According to The Guardian, it seems that Brexiteers are permanently stranded in the 1940s. One would think that this would garner a poor Brexiteer such as myself some sympathy. Clearly, I suffer from a chronic form of age dysphoria. I’m a 90-year-old Englishman trapped in the godlike body of a 28-year-old. Actually, this is sort of true. I’m not Adonis, or Aphrodite for that matter, but I do identify with Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter. Celia Johnson is probably my perfect woman. Isabel Oakeshott does come a close second though. I am terribly confused. In my dreams, I share a fraught cup of tea with Isabel at Costa Coffee in Victoria Station. I do love you, so very much, Isabel.
It isn’t easy being one of the 52 per cent. In fact, it is a very debilitating condition. As we have seen, it brought down a nation. However, I have chosen to confront this disorder head on. For example, I have now reconciled myself to the fact that I will never be a Spitfire pilot, probably. I have gone from being exceedingly bitter about this to be being just vaguely annoyed by it. I’ve also come to recognise that the flower of English womanhood has moved on somewhat since the days when women were, for the most part, happy in the home and not reliant on copious quantities of antidepressants. Well done, feminism.
Nevertheless, I’d like to think that I am not completely mad. And I cannot help thinking that the leftist implication that Brexiteers are forever living in a wartime costume drama says much more about the Left’s own prejudices than it does about mine. So, this brings me to the curious reaction of the Left to Christopher Nolan’s recently released epic Dunkirk. Much has already been written about the film itself. It is a visceral masterpiece, for sure. That being said, I’d like to cast an eye over the subsequent, entirely manufactured, controversies surrounding the film, as well as the commentaries, which so perfectly sum up the Left right now.
Zoe Williams, writing in The Guardian, argues that Dunkirk recalls ‘the immediate legacy of war: that self-reliance is revealed as not just a myth but a peculiarly unattractive one, thin and tasteless against the richness of fellowship’.
There is nothing axiomatically superior and delightful about what Williams terms ‘the richness of fellowship’ – she means EU membership, of course. Now it is, I admit, true that France was our ally in 1940. It is also a matter of fact, however, that the murderous Soviet Union was also Britain’s partner later on in the war. Evelyn Waugh’s magnificent Sword of Honour trilogy recalls how, in 1941, the ‘country was led blundering into dishonour’. Although an alliance with Stalin was certainly practical, and indeed wholly necessary, it was by no means righteous or ‘attractive’. And it is also worth remembering that the Soviet army at Stalingrad defeated a multinational army of Germans, Italians, Romanians, and Bulgarians. We should not forget either that the Greeks famously thwarted a multicultural navy of Persian serfs at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC. Unions do sometimes find themselves on the wrong side of the moral divide.
It should also be noted that the notion that the abolition of borders invariably leads to peace simply does not stand up to historical reality. The British would never have been in France in 1940 had the German peoples not been brought into communion with the larger entity of a unified Germany in the nineteenth century. This is not to say that ‘fellowship’ is innately wicked. Rather, we should assess every unity – past, present and proposed – on its own merits, independent of the sentimental conception, emotionally and intellectually lazy, which views unions of any sort as fundamentally good and desirable. This is simply not true.
Also evident in much of the leftist commentary on Dunkirk was an inherent meanness, cynicism and lack of charity. I am not talking about the ire directed towards Nigel Farage, which is to be expected. Instead, there was also a considerable pooh-poohing of the myth of Dunkirk as it has generally been conceived since the event. Accordingly, The Guardian columnist Rafael Behr compares Dunkirk with the ‘humiliation’ – felt by the common Brexiteer, prior to 2016 – of seeing Britain as part of the EU, claiming that Brexit was ‘born of a neurotic urge to expiate an imaginary guilt: the sin of having been obliged to join the enterprise in the first place’. In actual fact, Behr comes closest in recognising the connection between Europe and the idea of national disgrace. However, he makes the mistake of attributing that humiliation to Britain.
Britain’s tenuous relationship with the EU has, it may be reasonably argued, been a result of it being the only major European nation not to be humiliated in the Second World War. It goes without saying that Germany and Italy were morally compromised by the war. Britain, on the other hand, survived it, even though it was an industrial wreck. Then there was France, which did not survive, rhetorically at least, the shame of occupation and Vichy. Behr is, of course, right when he writes that ‘humiliation corrodes the soul of nations’. Ironically, he is incapable of extending that logic beyond the shores of Britain itself. Moreover, when he appears to disparage such ‘collective pride’ in 1940, which has made ‘all the ensuing hours feel a bit drab’, might it simply be the case that what he is really lamenting here is that it is exactly this ‘moral authority’ that made Brexit possible?
A nation is an idea, not merely a GDP and area of economic organisation. In other words, Britain is also a matter of spiritual loyalty. We know this instinctively. Is Britain simply a postcode – Airstrip One, essentially – or is it a romance? Although the theme of immigration was obviously a major issue in 2016, Brexit was also a matter of these two competing loyalties. In this sense, 2016 was really a re-run of 1914, when the workers elected to fight for their own respective nations rather than for equality and a classless society. One wonders whether the intellectuals ever really forgave them for that supposed betrayal of Marx. It seems that they might not forgive them for 2016 either.
The Left knows intuitively that the myth of the nation stands in the way of their own, decidedly material, drive toward paradise. This goes some way to explaining their reaction to Dunkirk. It made uncomfortable viewing, since it appeared to affirm the idea of British national identity. As Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist, was forced to conclude in 1916: ‘man is above all else mind, consciousness… That is, he is a product of history, not of nature. There is no other way of explaining why socialism has not come into existence already.’
The leftist desire to torpedo such pride may, in some sense, account for Sunny Singh’s article, also featured in The Guardian, condemning Nolan’s film as a ‘thinly veiled Brexiteer fantasy’, chillingly – yes, ‘chillingly’ – designed to ‘expunge’ non-whites from the history of Dunkirk. Singh’s piece has been one of a number of articles accusing the film of attempting to ‘whitewash’ the past. Firstly, this is quite an accusation. Personally, I do not believe that Nolan had hatred in his heart when it came to the casting process. Indeed, I think it highly probable that he was so racially colour-blind that it simply did not cross his mind. Secondly, does this unfounded indictment of Nolan not in fact reflect rather badly on Singh herself?
Singh asks ‘why is it psychologically necessary that the heroic British troops be rescued only by white sailors?’ I could quite as easily ask Singh why it is ‘psychologically necessary’ that they should be non-white? The simple fact of the matter is that the vast majority of the British Expeditionary Force was made up of white soldiers. The French army was also predominately white. Nolan cannot be expected to attend to every single detail in history.
I would certainly like to see a film that focused on the contribution of Commonwealth troops to the war effort. I like such stories. Such productions are also a modest form of recompense for the sacrifice of those who gave their lives to preserve our freedoms. And although Singh appears to come perilously close to suggesting that the British Empire might not have been an entirely bad thing for the world, I suggest that she make efforts of her own to bring such a project to fruition. However, I can foresee what the Left would then say of that film.
It seems to me that Singh’s article is itself a repudiation her own multicultural ideal. Accusing Nolan of whitewashing the past only serves to make society even more self-conscious and uptight about issues of race, religion and culture. There is, indeed, a significant proportion of social, cultural and political commentators, well-represented at The Guardian, whose primary purpose is to seek out and destroy an essentially imaginary caucus of bigots. In other words, those such as Singh are in the business of manufacturing resentment and a culture of fear, otherwise known as political correctness. This is neither prudent nor liberal. If we are to live together in contentment, the Left must stop such race baiting and give up their, seemingly absolute, fixation on race.
Nolan’s story is really about the most inclusive of minorities, which is the minority of one: the individual. In this sense, Dunkirk is truly progressive. It is the complete opposite of the collectivist impulse of the Left to group individuals into categories of race, gender and sexuality. What Nolan does, instead, is to drop the audience member right into the action. You are the main character, subject to the noise and horror of dive-bombing and sinking ships. In doing so, he also pays tribute to such individuals who soared up into the blue abyss in their gleaming flying machines, tenacious in the will and effort not to disgrace themselves at the apogee of their ordeal; not forgetting the heroism of the civilians in the little boats who also faced up to Armageddon in their own modest way.
(Image: Raphaël Chekroun)