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The happiness conspiracy: against optimism and the cult of positive thinking

Pessimism gets a bad press, but compulsory positive thinking can be brutally enforced.

Illustration by John Holcroft

The Beatles song “Getting Better” is a small masterpiece of ambiguity. It shifts between the temperaments of Paul McCartney – sunny, positive – and John Lennon – sceptical, negative. Here’s the chorus:

I’ve got to admit it’s getting better (Better)
A little better all the time (It can’t get no worse).

That final Lennonian comment undercuts the optimism and implicitly asks the killer question: better than what? By the end of the song the meliorating McCartneyisms are descending into desperate repetitions. Now ask yourself, who would you rather have dinner with – chirpy Paul or sardonic John? If you answered Paul, you’re not going to agree with any of what follows.

Here are another couple of songs, both by Noël Coward. “There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner” was written in 1952 (Robbie Williams covered it in 1999). It gleefully spans the globe, finding bad news everywhere and lampooning the upbeat invocations of the war years. It concludes: “We’re going to unpack our troubles from our old kitbag/And wait until we drop down dead.” Then there’s “Why Must the Show Go On?”, which dates from 1956. The title asks another killer question and the whole song brutally subverts the silly sentimentalities of show business: “And if you lose hope,/Take dope,/And lock yourself in the john,/Why must the show go on?”

These three cases make one point – pessi­mism is bracing and often very funny. It is also consoling, in that it relieves us of the burdens borne by the optimist: the need to insist it’s getting better, the enervating search for good news, the rule-driven need to get the pointless job done (and, in the long run, every job is pointless).

Sadly – but to pessimists, predictably – pessimism gets a bad press. This is because it is routinely assumed to be the same as, or an inevitable aspect of, depression. As the happiest and most well-adjusted person I know is a devout pessimist, I find this idea ridiculous. My friend delights in life precisely because he expects nothing of it. If he happens upon something good or beautiful, then it is a bonus, a miracle. His days are full of discoveries and consolations. His sense of humour is Cowardian and Lennonish, a knowing nod of recognition to bad news and false hopes. One of his favourite expressions is the typically vintage “Mustn’t grumble”. He is, I need hardly add, a joy to be with.

The old-fashioned quality of that “must­n’t grumble” is important, as is the fact that those two Coward songs come from the 1950s. In the immediate postwar years the default British mood seemed to be a resilient, good-humoured pessimism shot through with something darker.

“I think,” said Kingsley Amis, a definitively postwar figure, “I’d rather have instinctive pessimism than its opposite.”

Films such as Night and the City (1950), The Third Man (1949), Black Narcissus (1947), the first two Quatermass films (1955 and 1957), the Hammer horrors and the genuinely shocking Peeping Tom (1960) suggested an appetite for the forces of destruction and unreason that flow like an underground river beneath the quotidian. The war had perhaps provided further justification for our darkly ironic native sensibility.

That’s all gone now, because we are no longer allowed to be dark, ironic or, indeed, pessimistic. Neo-optimism is now as brutally enforced in Britain as it is in the United States. “In America, optimism has become almost like a cult,” the social psychologist Aaron Sackett told Psychology Today. “In this country,” says another American psychologist, “pessimism comes with a deep stigma.”

As with any cult, even reluctant individuals are forced to conform. In the same Psychology Today article, B Cade Massey, a professor of organisational behaviour at Yale, says: “It has gotten to the point where people feel pressure to think and talk in an optimistic way.” Massey’s research shows that, when assessing the risks of investments or surgical procedures, people make predictions they know are overly optimistic just because they want to belong, even in life- or wealth-threatening crises, to the clan of idiot grinning optimists who seem to be in charge.

You can feel this pressure wherever you go, notably on the internet, the multiplicity of which is anchored by a single, ferociously imposed neo-optimistic orthodoxy. The “Like” button on Facebook is one weapon of the neos. As a University of Leicester study found, it “directs debate on the social media platform in the direction of the blandly positive”. Social media, with their chattering pursuit of “likes”, followers, comments and shares, are overwhelmingly biased in the direction of an airheaded, cringe-inducing positivity. Look at the breathless Twitter feeds that babble about the sheer wonderfulness of everything, or the groups on Facebook and elsewhere consisting of people gathering together to save the world and spread niceness by, er, gathering together. Daily I get email demands to “help X celebrate” their birthday/promotion/whatever. “Help celebrate” – really?

This is not just irritating, it’s sinister. Clickbait websites are infecting once serious news media simply because they have the ability to rack up clicks in the millions by making people feel optimistic with or amused by pictures of cats. The new books editor of BuzzFeed, meanwhile, once said he would be publishing nothing but positive reviews, rejecting the “scathing takedown rip” he saw in “old media-type places”. To give this approach its proper name – this is ideology-driven censorship.

What is truly sinister here is that the internet, thanks to its useful idiot users, is being turned into a gigantic corporate shill. Be optimistic and then buy stuff and look at our adverts. Or, to put it another way, become increasingly exhausted, ignorant, poor and depressed.

Traditional media are just as bad, if less covert. There are talent and “reality” shows in which it is necessary to be overwhelmed by the joy, the glory, of taking part, even in defeat; a TV trope imported from the US where to be anything other than infuriatingly upbeat is to be deeply suspect.

John Updike described the US as “a vast conspiracy to make you happy”. What he did not add was that this conspiracy involved a fierce judgementalism and a puritan need to shun the pessimist and the grouch. (It was once suggested to me, by a Catholic, that the hysterical fever of happiness on display on US television was a legacy of Calvinism, in that the overly happy ones were advertising their membership in the predestined ranks of the saved. Maybe.)

In the UK, our fabulously amoral, clever and knowing advertising industry now avoids the honest suggestion that you should buy a product for its qualities, preferring instead a succession of cosy gags, little domestic heavens or, following those John Lewis Christmas ads, whole life stories evoking an optimistic future in which the products are essential players.

But the most insidious and effective import of neo-optimism came in the form of management “theory”. The standard text on this is Barbara Ehrenreich’s caustic, funny, readable and withering Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World. She points out that the neo-optimism to which we are now subjected is not, as many claim, some foundational American value. The US Declaration of Independence and the US constitution are neither pessimistic nor optimistic: they are realistic – above all, about human nature. Furthermore, as Max Weber understood, there is nothing intrinsically optimistic about capitalism; it is grinding, risk-laden, hard work, worthwhile because, to the Protestant imagination, it is God’s work.

This began to change in the 19th century with the rise of what came to be known as positive thinking; a rejection, Ehrenreich says, of the austerities of Calvinism. This did have distinguished origins in the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James. In our time, however, it has descended into cultish hucksterism.

Modern-day positive thinking, like British “mustn’t grumble” pessimism, came into its own in the 1950s with the publication of Norman Vincent Peale’s book The Power of Positive Thinking (1952). Thus it pre-dated – and certainly inspired – the snake-oil wave of management theory that really got going in the 1960s. This view of the world makes perpetual economic growth and infinite life enhancement seem not only possible, but also ordained. The cruel flip side of this is that failure will be seen as a refusal to think positively and, therefore, the poor and the excluded are not unfortunate or persecuted: they are guilty.

“If optimism is the key to material success,” Ehrenreich says, “and if you can achieve an optimistic outlook through the discipline of positive thinking, then there is no excuse for failure.”

Political quietism combined with a futile and febrile pursuit of material fulfilment is the result. As she then points out, this attitude must ultimately be founded on the preposterous idea that your state of mind can change the world and overcome the contingencies of life, if not (yet) death. This is superstition, as is the entire positive thinking industry, the scale of which is chilling. Americans apparently spend more than $100bn a year on motivating their employees using various positive thinking techniques.

This is madness, as anybody who has been subjected to team-building or any of the other devices from the shabby book of spells that is management theory will attest. It produces palpably false statements such as this one from Marc Andreessen, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor: “And I can tell you, at least from the last 20 years, if you bet on the side of the optimists, generally you’re right.” In fact, once you take into account the number of optimistic failures, you’d lose every penny.

More preposterously, there was the supreme expression of positive thinking that was The Secret (2006), a book by Rhonda Byrne. This exposed the superstitious roots of positive thinking by openly saying that there was a “law of attraction”, whereby the universe would materially reward your positive thoughts. Our own dear Noel Edmonds is an adherent of something similar called “cosmic ordering”, a form of intergalactic Amazon.

That this has got dangerously out of hand is obvious to the most intelligent. The Nobel Prizewinner Daniel Kahneman (the author of the bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow) and his collaborator Dan Lovallo point out that optimism undermines executive decisions. They show that forecasts based solely on internal company attitudes are often wildly overoptimistic and suggest that companies should instead adopt “reference class forecasting”, where the performance of outsiders in similar situations is taken into account, and at once pessimism intrudes. There is also the Icarus paradox, identified by the economist Danny Miller, which is all about the way extreme success in business is often followed by abject failure, precisely because of the overoptimism fomented by the good times.

In politics neo-optimism can be lethal. As John O’Sullivan has pointed out, Blair and Brown were inveterate optimists – in foreign policy and finance – and their legacy can be seen in the chaos of the Iraq war and its aftermath, and in the crime wave that engulfed the City of London. The giant Ponzi scheme that was the financial system up to 2007 (and maybe still is) was based on optimism that was either cynical, in the case of the banks, or naive, in the case of their victims. Blair’s optimism was founded on the bizarre neoconservative conviction that we in particular could, by force of arms, bully the world into liberal democracy.

Yet dumb optimism is now the default mode in politics. Who, now, could say like Churchill, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”? And note the word “nothing”. This was not a tem­porary state of affairs: there was no optimism available.

There are two areas in which neo-optimism seems to be more firmly grounded – medicine and history. There have been many medical studies in which the attitude of the patient appears to affect the course of an illness. In some cases this has inspired yet more superstition; when mood was found to have a marginal effect on the immune system there was a rash of claims that optimism could cure cancer.

The jury is out on this but my own suspicion is that the guilty party here may be not pessimism, but depression. Besides, happy, calm, deluded and optimistic patients sound suspiciously convenient for the medical profession. Again, large sums of money are involved and scepticism is not, therefore, permissible.

Cracks are emerging, however, in the façade of medical optimism. People are noticing that the ways of measuring such traits – pencil-and-paper tests – are dubious and that the assumption that these are inborn traits that follow you through life may be wrong. People may be strategically optimistic or pessimistic according to the situation in which they find themselves. This would imply that pessimism has adaptive advantages: a prime heresy but, on reflection, very likely indeed.

Neo-optimistic history, meanwhile, is really an aspect of scientism, the belief that to every coherent question, there must be a scientific answer. I noticed this a few years ago at a Penguin dinner attended by, among others, Steven Pinker, David Deutsch and Simon Baron-Cohen. The mood, particularly in the case of Pinker and Deutsch, was optimism, supported by the belief that, thanks to the Enlightenment, we have (in theory at least) cracked most of our outstanding problems. The book Pinker was there to plug, The Better Angels of Our Nature: a History of Violence and Humanity, has since become one of the two bibles (the other being Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion) of the scientistic faith and of science-based neo-optimism.

Pinker’s case is that violence, according to crime rates and war deaths, is in long-term decline. He attributes this, at least in part, to the spread of Enlightenment rationality. But technically he is not being optimistic, because he does not aspire to make forecasts. There is no evidence that this trend will continue. Nevertheless, there seems to be something McCartneyish at work here. My own first reaction was that nuclear weapons have certainly prevented a huge number of battlefield deaths but that just means we have concentrated our violence in terrible weapons that might be used at any moment. Future violence could, in an instant, turn out to be far worse than anything in the past.

There are now also many non-battlefield deaths – in Congo, for instance, or increasingly under the rule of Islamic State – that are caused by war. Furthermore, a recent paper by the political scientist Tanisha Fazal calls many of Pinker’s statistics into question. War deaths, she shows, have been prevented by better medical facilities, quicker extraction of soldiers from the battlefield and the better health of combat troops to start with. This evidence does not refute Pinker but it does make some of his figures seem less startling. 

Scientific or quasi-scientific neo-optimism is the default mode of our time. Things will get better, it is believed and, looking back on the dark, pre-Enlightenment centuries, Lennon was right: things can’t get much worse. This is obviously historically illiterate. The 20th century happened most disastrously to Germany, previously the best-educated, most enlightened country in Europe. Furthermore, optimism was not actually an Enlightenment value. Voltaire, that prince of the cause, despised optimism because of the brutal contingencies of his own life and because of the even more brutal contingencies of nature – the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 in particular, in which up to 100,000 people died. Turning your newly rational gaze on the realities of the world should deliver a healthy shot of pessimism. Or, as Saul Bellow put it, casually refuting Socrates’s best-known motto, “the overexamined life might make you wish you were dead”.

All of which matters: first, because unalloyed optimism is dangerous, in personal life as much as in politics and business. The best advice ever given was to be positive yet to expect the worst. “Put your trust in God, my boys, and keep your powder dry,” was how it was said in Cromwell’s era (not, as legend suggests, by Cromwell). “Trust, but verify,” was Ronald Reagan’s version; he was quoting a Russian proverb.

Second, it matters because of the idiot optimism that has become the default mode of much modern culture – from breakfast TV to game, talent and reality shows. This is so pervasive that we no longer notice how weird, how downright insane it is when contestants and presenters giggle, weep, swoon and generally effervesce to signal what a wonderful time they are having. Even the comedians have been infected; it may be me, but an awful lot of them seem to want to be nice, to be liked. Peter Cook should be their guiding light – his dandyish, withering, psychologically acute miseries are another great, bracing, pessimistic legacy of the postwar period.

Optimism is a pressure – it is stress-inducing and intelligence-lowering. Pessimism is a release: it is relaxing and mind-expanding. Read the Book of Ecclesiastes (“To every thing there is a season”) or Edward FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (“The Bird of Time has but a little way/To fly . . .”) to see how beautiful and peaceful zero expectations can be. And remember, when John Lennon wrote “It can’t get much worse” he was, I am sure, being ironic. Of course it can, it always can. 

Bryan Appleyard’s recent books include “The Brain Is Wider Than the Sky: Why Simple Solutions Don’t Work in a Complex World” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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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.

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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.

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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