WInston Churchill should be held accountable when Britain is thrown out of the EU. Who is to blame for dividing and impoverishing the UK? Churchill, by his followers’ own admission. Who is responsible for the border in the Irish Sea, the food shortages, the irresistible rise of Scottish nationalism, the unnecessary blows to the devastated economy of a plagued nation? No need to ask: Winston has done it again.
It is not the Churchill of history, but a Churchillian illusion that has been shaping a generation. Its falsehood will become apparent on January 1. Until then, the Tories can still pretend that their promises that Brexit would enrich us they were not false. They can still be of the opinion that once “Boris” has completed Brexit, he can move on to leveling up or tackling Covid or whatever other issue that crosses his mind half-formed. They still don’t realize that in a few weeks their words will sound as absurd as saying, “After I break my legs, I’ll run a marathon.”
Churchill has pursued the Brexit debacle like a demon. Brexit sold out to the grunts of Churchill hopefuls exploiting English exceptionalism. Churchill was alone in 1940 against a dark continent, they said, and we can do it again. Johnson knew how to exploit the national fantasy. He began his advance in Downing Street by writing a biography of Churchill. “Winston Churchill would have joined me on the battle bus,” Johnson said during the 2016 referendum campaign. Winston would have agreed with him that Brexit was the opportunity “For the British people to be the hero of Europe” by opposing the successor state to the Nazi and Napoleonic empires. In 2019, Nigel Farage opened Brexit party rallies to the sound of anti-aircraft sirens.
Today, Britain seems isolated in an indifferent world because Johnson used Churchill as an excuse to racially abuse Barack Obama. Joe Biden and the Democrats are convinced that Johnson is the British Trump because, when Obama urged the British to remain in the EU, Johnson decided that the “partly Kenyan president” was motivated by an “ancestral antipathy of the British Empire, of the which Churchill had been a fervent defender ”.
In Johnson’s sub-Birtherist conspiracy theory, Obama had revealed his inner Mau-Mau by removing a bust of Churchill from the White House. Leaving aside that Vladimir Putin and everyone else who really doesn’t like Britain welcomed Brexit, history it wasn’t even true.
Churchill’s cult of the American and British right could be redeemed if he carried forward the anti-fascism of the wartime coalition. But there is no guarantee that supporting Churchill will quarantine a politician against the heirs of fascism. Steve Bannon bragged about how he had advised Johnson on how to undermine Theresa May’s prime ministerial post. Johnson said he had met Bannon but had never “colluded” with him. Yet, according to Bannon’s account, Churchill united the far-right thug and the “dominant” conservative. “He wrote a great book on Churchill,” Bannon said. “That’s one of the things I told him.”
At this point, historians and members of the Churchill family will be screaming that Churchill’s illusion has little to do with the real Winston Churchill. Britain was not alone in 1940. It was at the head of a vast empire, capable of commanding millions of black and brown troops wiped out of history by the right. His elevation of Churchill disparages the memory of World War II as a “people’s war” and, above all, a war fought as a partner in a global alliance. The Churchill of the Blitz and the Churchill of Brexit hardly seem to express themselves.
The best books on Brexit are not only or even primarily about Brexit. Churchill’s myths, recently published by historians Steven Fielding, Bill Schwarz, and Richard Toye, shows that in frenzied nationalists, fantasy always trumps fact. As Britain’s decline accelerated, the need for Churchill grew, they write. As long as Churchill’s name is mentioned right now, you can be sure that it will be an incantation to invoke English exceptionalism.
I interviewed historian Andrew Roberts in the 1990s as he was building the cult that Johnson was going to embrace and exploit. Churchill was an ambiguous figure for reactionaries of the time. In power in the 1950s, he was too tolerant of unions and the welfare state for his liking and too willing to allow black immigration.
Roberts and later Johnson replaced the Churchill of history with a populist who put two fingers up in the treacherous conservative establishment, just as Johnson was going to turn against the “enemies of the people” in the present establishment. (If you want to see the story in the flesh, watch the imaginary scene from the movie Darkest hour, where Churchill draws strength from the support of ordinary people on the London Underground.) Johnson and Roberts made Churchill a little Englishman who faced Europe alone. They sidestep Churchill’s undoubted racism, exceptional even by the standards of the time, by saying that his belief in the racial supremacy of English-speaking peoples gave him the confidence to fight Hitler. (Apparently, it took a racist to oppose a fascist.)
Commentators who view the Brexit movement as imperial nostalgia miss the point, I think. It is an isolationist movement fueled by nostalgia for a war in which almost no one fought alive and the paranoid fear that Brussels is Hitler’s Berlin. Combined, they produce the fantasy that Britain can get back on foot and get away with it.
On January 1, the British will be Europe’s losers instead of Johnson’s heroes. The reckoning must include a complete reckoning with Johnson, Roberts, and the other Churchill charlatans, who led their country to ruin by pretending that we are exceptional when we strive to be ordinary.
If we don’t, the right wing will not apologize for its false promises. He will grunt and chew on an imaginary cigarette and say that the lost jobs and the breakdown of the country are nothing compared to the sacrifices that previous generations made in what else? – Winston Churchill’s war.
• Nick Cohen is a columnist for Observer
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.