A man paddles his canoe down the flooded main A361 road as it enters the village of East Lyng, 13 February 2014. Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The storm factory: climate change and the winter floods

In Somerset, the novelty of canoes has long since worn off.

I reached Burrow Mump two hours after the soldiers. Major Al Robinson and Sergeant Leigh Robinson of 24 Commando Engineer Regiment were the first representatives of the military sent to the Somerset Levels, and, having climbed the granite-topped outcrop that stands above the village of Burrowbridge and surveyed the expanse of water below on the morning of 30 January, they came to the conclusion that there was nothing they could do to help.

Burrow Mump, like its better-known counterpart Glastonbury Tor, is a rare high spot in the low-lying basins of moorland known as the Somerset Levels: Burrow Mump stands in the western half, between the Quantock and Polden Hills, and Glastonbury Tor overlooks its eastern reaches, which are known to those of a certain disposition as “the Vale of Avalon”. Neither would seem particularly imposing anywhere – it takes no longer to scramble up the muddy slopes of Burrow Mump than it does to climb Primrose Hill in north London – but in the flat, sparsely inhabited lands of the Levels, they have acquired a quasi-mystical significance: both are topped by ruined chapels, and both draw visits from sight­seers and pilgrims of all kinds, including an increasing numbers of tourists drawn to the Levels by reports of an inundation routinely described as biblical in scale.

The sheet of water that lapped at the edge of the car park and rose halfway up the trunks of trees on the lower slopes of Burrow Mump was broken here and there by trees and gateposts – the dots and dashes of a visual Morse code indicating the outlines of the fields below. To the east, it was enclosed by the Polden Hills and to the west it stretched far beyond Burrowbridge. The only dry land to the south was the dark green verges of the embankment that hems in the conjoined waters of the Rivers Parrett and Tone, carrying them towards the town: as most of the moors lie below sea level, the waterways have been built higher than the surrounding land to allow them to drain.

The diversion of the Tone was the first significant step in the unending task of draining the Levels. It used to run further west, between the village of East Lyng and the “island” of Athelney, to which King Alfred retreated before defeating the Danish invaders at the Battle of Edington in 878, but in the 14th century it was diverted into a man-made channel that joins the Parrett just north of Burrowbridge.

When I had walked across the bridge in the middle of the village half an hour earlier, the water was barely passing beneath the arches, and an improvised wall of sandbags and tarpaulin built along the east bank was protecting the houses that are separated from the river by only a narrow road. One of the homeowners, who was leaning on the gate, said that his house was always damp but didn’t often flood: paradoxically, the houses closest to the river are less vulnerable than most. The situation on the west side of the village, where the flood water had gathered, was worse: two of the three roads that diverged from the road across the bridge were closed and there were emergency crews working in the yard of a house in an attempt to save it from the encroaching lake.

The Parrett, which rises in Dorset, drains an area of 660 square miles, or about half of Somerset’s land area, and last month, according to the Environment Agency, it received the highest January rainfall on record – twice the normal average for this time of year. Yet the locals believed there was a simple solution to the crisis, as the banner slung across the bridge made plain: “Stop the Flooding – Dredge the Rivers!” They claim the Parrett is operating at less than full capacity because the Environment Agency has allowed it to silt up; they say it used to be dredged regularly and was wider and deeper, so that it flowed more freely even when swelled by winter rains.

The current orthodoxy maintains that “canalising” rivers and encouraging them to flow faster and straighter, as we did in the postwar years, only encourages more flooding downstream; it is considered more effective to trap water in the hills and allow rivers to braid and meander in a more natural way, but the people here do not agree. They acknowledge that the Levels have always flooded. In the winter of 1872-73, 107 square miles of land lay under water for six months, and there have been other occasions in living memory when the rivers have burst their banks. Dredging would not prevent flooding altogether, they say, but it would help: the water would not come up so high or stay up so long.

One local farmer, Julian Temperley, said that the Parrett in Bridgwater was “ten feet below its banks, while five miles upstream it was overflowing”. Temperley was particularly concerned about his 98-year-old father, who lives in Thorney House, a Georgian mansion in the village of Thorney, eight miles upstream from Burrowbridge and a mile from its celebrated neighbour Muchelney. The Anglo-Saxon suffix “ey” means “island”, and many of the villages on the Levels were built on the high ground that remained dry all year round. For the past six weeks, Muchelney has been an island again, but its houses have not flooded. Thorney’s have.

When I visited Thorney in early January, a week after the waters rose for the first time, the high street had become a lagoon and the villagers had resorted to getting about by canoe. I met two of them at the curve in the road where the water began. The kerb had become an impromptu pontoon. One of them paddled me down the high street, past the empty, flooded houses that were mirrored in the stream. The water was dark and cold, thickened with grass and filled with apples – the Parrett had swept through an orchard when it burst its banks. There were no lights on, but the steady hum of pumps confirmed that people had not abandoned their homes.

The pumps were a temporary measure: the householders were trying to keep the water levels down until the officials of the Environment Agency turned on its much larger pumps. Residents of the Levels like to remind visitors that many parts of London, including the “Island of Thorns” that became Westminster, would have flooded many times this winter if it wasn’t for the Thames Barrier, which has been closed 28 times. But even the title of the Environment Agency’s chairman, Lord Smith of Finsbury, strengthens the perception that it is composed of urban sophisticates with a fondness for expensive Land Rovers and no sense of the realities of rural life. They also point to a conflict in the Environment Agency’s role – does it regard rivers as waterways, or habitats? Is it helping wildlife, or people? When I walked in to the King Alfred pub, which overlooks the swollen Parrett in Burrowbridge, the drinkers gathered at the bar were complaining that the EA had found £31m for a nature reserve on the coast but couldn’t find £5m to drain the river. The same complaint has been heard in pubs and houses throughout Somerset in the past six weeks.

The situation on the Levels has become so extreme that extra EA staff have been brought in from other parts of the country. They do not seem to attract the same resentment as the management. I was walking along the edge of the Parrett with a farmer one afternoon when we met an EA worker who attempted to pre-empt the anticipated abuse by saying he lived near Alton Towers, as if no one could pick a fight with someone who claimed a tangential connection with a funfair. Further downstream, another man from the Midlands was stationed by one of the many pumps that are draining water from the moors. He said he was there only to stop people stealing diesel, and offered a conciliatory assessment of the river flowing past in the dusk. “That’s just a big drain,” he said, gesturing at the Parrett.

*

The risk of flooding from the rivers is compounded by the threat from the sea: 2,000 people were said to have drowned in the Bristol Channel floods of 1607, when the waters reached the foot of Glastonbury Tor, 14 miles inland. On 26 November 1703, the sea defences were breached in West Huntspill, near Burnham-on-Sea, close to where the Parrett enters the Bristol Channel: “… there was Four or Five small vessels drove a-shoar which remain there still, and ’tis supposed cannot be got off,” said one of the eyewitness reports that Daniel Defoe collected in The Storm, his brilliant account of the events of that night; “and in the same Parish, the Tide broke in Breast high; but all the People escap’d only one Woman, who was drowned.”

At West Huntspill the sea defences held firm this winter but in other parts of the country they were severely tested. The storm surge that travelled down the east coast of England on the night of 5-6 December generated the highest tide since the North Sea flood of 31 January 1953, in which 307 people drowned. Early-warning systems and improved defences prevented a repeat of the catastrophe, but there was still extensive damage: sections of Norfolk’s crumbling cliffs collapsed and thousands of homes were flooded. Boston and Hull were particularly badly affected.

That storm was the first of several that have pounded the coastline and, in some cases, reshaped it: natural features such as the Pom Pom Rock, a stack off Portland Bill, have been destroyed, and man-made structures such as the promenade in Aberystwyth have been damaged. In early January, the waves breached coastal defences in Chiswell, a village on Portland that stands exposed to the Atlantic, and drastically altered the contours of Chesil Beach. When the storms returned this month, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s railway line, which has carried passengers along the south coast since 1847, was severed at Dawlish in Devon, leaving Cornwall cut off from the national rail. Wave-watching suddenly became a national pastime.

*

In the meantime, a month of unprecedented rainfall has caused extensive flooding inland. Over Christmas, towns and villages in the Cotswolds, Berkshire and Kent were flooded, sometimes more than once. When I went to Yalding, near Maidstone, in early January, the people were beginning to recover from a catastrophic flood that struck the village on Christmas Day. This past week it flooded again. There has been flooding in Dorset, Essex and Lambourn Valley. Even Hertfordshire, which has been the driest county this winter, has been affected. The EA estimates that more than 5,000 properties have flooded since December and its defences have protected a further 1.3 million properties. People died, including a seven-year-old boy, apparently overcome by fumes from a pump draining flood water from his house in Chertsey, Surrey – one of many places where the Thames has burst its banks.

On Monday 10 February the EA issued 16 severe flood warnings on the River Thames. Yet the problems had begun much earlier.

One day in early January, I caught the train to Cookham in Berkshire and walked into the village that the artist Stanley Spencer depicted as a kind of Thameside Jerusalem. I was told that the causeway across the flooded moor was the only way in, but I decided to test the claim that the roads were impassable and walked out of town on the A4094. Inevitably, it was raining, and the road was deserted: the only car in sight was one that had been abandoned at the point where the flood water began.

The White Brook had burst its banks and spread out across Widbrook Common in a wide lake: its further reaches were very still but the knee-deep water was flowing fast across a stretch of the road, 100 metres wide, which had become a kind of weir. Halfway across, I met a teenage boy cycling home from school: he was soaked to the waist, his schoolbag a dripping sack, and his back wheel kept slipping sideways in the current yet he kept going. The British have always had a defiant attitude towards our unpredictable weather, and some of us, at least, are still determined to confront it.

Yet accommodations will have to be made, because we are witnessing record-breaking weather. Last month the Radcliffe Meteorological Station at Oxford University, which began monitoring daily weather in 1767, recorded a total rainfall that was three times the average for January – it recorded 146.9 millimetres of rain, beating the previous record of 138.7 millimetres set in 1852. This was also the wettest winter month on record, beating December 1914, when 143.3 millimetres fell. The south and the Midlands suffered their wettest January since Met Office records began in 1910.

The immediate causes of the turbulent winter are hard to establish, but the Met Office’s chief scientist says that “all the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change”. Speaking at the launch of a report on the storms, Dame Julia Slingo said: “There is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly rain events.”

More than 130 severe flood warnings – indicating a threat to life – have been issued since December. Only 12 were issued in 2012. The Met Office report links the extreme conditions in Europe and North America this winter to “perturbations” in the North Atlantic and Pacific jet streams, caused in part by changing weather patterns in south-east Asia. Recently, meteorologists have said there is a “storm factory” over the Atlantic, caused by cold polar air meeting warm tropical air, and they are considering whether the melting of the Arctic ice cap has made the jet stream track further south, channelling more storms across the UK.

The Met Office report also says the sea level along the English Channel has risen by about 12 centimetres in the past hundred years, and that a rise of between 11 centimetres and 16 centimetres “is likely by 2030”, given “the warming we are already committed to”. Most experts acknowledge that we will not be able to defend areas such as the Levels indefinitely: more resources will be expended on defending low-lying cities such as Hull, but in other places a policy of managed retreat is already being put into practice. Medmerry in West Sussex is one example: the Environment Agency has cut a gap in the sea wall and allowed farmland to revert to salt marsh, where the winter floods wasted their destructive force.

Yet there are costs to choosing such “soft defences” over sea walls and other solid structures that brace the UK’s 17,381 kilometres of coastline. According to the National Farmers Union, 58 per cent of England’s most productive farmland lies within a floodplain, so surrendering land to water presents a threat to food production. Lord Smith has said the Environment Agency has to make a choice between protecting “front rooms or farmland” and the Commons select committee on the environment has warned that we may have strayed too far in one direction: as most of the spending on flood defences is allocated to urban areas, a high proportion of the most valuable agricultural land is at risk. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs also estimates that 35,000 hectares of high-quality horticultural and arable land will be flooded at least once every three years by the 2020s.

On the Somerset Levels, the novelty of paddling around in canoes has long since worn off, and the long process of cleaning up has not even begun. The government says it is pumping off 2.9 million tonnes of water a day, but in some places the situation is getting worse. In the first week of February, heavy rainfall hit the Levels again and the emergency services finally found a use for the soldiers who had surveyed the drowned landscape from Burrow Mump. On the night of 6 February water levels rose in the village of Moorland, two miles north of Burrowbridge on the west bank of the Parrett, and the marines of 40 Commando were sent in to evacuate the residents.

David Cameron arrived on the Somerset Levels the next day – no doubt he appreciated the photographs of the marines at work and the muscular urgency they conveyed. He gave in to the local people’s most insistent demand, saying that dredging would begin as soon as possible, and reinforcing the view that the remote, incompetent bureaucrats of the Environment Agency were to blame for the crisis on the Levels. The political name-calling had begun, as the storm factory over the North Atlantic prepared to send another bout of the winter’s unprecedented weather our way.

Edward Platt is a contributing writer for the New Statesman

ANDRÉ CARRILHO
Show Hide image

The Great Huckster: Boris Johnson’s reckless distortions of history

As a scholar of Churchill, Boris Johnson could have articulated a constructive vision for Britain and Europe. Instead, he wilfully manipulates and distorts the historical record.

This month, 76 years ago, the defeated British Expeditionary Force was making for the Channel ports. Thanks to the ferocious resistance put up by the garrison at Calais, and Hitler’s hesitation, the bulk of the men were safely taken off the beaches at Dunkirk to fight another day. Whatever their private feelings during those terrible hours may have been, most of them knew even then that they would return to Europe to finish the job.

Their forefathers had been intervening in Europe for as long as anyone could remember. From Shakespeare’s Henry V through to Elizabeth’s support for the Dutch revolt, the Second Hundred Years War against Louis XIV, the French Revolution and Napoleon, and the First World War, London had always been profoundly invested in the continent. Defending the “liberties of Europe” and thus British freedoms was what Englishmen and Britons did. It was part of what they were.

In early June 1944 – on D-Day – the British, Americans and Canadians hurled themselves into northern France as their ancestors had done since the late Middle Ages. At least one British officer tried to inspire his men that morning as the landing craft approached the strongly defended beaches by reading out Henry V’s speech before Harfleur, in which Shakespeare has him exhort the men, “once more unto the breach”. The film version of the play was released that same year, dedicated to the “commando and airborne troops of Great Britain”. In the popular mind, these Englishmen and their North American descendants were part of the continuity of a European story that went back to the medieval English empire in France.

Some of those liberating Europe thought that they could not simply return to “business as usual” after the war. One of them was the later Conservative prime minister Ted Heath, the man who took Britain into the European Economic Community in 1973. He first defended Liverpool as an anti-aircraft gunner and then took the fight to Hitler as an artillery man during the campaign in north-west Europe. Over the course of the next 11 months, Heath and his comrades fought their way across the traditional battlefields of northern France and the Low Countries, including the Walcheren swamps in which their ancestors had been mired in Napoleonic times; and through western Germany into the centre of the Reich. They were to stay there, at the heart of Europe, for some 60 years. They created a stable European order, based on Nato and what was to become the European Union, which remains with us to this day.

Now the Brexit stalwart Boris Johnson, my fellow historian, claims that it was all in vain. “The European Union,” he says, “is an attempt to do what Hitler wanted by different methods.” Worse still, the EU is a German plot, whose currency, the euro, was “intended by the Germans” to “destroy” Italian manufacturing and generally grind the faces of its unfortunate members. Johnson has also invoked the spirit of Churchill in support of his arguments. He has since doubled down on his remarks and has received support from other members of the Brexit camp, such as Iain Duncan Smith, though not apparently from more informed figures such as Michael Gove. Unfortunately, Johnson’s claims are as historically wrong as it is possible to be, comparable in their crassness only to his predecessor as London mayor Ken Livingstone’s suggestion that Hitler supported Zionism.

Far from supporting European political unity, Hitler was violently and explicitly opposed to the idea. This was partly because it was proposed by his opponents on the “left” of the Nazi Party, such as the Strasser brothers. They belonged to the “anti-imperialist” wing of the Nazi Party, which wanted a pan-European front against the Jews and the British empire. Hitler’s hostility to the European project was also in part due to a racial antipathy to the half-Japanese Richard, Count Coudenhove-Kalergi, the author of the widely discussed book Pan-Europa (1923). One way or the other, Hitler condemned the Pan-Europa movement as “a fantastical, historically impossible childishness”, which would be no more than a “Jewish protectorate”.

Nor did he hold back with his alternative view of what the continent should look like. “The solution,” he wrote, “cannot be Pan-Europa, but rather a Europe of free and independent national states, whose spheres of interest are separate and clearly delineated.” Comparisons involving Hitler are usually odious but if one is going to draw parallels, his view of European integration then was much closer to that of the Brexiters today than that of the advocates of the European Union.

Moreover, the European project did not originate in the Nazis’ attempt to mobilise the continent on their behalf but rather in the resistance movement against Hitler. Take Sicco Mansholt, who hid Dutch resisters on his farm during the war, at great personal risk. He subsequently became the Dutch minister for agriculture and one of the fathers of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Take Altiero Spinelli, the Italian anti-fascist who spent ten years in Mussolini’s prisons. It was there, in June 1941, at the height of Hitler’s power, that he secretly wrote his draft manifesto For a Free and United Europe.

Take Paul-Henri Spaak, later prime minister of Belgium, first president of the Common Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community – the forerunner of the EU – and secretary-general of Nato. He was forced to make a daring escape from wartime Europe in the false bottom of a lorry in order to carry on the struggle against Hitler in exile. Indeed, across Europe there were thousands of men and women who fought, died, were imprisoned or tortured because they believed in a free and united Europe. To suggest that they were trying to achieve the same thing as Hitler by different methods is an outrageous slur on their memory. If Johnson ever makes it to the top of the Conservative Party, and thence to No 10, he will have a lot of explaining and apologising to do in Europe.

***

As if all this were not bad enough, Boris Johnson’s invocation of Churchill flies in the face of everything we know of the great man’s attitude to the European project. To be sure, he began as a Eurosceptic. When army reforms were proposed in 1901 to support the creation of a substantial land force on the continent, the young Winston Churchill was one of the few MPs to oppose them on the grounds that the navy, rather than the army, was of crucial importance to British security. Writing in the Morning Post, Churchill argued that “history” and “geography” showed that the British empire was “essentially commercial and marine”, and had been defended by armies of foreigners.

As the German threat loomed large, however, he changed his mind. Churchill, then first lord of the admiralty, told the Australians and New Zealanders in April 1913 that Europe was “where the weather came from”. It was the terrible storm of the First World War that caused Churchill not only to believe in the centrality of Europe but in the need for European – or at least continental European – unity.

In May 1930, the president of the Pan-Europa Union, the former French prime minister Aristide Briand, made a formal proposal for a “European federal union” based on a “European conference” with an executive to co-ordinate economic and military co-operation. The British government of the time rejected the surrender of sovereignty involved but many were sympathetic to the idea of continental European union under liberal auspices. The arch-imperialist Leo Amery, secretary of state for the colonies and later a powerful critic of appeasement, was a strong admirer of Coudenhove and his projects, which he regarded as the extension of Anglo-Saxon principles to the continent.

Likewise, Churchill, then chancellor of the Exchequer, told parliament in June 1925 that he hoped that one could “weave Gaul and Teuton so closely together economically, socially and morally as to prevent the occasion of new quarrels and make old antagonisms die in the realisation of mutual prosperity and interdependence”. Then, he continued, “Europe could rise again”. Churchill did not believe, however, that Britain should be part of any continental political union. “We are with Europe, but not of it,” he wrote in 1930. “We are linked but not compromised. We are interested and associated but not absorbed.”

In mid-June 1940, however, as western Europe buckled under the Nazi onslaught, Churchill went a step further. He made an unsuccessful offer of union with France – involving joint citizenship and a common government – designed to lock the French into the war effort against Germany or, failing that, to secure their fleet. The Nazi threat was so existential, in other words, that it justified the surrender, or at least the pooling, of British sovereignty.

When the threat of invasion passed, Churchill returned to the theme of continental European integration. In October 1942, he “look[ed] forward to a United States of Europe in which barriers between the nations will be greatly minimised. He “hope[d] to see the economy of Europe studied as a whole”, and the establishment of a council of “ten units, including the former Great Powers [and thus presumably Britain], with several confederations – Scandinavian, Danubian, Balkan, etc, which would possess an international police and be charged with keeping Prussia disarmed”.

Churchill returned to the subject immediately after the war, as the Soviet threat menaced Europe. In a speech at Zurich University in September 1946, he urged the continent to “unite”, with Britain supporting the project from the outside. Once again, including the Germans was central to his conception. Churchill urged no less than the full political union of the continent in a “kind of United States of Europe” under the “principles embodied in the Atlantic Charter”. He again praised the work of Hitler’s bugbear, Count Coudenhove-Kalergi’s “Pan-European Union”.

Churchill demanded an “act of faith”, beginning with “a partnership between France and Germany”, assembling around them the states of Europe “who will and . . . can” join such a union. Its purpose was clear, namely “to make the material strength of a single state less important. Small nations will count as much as large ones and gain their honour by their contribution to the common cause.”

Moreover, Churchill argued, “The ancient states and principalities of Germany, freely joined together for mutual convenience in a federal system, might each take their individual place among the United States of Europe.” In short, the new polity was designed to solve not merely the European question but the German problem, the two being one and the same. Once again, Churchill conceived of this United States of Europe alongside but not including the United Kingdom and the British “Commonwealth of Nations”, that is, the empire. Instead, he believed that Britain should be one of the “sponsors of the new Europe”.

Churchill’s attitude to continental European union was, unlike Hitler’s, highly positive. For Johnson to suggest, therefore, that he is donning the mantle of Churchill to prevent the current European Union from achieving Hitler’s aims through other means is a complete travesty of the historical truth.

Far from being intended to promote German power, the European Union was designed to contain it, or at least to channel it in the right direction. Contrary to what Johnson suggests, the euro was not planned by Germany to subjugate Italian industry or any other European economy. It was insisted on by the French to decommission the deutschmark, which they described as Germany’s “nuclear weapon”. Likewise, the Germans are not incarcerating the Greeks in their European prison: Greeks are desperate not to be released back into the “freedom” of the drachma and the corrupt national politics that they joined “Europe” to escape. If there is one thing worse than being dominated by Germany in the European Union, evidently, it is not being in the EU at all.

Boris Johnson may not have known the details of Hitler’s attitude to European integration, or the European sympathies of many resisters, but he is very well informed about Churchill and Europe. His ignorance is thus not just a matter of making mistakes; we all make those as historians. Nor is it simply a matter of these mistakes being, like bank errors, in favour of one’s own argument. To say that Johnson knows better is not a figure of speech: he has shown in print that he does. His recent book, The Churchill Factor, contains a very balanced account of Churchill’s position on Europe, including most of the statements listed above.

In making his arguments, Johnson is not appealing to the baser instincts of the electorate; it is far worse than that. The deeply ingrained British instinct to fight European tyranny is not base but fine. What Johnson and those who defend his rhetoric have done is to take something virtuous and pervert it. The European Union is not, as we have seen, the continuation of Hitlerism by other means and to suggest so is blatant manipulation.

The shame of it is that there is a perfectly plausible Eurosceptic argument on its own merits. It was well stated by Michael Gove at the start of the campaign. It insists on the historical distinctiveness of the United Kingdom, whose history does indeed set it apart from the rest of the continent. It makes the case for a reform of the EU. It rejects the scaremongering of “Project Fear”, on the cogent grounds that the United Kingdom has the political, economic and military weight to prevail even without the stabilisers of the EU. It scorns President Obama’s impertinent warning that Britain would have to “get to the back of the queue” for a trade deal after Brexit, with a reminder that Britain and her empire defied Nazi Germany for two years before the Americans joined the fray, when Hitler declared war on them (not vice versa). One does not have to accept every detail of this discourse to feel its force. Uniquely among the democratic European powers, the United Kingdom can “stand alone” if it must or wants to.

The Achilles heel of the Brexit campaign, however, is that it has no viable vision for continental Europe. Even Gove falls down here, as his idea of a British departure unleashing a “democratic liberation” of the continent is pure fantasy. It seems odd to have to explain this to Brexiters but Britain really is special. Casting off the bonds of Brussels will not emancipate mainland Europe but let loose the nationalist and xenophobic demons tamed by the integration project. This is clear when we look at the rise of radical anti-European parties in France, Hungary, Austria, Germany and many other parts of Europe as the European project fragments. These developments should not surprise anyone who knows the history of mainland Europe before the mid-20th century and to a considerable sense beyond.

***

 

Most of continental Europe had failed before 1945 and even now the European Union is only failing better. Unlike virtually every other European state, which has at some point or other been occupied and dismembered, often repeatedly, England and the United Kingdom have largely – with very brief exceptions – been subjects of European politics, never merely objects. In this sense, too, she is exceptional. Yet this should not be an occasion for British triumphalism. Whatever the outcome of the referendum on 23 June, the European Union is not an enemy of the United Kingdom. It should best be understood as a modern version of the old Holy Roman Empire; hapless and officious, perhaps, but not malign. It needs help. The failure of the European project and the collapse of the current continental order would be not only a catastrophic blow to the populations on the far side of the Channel but also to the United Kingdom, which would be
directly exposed to the resulting disorder, as it always has been.

In short, the Brexit camp in general and Boris Johnson in particular are missing a great opportunity in Europe. A student and partisan of Winston Churchill, the former mayor of London was qualified to articulate a constructive vision for Britain and the continent. He has failed to understand that the only safe way that Britain can exit from the European Union is not through Brexit – whose consequences for mainland Europe would be dire – but through Euroexit; that is, a Churchillian political union of the continent in close co-operation with the UK.

Instead, in addition to their distortion of the historical record, Johnson and the Brexit camp are committing the cardinal sin of making a decision before they need to. The European Union is not, sadly, a United States of Europe, even though it needs to become one to survive, and is becoming less like one every day. If and when it musters the strength for full political union, there will be plenty of time to leave. Meanwhile, the EU needs all the support that Britain can give it from within.

In 1940, the British forces had been defeated and retreat was the only option. The situation could not be more different today. This is no time to head for the beaches in what will be a legislative Dunkirk of epic proportions, with incalculable consequences not so much for Britain as for the rest of the continent. Unlike in 1940, the United Kingdom is not being forced out of Europe. It has hardly begun to fight there, unless shooting oneself in the foot through Brexit counts as combat. The battle in Britain today is a distraction from the great struggle on the mainland. There is much work to be done in Europe. It is time the British stop tearing themselves apart and return unto the breach once more.

Brendan Simms is a NS contributing writer. His latest book is “Britain’s Europe: a Thousand Years of Conflict and Co-operation” (Allen Lane). He is president of the Project for Democratic Union

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster