Britain remained globalised and this was crucial to its successby Duncan Weldon / September 4, 2019 / Leave a comment
Analogies between Brexit and the Second World War appear to be in vogue. References to Britons “surviving the blitz” and so “being able to get through a no-deal exit” are by now a staple trope of TV vox pops. In recent weeks a fair few commentators have argued that “a country which stood alone against the Nazis after Dunkirk” can surely handle some customs delays in the aftermath of a sudden Halloween Brexit.
Much of this talk is simple nonsense, some of it though is potentially damaging nonsense. And most of it appears to be based more on post-war myths and half remembered Sunday afternoon viewings of black and white films than on actual history.
There’s a reason that May and June 1940 crop up so much in our political discourse: they provide perhaps the founding myth of modern British history. Churchill’s assumption of power at the head of coalition government, Britain “standing alone” against a Nazi-dominated continent and the decision to fight on against German aggression. Low’s cartoon of the defiant British Tommy raising his fist to the sea and saying “very well, alone” is perhaps the canonical image.
But Britain never stood alone. The war was fought by the British Empire not by the United Kingdom. Indeed Churchill’s language at the time was almost always imperial. The notion that the British Isles stood alone in 1940 would have confused contemporary observers. And allied to that Empire in mid-1940 were many of the governments in exile (and their colonies and fleets) of western Europe.
The confusion though runs deeper. In the post-war years the story of the war and how it was fought has become more nationalistic. In reality Britain’s war, like Britain itself, was globalised.
Take, for example, the question of food. In the popular imagination, food in wartime Britain is framed around the idea of rationing and posters urging people to “dig for victory.” While rationing was implemented and domestic agriculture did step up its activities, the focus on this obscures as much as it reveals.
Only one quarter of food expenditure went on rationed food in 1940 and around one third from 1942 onwards. Staples like bread, potatoes and vegetables were never rationed—in sharp contrast to the continental experience.
As for domestic food production, yes it stepped up but Britain remained reliant…