Several pro-Brexit figures have made some spurious historical claims lately.
Jonathan Swift once wrote that “falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it”. This has certainly proven true regarding the many well-documented lies and falsehoods that spread during the run-up to the EU referendum. Sadly, the unabashed willingness to spread untruths has not abated, more than two years on. And the most recent trend seems to be to express opinions about Brexit by distorting the memory of World War II.
Most recently, Daniel Kawczynski, the Conservative MP for Shrewsbury, took to Twitter to berate the EU for not being grateful to Britain for its war efforts. “Britain helped to liberate half of Europe,” Kawczynski wrote. “She mortgaged herself up to eye balls in process. No Marshall Plan for us only for Germany. We gave up war reparations in 1990. We put £370 billion into EU since we joined. Watch the way ungrateful EU treats us now. We will remember.”
This, of course, is a shocking distortion of the facts. Britain received aid from the Marshall Plan and indeed was the largest single recipient. Britain received around a quarter of the US$12.7 billion aid, the vast majority in the form of grants. France received the next largest amount of aid, at around US$2.3 billion. By contrast, West Germany was provided with US$1.5 billion, significantly less than Britain. Aid was also distributed to a wide variety of other Western countries, not least Italy and the Netherlands, both of which saw substantial packages – not merely Germany.
It’s true that Britain has indeed paid a gross contribution of £370 billion into the EU between 1973 and 2017. However, this figure, like Boris Johnson’s infamous red bus ignores the rebate, refunds and public sector receipts. Once these are factored in, Britain’s net contribution amounts to a significantly lower £150 billion.
When asked about the content of his tweet during a phone-in radio interview, Kawczynski continued to stand by his words and promptly hung up when challenged by the interviewer.
Quite amazingly, despite having had the facts explained to him by thousands of other Twitter users, Kawczynski has (at the time of writing) continued to leave his wholly inaccurate tweet undeleted and without correction or qualification. Indeed, he has chosen to stand by his comment, saying: “There are many people in this country who want to whitewash the sacrifice that Britain has made over generations for Europe.” So far, his tweet has received over 8,000 likes and has been retweeted over 3,100 times.
There are two problems with such politicians spreading false history. First, it harms public understanding of the past, and, second, misleading narratives, such as that presented by Kawczynski, set Britain up to fail. Bringing up war in this fashion is to play on the faith that, because “we” beat the Germans back then, Britain will, today, easily brush off any hardship created by crashing out of the EU. The basic logic is that the British endured hardship then, yet overcame it through collective national struggle. Yet this plainly does not follow. The situation today is wholly different. Britain is not facing the existential threat posed by war, instead it is attempting to leave the European Union – an initiative composed of its closest friends and trading partners, a major goal of which is to prevent wars.
Meanwhile, one might reasonably ask who the “we” is? Very few members of the generation that fought in and endured the war survive today. Of course, some pro-Brexit MPs are keen to make this point, but instead draw upon the memory of veterans they contend would have shared their hostile view of the EU. For instance, Mark Francois, MP for for Rayleigh and Wickford, described the Airbus chief, Tom Enders, of being possessed of “teutonic arrogance” after Enders issued a warning over the company’s future in the UK in the event of no deal. Francois added: “My father, Reginald Francois, was a D Day veteran. He never submitted to bullying by any German and neither will his son.”
Stiff upper lip?
The other problem is that Britain did not easily endure World War II with the stiff-upper lip and unity that seems so romantic to Brexiteers.
In fact, the war brought out some of the worst behaviour society had to offer. Thousands of refugees from Europe, including Jewish refugees who had fled persecution by the Nazis, were interned. Even the famous and jolly “Careless Talk Costs Lives” posters by the punch artist Fougasse, held at their core a message that encouraged paranoia and fear. Meanwhile, bombed homes were the targets of looters and it was announced in the House of Commons that there were 4,927 prosecutions for looting between July 1940 and the end of 1943. Even more disturbingly, the blackout brought with it a marked increase in the number of sexual assaults committed in Britain; some 2,593 were recorded in 1938 as compared to 3,904 in 1945.
Also drawing false lessons from the war, former Brexit secretary, David Davis, suggested that “our civil service can cope with World War II. It can easily cope with this”. Of course, he did not think to note that despite employing nearly 380,000 full time staff in 2017 this number represents less than a third of the size of the civil service of 1945. Moreover, that civil service had also spent much time, prior to the outbreak of war, preparing. For instance, a subcommittee of the Committee of Imperial Defence had been ordered to look into the possibility of evacuating Britain’s cities as early as 1931 and major plans had been drawn up by late 1938, nearly a year before the war had begun.
Presenting the EU as an enemy, comparing it to the Axis powers of the war and comparing the UK’s departure of the EU as akin to fighting a war – as MPs are doing – is entirely misleading. It will serve only to fuel dangerous xenophobia, further poisoning the discourse around Brexit, and damage public understanding of history.🔷
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(This piece was originally published on The Conversation UK. | The author writes in a personal capacity.)