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03 September 2019

War, Brexit and national identity

Thomas Colley explains the centrality of war to the British psyche

Londoners in 1940 look at a map illustrating how the RAF is striking back.
Londoners in 1940 look at a map illustrating how the RAF is striking back.

Image: Londoners in 1940 look at a map illustrating how the RAF is striking back. Wikimedia Commons.

Why is everyone Hitler? This has intrigued me whenever I listen to British politicians try and justify war. Routinely, when British politicians try and obtain support for war, they almost invariably begin by describing the situation as like the Second World War. They demonise the enemy – typically some dictatorial regime - as Hitler, and explain that evil will spread if good people do nothing. The assumption seems to be that this is all it takes to persuade British citizens to support war. But do British citizens understand war so uniformly? Is referencing Hitler all it takes to get their support?

That people may not understand the world as political elites think they do motivated me to research how ‘ordinary’ citizens understand war. Communicating compelling narratives is seen by many as the key to political and business success today. Yet so rarely are the stories of ‘ordinary’ people examined in depth - all we often have are opinion polls and soundbites. Governments are communicating with their citizens based on the stories they think their people tell, rather than examining the stories they actually tell.

Always at War seeks to provide a new perspective – analysing in depth the stories citizens tell about war, and seeing how well these correspond to politicians’ narratives.  Listening to people for prolonged periods often reveals nuances that are missed in opinion polls, soundbites and vox pops. The task I set myself as an interviewer was to never ask about a conflict until someone brought it up. Keeping questions open-ended meant that people explain things from their perspective, rather than responding to what I thought was interesting or had primed them to think about. Some of the findings were predictable; others extremely surprising.

Few studying British national identity would be surprised to hear that war stories are an important element. Particular on the political right, citizens continue to draw on Britain’s military mythology to explain who ‘we’ are as a people. People still explained to me - erroneously - that Britain has never been invaded. They also explained that Britain’s imperial wars began to defend new trade routes rather than to plunder existing ones. Some think Britain is the world’s leading provider of peacekeepers (it is 36th as of May 2019);[1] others that that Britain usually fights alone since they rarely hear about Britain’s allies in the media. The idea of Britain standing alone in the Second World War looms large – as one participant explained to me, in comparison, ‘America turn up late to any war. Then they think they’ve won it’.

Public stories of Britain’s wars are far more varied than these established myths. For many people, of all the countries they could compare Britain to, what mattered most was that Britain was superior to America, or Europe, but specifically Switzerland. Switzerland is stereotypically associated with neutrality, and that they see this as profoundly un-British. For some, the Cod Wars are a key frame of reference; for others, Vietnam, despite limited British involvement. The Falklands is a key part of the plot for those telling stories of Britain standing alone; Iraq in 2003 is a crucial episode for those telling stories of folly and failure.

Even more surprising than what people choose to bring up is what they have apparently forgotten. Strikingly, a wide variety of British citizens have forgotten 9/11 and how it initiated the War on Terror. Even very knowledgeable people explained that they could remember that the First World War began after Franz Ferdinand was shot, that World War Two began when Germany invaded Poland and that the Gulf War began when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Yet puzzlingly they could not remember why Afghanistan began, despite it being preceded by one of the most unforgettable events in human history. Only by not asking people about 9/11 could one discover this, otherwise people would have been primed to talk about it. People do not always tell the stories you think they do.

The most striking thing citizens’ narratives revealed was how routine war is for British citizens. They consider themselves to be always at war – rather than it being a state of exception. They expect Britain to fight war, and assume that it is more willing and able to do so than others. Many oppose wars certainly, but if it has to be done, they assume that Britain will do so more reasonably than others. Common stereotypes are that European countries are too cowardly, America is too gung-ho, and other countries are either too ruthless or incompetent. Britain is currently fighting in wars across the world, but with limited public concern. Britain being at war is not exceptional, but it makes its people feel exceptional.

Brexit further reveals the importance of the idea of being at war to other aspects of national life. The world continues to watch Brexit create upheaval in British politics. EU leaders have been bemused at right-wing British politicians suggesting that it is 1940 once more and the EU are the Nazis Britain should stand alone against rather than longstanding allies. This would not have been surprising for the interviewee who, sat in his living room in Birmingham, explained to me that he saw the EU as representing the final conquest of Europe Germany has always wanted.

Despite the prevalence of myths that contradict the historical record, I found the stories British people tell about war to be far more coherent than opinion polls suggest. British people observe many different wars and many possess intuitively astute judgment about them.  They have watched painful interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya and understand that the utility of force is more limited than previously assumed. Crying ‘Hitler’ to the latest tyrant betrays a far more nuanced public understanding of war.

Britain’s military future is uncertain. With Brexit apparently diminishing Britain’s place in the world, renewed enthusiasm for military intervention would be unsurprising. But whatever changes in British politics, my abiding impression from living rooms across Britain is that war remains something that makes British people feel special. Whether they support a given conflict or not, the idea of being more willing and able to fight than others is not something many will want to give up.

Thomas Colley is a Teaching Fellow at the Department of War Studies, King's College London. Always at War: British Public Narratives of War is available from University of Michigan Press.

[1], accessed 21 June 2019.