Brexit: a historical misunderstanding

In a previous opinion piece I expressed some of my beliefs as to why a certain demographic of Brexiteers voted the way that they did and hold onto their faith in Brexit. A concept that I briefly mentioned in this previous post was the belief in ‘British exceptionalism’. In this post I intend to explore this point further, providing a brief overview of the history that I think is important to the debate around Brexit and why I believe it to be of importance.

“History is not just about documenting the past, it is about understanding how we have arrived at the present.”

As I explained before, the Second World War has been a constant presence in the Brexit debate. Its main actors have been quoted, key events have been whittled into ill fitting analogies and the derided epithet of ‘Appeaser’ has been thrown around at anyone who disagrees with the current popular Brexit position. Though the Second World War is not comparable in the slightest to Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, it cannot be denied that the Second World War is the tapestry on which many contemporary British politicians choose to imprint their vision for the future. It is an event that still holds us all in thrall, whether directly or indirectly. 

In the preface to his book Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord 1940-45 Max Hastings argues that the reason why people are still obsessed with the Second World War is because it is something that our parents and grandparents did well. For the US it signalled the beginning of their period as a global power and as a hegemon. For Russia it is known as the Great Patriotic War, a war that helped to regain former Russian territories and another example of Russian sacrifice on a scale that had not been witnessed since the war of 1812. Russia, like the US became a hegemon and the war highlighted the extent of Soviet power. In Britain the war is seen as the pinnacle of British tenacity and determination. When people think of the war, it is the summer of 1940 that is often the focus, when Britain stood ‘alone’. However it was also Britain’s final hurrah, the cost of defending liberal democracy from fascism was the end of the British Empire and the diminishment of Britains global authority. I previously called Brexiteers the children of Churchill, and it was for this very reason, the Brexit generation were those who grew up when Britain was no longer the nation that their parents had known.

The knowledge of British history for the majority of the population seems to end in 1945. The Suez Crisis of 1956 seems to be absent from the teaching of British history in schools. You will find few references in popular culture to this unpopular intervention and Anthony Eden is predominantly remembered as the PM who lost Suez, his previous record as Foreign Secretary during the war is barely remembered by many. The invasion of Suez was ended by the threat of President Eisenhower to seriously damage Britain’s financial system by selling the US governments pound sterling bonds. The New World that had come to the rescue of the Old was making it quite clear that the Old World could not act against the interests of the New. Suez marked the end of Britain’s reign as a great power and since 1956 Britain has often acted in conjunction with the US but has rarely had the ability to act independently. But 1940 was different.

On May 10th 1940 Hitler’s invasion of the West began. Fall Gelb (Case Yellow) was Hitler’s plan to invade Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. Within a month of the invasion of the Low Countries and France British troops were being evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk, leaving much of their equipment, and many of their comrades, behind them. Though defeated Prime Minister Winston Churchill (who was granted the seals of office the same day as the invasion began) announced that Britain would, if necessary, fight the Nazis on the beaches, in the hills and in the streets. Britain would never surrender. Though defeated Britain remained defiant. It is this defiance that remains the abiding memory for many Brits of the Second World War, it’s the Dunkirk spirit that has often been evoked throughout the Brexit saga. 

I mention Suez and the Second World War because I believe that for the Brexit generation these events have helped to form both the world in which they inhabit but also the outlook by which they view the world. The Brexit generation were either toddlers during the Second World War or were born in the immediate aftermath, many were at school during the Suez Crisis. These children were brought up on stories of the British Empire and our stand in 1940, they witnessed the diminshment of the Empire and Britain’s standing after Suez. The world in which they were born into was changed by these events. I believe that it is important to discuss the role of history in Brexit because whether we choose to accept it or not history is not just about documenting the past, it is about understanding how we have arrived at the present. The British exceptionalism expressed by an element of Brexit supporters is rooted in their understanding of history.

From the conversations that I have had with some Brexiteers, and from the views expressed by certain politicians, the British understanding of the Second World War lacks nuance. The focus is on Churchill, Britain standing alone and the Battle of Britain, however it often ignores the contribution of continental forces who escaped from their occupied nations to fight against Nazi tyranny in the last unoccupied country in Europe. Their history also often skips over Lend-Lease and the contribution of many resistance movements in Europe. For many in Britain the Second World War is confined to 5 months in the summer and autumn of 1940, when the eyes of the world were on Britain, it ignores the increasing dominance of the US and Soviet Union in later years as the war spread. For many Brexiteers the history of the Second World War is confined to Britain’s role in the conflict. They strive to firmly keep their grasp on a period when Britannia really did rule the waves.

To have a sense of pride in the history of one’s country is not a negative characteristic, however it does become an issue when that history is selective and you choose to project that history onto current events, history does not repeat itself. We can see this projection of history by the Brexit camp in the language that they use. Remainers are appeasers, the enemy is Brussels who, in their minds, is dominated by the Germans, many believe that Europe should still be grateful for our actions 70 years ago, many Brexiteers speak as if they stormed the beaches of Normandy themselves. When combined these views create a sense of ‘British exceptionalism’ which is not only damaging to the Brexit that they seek, but to Britain’s global reputation. Those who use this language are deaf to the concerns of our continental allies, they are blind to our shortcomings, when an issue arises it is due to betrayal not because the world has changed since 1940. The EU is often called the Fourth Reich by the most fanatical Brexiteers, a comment devoid of understanding of the purpose of the EU and the origins of its original architects. The darling of most Brexiteers, and the man that they wished to see Prime Minister, a man who has devoted his life to immitating his hero Churchill is Boris Johnson. There are those who do indeed see him as a modern Churchill, however he is lacking Churchills’ positive traits, those that made him the Churchill that is known to history. Brexiteers would have been better off promoting the Maddame Tussauds wax model of Churchill as PM, rather than the charismatic but woefully incompetent class clown that has snatched the mantle.

Many Brexiteers seem to still be fighting the Second World War, but a version that caters to their understanding of the conflict. They often invoke Churchill however when Churchill spoke of the need to defeat Germany, it was clear of which Germans he spoke of. He was always clear in stressing that it was a fight against an ideology, a twisted form of nationalism that believed in its own supremacy and the need to subjugate others to satisfy its own needs. Many Brexiteers seem to have drawn the wrong conclusions from the Second World War, it wasn’t a war fought by a dogged Island nation to liberate Europe from another, it was a war fought by a coalition of nations against an ideology that sought to dominate its own citizens as well as other nations. If the Brexiteers should learn anything from the Second World War it is that a divided Europe is weak and cannot stand against those who seek to undermine its values and that a misunderstanding of your nations history and position in the world can often have dire consequences.

In my next post I want to look at the role that Putin has had in promoting Euroscepticism and where his interests lie. I hope to see you there!


The Second World War (Antony Beevor)

Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, from 1453 to the Present (Brendan Simms)

Picture credit:


Be sure to leave your thoughts and comments down below.


17 thoughts on “Brexit: a historical misunderstanding

  1. Ciara NíLionsigh

    This is a really interesting post – i’ve been watching and reading about Brexit from Ireland. It’s great to see it written about in a historical context too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Richard

      Thank you😊 I have found it so frustrating as to how history has been used inappropriately to defend certain positions. If you are going to use history to defend a position I feel it’s important to understand the history first.


  2. Thank you so much for breaking this down, I’m useless with politics! But it’s good to understand what’s going on a bit better, all I know is that we (Northern Ireland and Ireland) are their biggest challenge right now. We don’t really understand what we’re at, despite anyone else.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Richard

      Thank you for your comment!😊 This whole process has just been a huge mess, not helped by the English ignorance of what occurred during the struggles and the importance of a frictionless border. I don’t think that we have heard enough from the people of Northern Ireland.


  3. I’ve been following Brexit from over here in the U.S. and through talking to family, and I have to say that you’ve explained a nuanced trait of many British people really well when it comes to WW2, etc. In America we are being divided, and are very much weaker for it (and weakened and by it). This is then being used to keep what built this country (White supremacy) alive and powerful.
    Great post — you’ve given me much to think about!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Richard

      Thank you for your comment!😊 This whole process has just been a huge mess, not helped by the English ignorance of what occurred during the struggles and the importance of a frictionless border. I don’t think that we have heard enough from the people of Northern Ireland.


  4. Richard

    Thank you for your comment😊 I think that nationalism seems to be on the rise across Europe, but the strain of nationalism that we are seeing in America is particularly disturbing. While in Europe the nationalist movements aren’t founded on a sense of ethnicity (as a larger movement at least) in America there seems to be an increasing call amongst these groups for an ethno state. It is certainly concerning and requires courage and determination by the public and politicians to stand against it.


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