“The existence of a nation is a matter of spiritual belief”, proclaimed Charles de Gaulle, played by the actor Laurence Fox, in Jonathan Lynn’s play The Patriotic Traitor, first performed on 17 February 2016 at the Park Theatre, London. Centred around a vital division in thought between de Gaulle and Philippe Pétain, Lynn’s play very much anticipated what was really at stake during the Brexit vote later that year: the concept of the nation as a historical faith.
“I see France as a princess in a fairy tale”, de Gaulle tells Pétain, in a scene that takes place after the war. He sees that Pétain, as leader of France, was “the trustee of a myth… from Charlemagne to Joan of Arc to Napoleon”. What Pétain had given France instead was Vichy. “You should have aimed higher.” On 23 June 2016, the United Kingdom chose to aim higher.
The English historian Christopher Dawson argued that “the essence of history is not to be found in facts but in tradition”. Our traditions matter. And what made Brexit possible, and indeed so irresistible in 2016, was that Britain was still in possession of a national tradition that had survived the war intact; a sense of pride that France had lost. A nation can endure defeat. What it cannot bear is disgrace.
Of the four major European nations to participate in the Second World War, Germany and Italy, the losers, had been reduced, both materially and morally, while France had also been compromised, most of all by Vichy. Only Britain could claim victory, in the moral sense, in 1945. Although the country was an economic wreck, it had at least weathered the storm – courtesy of the English Channel. Britain had not been occupied. Britain, as a “matter of spiritual belief”, remained constant. Indeed, the war had undoubtedly served to accentuate our island story.
1940 could quite reasonably take its place alongside 1588 and 1805; these are battle honours that belong to the nation. The integrity of the European Union, on the other hand, it might be argued, rests on a continent wholly demoralised by six years of defeat and shame, from which it has never recovered. Despite the best attempts of the French to forward an account of stubborn national resistance, de Gaulle’s vision of France did not survive the war. It could not. There was no Gallic equivalent of the Battle of Britain. De Gaulle’s claim in 1944 that Paris had been liberated by France could not ultimately expunge that reality.
I was born in 1989, but I grew up in the 1950s. As a child, I devoured such classic British war films as Angels One Five (1952) and The Cruel Sea (1953). 1955 alone saw the release of Above Us the Waves, The Colditz Story, The Cockleshell Heroes – and, of course, The Dam Busters. This was my induction into the national tradition or myth. I am also a Brexiteer. Indeed, so are many of the generation who really grew up in the 1950s. We should not underestimate the power of such films in the transmission of national identity and allegiance. It matters profoundly.
In 2016, over-65s were almost twice as likely as under-25s to vote to Leave the European Union. One reason for this may be that many under-25s had not been brought up within the national tradition. This was reflected in a survey of students, carried out by Derek Matthews, a professor of economic history at Cardiff University, some ten years ago, testing their knowledge of simple historical facts. Surprisingly, 83 per cent of those surveyed could not name the general who led the British Army at the Battle of Waterloo. Nine students even believed that it was Napoleon. Another 65 percent failed to name the ruling English monarch at the time of the Spanish Armada. These findings make sobering reading.
There is, it seems, a worrying absence of knowledge displayed by the young relating to key events in the nation’s past. This is not the case amongst over-65s. A BBC survey, for instance, discovered that only 18 per cent of young people aged 16-24 understood the significance of the Battle of the Boyne. This compared to 71 per cent of over-65s who could ascribe some historical significance to the battle. This might, to some degree, account for why so many millennials voted to Remain in the European Union. Something has happened.
It was Pétain who contended that “the destinies of a people are elaborated on the school benches and in the amphitheatre before they are played out on the battlefield”. Here he was responding to the campaign of supposed “moral disarmament” in the 1920s and 1930s, facilitated by French schoolteachers, who now taught that the resistance at Verdun in 1916, far from being heroic, was in fact a great French tragedy. For there were two competing conceptions of the vast bloodletting at Verdun. One was spiritual, finding chief expression in the Voie Sacrée, while the other was decidedly more material; for example, the ossuary at Douaumont, containing the bones of some 130,000 soldiers. In the two decades preceding the Second World War, the implication was clear. Verdun was not worth repeating. And it is certainly worth considering whether this break in national narrative ultimately proved fatal in 1940.
The role of schools in the communication of national identity to the next generation is a matter of vital importance. Both Michael Gove and the historian Niall Ferguson have, to their credit, argued for a return to some form of meaningful chronology. However, the amphitheatre is of equal importance here as well. We neglect the extent to which a film such as The Dam Busters serves to bind a nation together and grant it some measure of spiritual meaning, transcending mere material circumstance, which is fundamentally shallow and transitory, and reaching for something ‘higher’. In other words, if we are to preserve our island story, what we are in need of, most of all, are storytellers.
If we take Aeschylus’s epitaph at face value, which I think we should, the Greek playwright wished it to be known that he was, first and foremost, an Athenian who had fought the Persians at Marathon in 490 BC. In his play The Persians, he used the Battle of Salamis, which he had likely taken part in himself, to underline the essential integrity of Greece: Forward, you sons of Hellas! Set your country free! Set free your sons, your wives, tombs of your ancestors, and temples of your gods. All is at stake: now fight! There is little doubt about the foundation of Aeschylus’s patriotism. What is more, as a ‘trustee’ of the essential idea of Greece, of the polis, he was prepared to do his bit by communicating that idea through the culture itself. Where is our Aeschylus today?
In 2016, the arguments for and against Brexit were very much material in consideration, in terms of the economic motivation and the, undeniably central, issue of controlling immigration. What went mostly unspoken, however, was the matter of spiritual fidelity. This might, indeed, have been a deciding factor. We should at least recognise this as a possible influence. Brexit revealed that the European Union could not command the emotional loyalties of a public committed to a vision of Britain rooted in history and culture. While this loyalty has remained so far unyielding, it should not be taken for granted. The young, largely unschooled in history, hold no such allegiance to the national past. The battle is ongoing; and it will continue to be fought on the battleground of education and culture.