Waking in darkness a month ago, I crept out of the house. Boycotting the BBC, I wanted to survey the array of banners at Brixton Underground’s newsagents. I wasn’t surprised: we had been here before.
In 1984, subdued by Labour’s defeat, I spoke with Raphael Samuel about the implications of Margaret Thatcher’s second victory, after the patriotic ardour for Falklands War (which, living in Hamburg, I had missed). Raphael told me that nationalism and identity under discussion in History Workshop.(1)
The following year, I began to question my loyalty to Liverpool. Although I took pride in Liverpool’s oral and oppositional culture, it was hurtful to hear an in-law deride Toxteth – where the Black people lived. In 1989 James Walvin, slave historian, told me it was odd that the Black community had remained in the area where it had first settled near the docks over 400 years ago. My visits ‘home’ became more marked by caution. When I visited a picket on Dock Road, I was shocked to hear a docker blame immigration for the Port of Liverpool’s decline.
But was only in 2007 that things began to fall into place. Caryl Phillips had signposted (2) heads of Africans represented on the exterior of Liverpool Town Hall (3), and the city’s support of the American Confederacy – enabling them to build a navy to engage with Union forces. That year, I happened upon a decaying Georgian terrace, with plaques of Southern states. One such was Alabama House, which had served as the unofficial Confederate embassy – a massive Confederate flag still (in that bicentennial year of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act) festooning its rear courtyard.
A few years ago, a friend from ‘the Continent’, who had moved to Liverpool, told me that in 18 months she had been at the receiving end of more anti-European hostility that she’d ever encountered during 18 years in London. All this in a city that, having benefited from ‘Objective One’ EU funding, and historically hostile to ‘The Sun’ Press, has been pro-Europe in its voting pattern.
This in a city that, having benefited from ‘Objective One’ EU funding, and historically hostile to ‘The Sun’ Press, has been pro-Europe in its voting pattern.
How to make sense of this?
Last month, I happened upon a historian whose discourse analysis has helped me untangle the net that’s been cast over recent years (4). Robert Saunders pinpoints the end of the Cold War as the catalyst for the birth of modern Conservative Euroscepticism. With no threat from the Soviet Union, and Washington bound to serve as guarantor of worldwide free trade, Eurosceptics latched on to uncoupling from Europe to revive British fortunes: On our own we’ll be strong again.
Saunders teases out 5 strands:
- Within the narrative of warfare, the dominant myth of the ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ is unusual in its depiction of standing up to German might: it was a retreat. (The return to English shores of troops by all of ‘the little ships’ is a misconception.British Navy ships picked up most most men from the breakwater; from the beaches smaller civilian vessels ferried troops to the Navy’s ships that were waiting in deeper waters; a number of such vessels took troops all the way to England.)
- Rather than Brexiters fixating on ‘the good old days of Empire’, it is Remainers who have ascribed that notion to them. Instead, Brexitism is silent on the British Empire. Much more exciting is the Elizabethan Age.
- Imagery has shifted from the imperial lion to the British Bulldog and onto ‘the little man’. Saunders suggests that in voting for Brexit voters could feel empowered, glorifying in the island’s smallness.
- Brexiters’ ideal scenario would be to excise from our island history our messy imperial past. Omitted from the national narrative is the contribution of Commonwealth servicemen and women to British military success in two World Wars.
- Only recently have right-wing Eurosceptics rallied against an ‘evil’ European empire. In the Sixties and Seventies, it was leading Labour Party politicians on the Left, such as Tony Benn, who campaigned against the loss of national sovereignty (6). (And in my father’s case, voted against a blocking of international workers’ solidarity.)
At the other end of the europhobe spectrum, Enoch Powell is increasingly cited as the driving force behind Euroscepticism. Saunders cites his historical revisionism: “…the greatest task of the statesman is to offer his people good myths and to save them from harmful myths…” (7)
In tandem with Saunders, Ferdinand Mount (8) locates Powell within debates on Europe, starting with Powell’s speech in Birmingham in 1968 (on 20 April, Hitler’s birthday, incidentally). His arguments were: “a calculated combination of the commonplace, the untrue and the toxic.” Then, in 1974, Powell urged the electorate to vote Labour – to get a referendum.
“It was Powell…who fully articulated the four separate obsessions that melded to inspire the Brexit movement: loathing of mass immigration, revulsion against the EU, dislike of devolution in any part of the UK, and disdain for human rights”.
As an ‘Anonymous Westminster Insider’ observed recently:“It’s only when considering Brexit as an assertion of identity that its true nature, and the gravity of the threat it poses, becomes clear. Framing the debate solely around ideas of financial value not only misses the point, but dangerously underplays the magnitude of the deep psychological and cultural divisions that have been exposed.”(9)
Moreover, in the rewriting of history, Brexitism overlooks the past contribution of migrants to these shores.
It looked inevitable that, absent a united Opposition with a compelling counter-narrative, Brexitist argument would, in its seductive simplicity, win any forthcoming General Election. From where I was sitting, it seemed that history was about to repeat itself: catchy slogans, repeated in mantra-fashion, would resonate deeply with those for whom “Europe” was a proxy for other ills (10).
Rewriting history morphed into reliving it when I visited Hamburg last September. Watching live reactions to the Supreme Court’s ruling that the prorogation of Parliament was unlawful, my host – although agog at the BBC interviewer’s preferencing of male commentators – turned up the volume. While she watched the entire proceedings, a sick headache forced me to abort my TV goggling – “This is a dead Parliament” resounding throughout the apartment.
Such clear messaging would appeal to the ‘floating voters’ who had voted ‘Leave’. Losses in ‘traditional Labour’ towns in England and Wales would be significant, Labour having lost Scotland in 2015.
Revisionism’s reach is wide, however – stretching to streaming. In the third series of The Crown, the portrayal of the former King Edward VIII, the Duke of Windsor, is sympathetic. This is at odds with earlier episodes, which showed archival footage of the ducal couple on their “goodwill” tour of Germany, lapping up Nazism, sidling up to Hitler. The episode, “Vergangenheit” focused on the ‘Marburg files.’
None of this was a surprise to me: when I was 10 my father had given me a heads-up. He said that had Edward VIII remained King things could have turned out differently– with his Nazi sympathies, he might have capitulated to Hitler. According to a review of the second series of The Crown, the Duke blamed British involvement on “Roosevelt and the Jews”. (11)
In my teens, my father told me that in researching his course on Fascism he had nightmares about the Gestapo’s hunting of Jews. I like to think that my father would have joined me in walking out of my maternal aunt’s eightieth birthday party in Liverpool – in response to the ‘entertainer’s’ anti-Semitic ‘joke’. Last year, one of my in-laws told me he was thrilled that at last the Labour Party had a strongly Marxist manifesto. I had to remind myself that this man had laughed at that ‘joke’.
Against the backdrop of ongoing demands for Irish and Scottish self-determination, debate as to what it means to be British/English/Liverpudlian is apposite. But the Left must neither hark back to Orwell (whose oft-cited essay I now read as an expression of ‘Blitz spirit’ (12)); nor must it ignore past abuses of patriotism, in which English nationalism – such as Powell’s, equated to national superiority over other peoples. Last week, the following in the Guardian’s letters page summed up my concern: “Patriotism cannot be progressive if it masks hostility and prejudice.” (13)
Since the referendum, regional and national allegiances have come to the fore.Cut loose from ties forged in the Industrial Age through trades unions – to ‘agitate, organise, educate’ – a sense of kinship with the Labour Movement has atrophied. In these febrile post-industrial times, things have come unstuck. Adrift without either a cohering infrastructure, or social ‘glue’ to bring them together, folk feel free to express hostile attitudes.
Shortly before his death, in 1983, my father had said that the way forward lay neither in the organised Left nor in the Labour Movement, but in grass-roots oppositional campaigns and feminist struggles. To build counter-hegemonic practice, one must chip away at ready-made tropes and simple monoliths. In her trenchant analysis, Katrina Forrester signals the need for a recharting of political waters. (14)
(1) See: Grand Narratives: http://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/history-workshop-journal-virtual-special-issue-raphael-samuel/
(3) Described by English Heritage: “Between capitals of pilasters are panels carved in high relief, with exotic emblems of Liverpool’s mercantile trade, such as African and Indian heads, an elephant, a crocodile and a camel.”
(10) See: In My Father’s Footsteps, Mike Carter, his FT article, and https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jan/28/all-together-now-one-mans-walk-search-of-father-lost-england-mike-carter-review?CMP=share_btn_link; and Aditya Chakraborty’s https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/14/labour-meltdown-decades-govern-votes?CMP=share_btn_link
(12) See:The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Geniushttps://www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/essays-and-other-works/the-lion-and-the-unicorn-socialism-and-the-english-genius/ (On my thirteenth birthday my father gave me his set of Orwell’s Collected Essays, Journalism & Letters. )
(13) Letter to the Guardian, 2.2.20