact on us as we form our sense of country. But there is another, seemingly benign element to which many UK citizens (particularly the grey-haired nucleus of Leave supporters) were exposed during childhood, with booster inoculations every holiday period. This is the downright simple decency and cohesiveness of the British citizenry as seen in our victorious WWII films - not just black-and-white in hue but also in their clear division of virtue between us and that lot abroad.

The 1939-60 batch of films, many produced as propagandist vehicles by the Ministry of Information, show Brits winning the war while remaining courteous and witty. Anyone born before 1980 will have watched The First Of The Few, In Which We Serve or The Dam Busters without even trying, since they were, for decades, the staple diet of weekend and Bank Holiday entertainment. The Bridge On The River Kwai and The Colditz Story can, even now, be found in mainstream TV schedules. But although 385,000 British military personnel died in their attempts to preserve our sovereignty, the war was of course concluded by the added firepower of another landmass, that of our American allies (typically scripted in ungraciously as over-resourced Yanks).

Today, the landmass offering us safety from a hostile world by adding our small heft to its Union is Europe, but the UK has decided to forego its support. Have we learned nothing? Half the voting populace believes we can do just fine by ourselves - and they want the world to acknowledge this rebooted self-reliance. As Nigel Farage said in his May 2019 Brexit Party commercial: ‘It’s about democracy, our country, how the rest of the world sees us’. John Mills’ RAF pilot might have used the very same words in 1942 (The Big Blockade). Or Michael Redgrave’s Flight Lieutenant in 1945 (The Way to The Stars). If it’s straight-talking integrity you want, look to a British (worsted) uniform for inspiration.

After years of being drip-fed the moral behaviour and instinctive solidarity that typifies these (fictional) men and women, a belief in Britain as a formidable power tempered by fair play has been absorbed into our collective psyche. A proud, indefatigable nation is what we want to be. If we are not, there must be an adversary to blame. The language currently used by Leave supporters invokes a battle atmosphere: they ‘fight for Britain’, ‘fight for Brexit’, ‘fight for independence’, ‘fight for freedom‘, ‘fight back’. The EU is positioned as a bully, an oversized enemy facing up to a small but plucky squaddie.

Leave groups duly reference ‘the ordinary person’, ‘the little people’, ‘the oppressed’ - the ones who might see themselves in Tommy Trinder’s valiant munitions worker (The Foreman Went To France), or his cheeky auxiliary fireman (The Bells Go Down). Today, ‘Having a go at jerry’ is no longer a case of aiming guns or bombs in the direction of Europe, but of thumbing our noses to show those cocky foreigners they will never get the better of us, the ballsy British proletariat.

It’s notable that the reversal of a major theme in these films, outwitting a gullible enemy (The Wooden Horse, The Man Who Never Was, Break To Freedom), is what currently hurts the most. The belief in our ability to outmanoeuvre others has been flattened by the feeling of having been ‘done’ by Europe: Irene Handl’s landlady (Millions Like Us) could have clinched a better deal and still managed to barter for a nice bit of skate with the local fishmonger. WWII was faced and endured by millions of canny, courageous Brits but we are now culturally and economically in a different place: you cannot retrofit a nation, no matter how much you want to.