STUART KINLOUGH
Show Hide image

Head in the cloud

As we download ever more of our lives on to electronic devices, are we destroying our own internal memory?

I do not remember my husband’s tele­phone number, or my best friend’s address. I have forgotten my cousin’s birthday, my seven times table, the date my grandfather died. When I write, I keep at least a dozen internet tabs open to look up names and facts I should easily be able to recall. There are so many things I no longer know, simple things that matter to me in practical and personal ways, yet I usually get by just fine. Apart from the few occasions when my phone has run out of battery at a crucial moment, or the day I accidentally plunged it into hot tea, or the evening my handbag was stolen, it hasn’t seemed to matter that I have downloaded most of my working memory on to electronic devices. It feels a small inconvenience, given that I can access information equivalent to tens of billions of books on a gadget that fits into my back pocket.

For thousands of years, human beings have relied on stone tablets, scrolls, books or Post-it notes to remember things that their minds cannot retain, but there is something profoundly different about the way we remember and forget in the internet age. It is not only our memory of facts that is changing. Our episodic memory, the mind’s ability to relive past experiences – the surprising sting of an old humiliation revisited, the thrill and discomfort of a first kiss, those seemingly endless childhood summers – is affected, too. The average Briton now spends almost nine hours a day staring at their phone, computer or television, and when more of our lives are lived on screen, more of our memories will be formed there. We are recording more about ourselves and our experiences than ever before, and though in the past this required deliberate effort, such as sitting down to write a diary, or filing away a letter, or posing for a portrait, today this process can be effortless, even unintentional. Never before have people had access to such comprehensive and accurate personal histories – and so little power to rewrite them.

My internet history faithfully documents my desktop meanderings, even when I resurface from hours of browsing with little memory of where I have been or what I have read. My Gmail account now contains over 35,000 emails received since 2005. It has preserved the banal – long-expired special offers, obsolete arrangements for post-work drinks – alongside the life-changing. Loves and break-ups are chronicled here; jobs, births and weddings are announced; deaths are grieved. My Facebook profile page has developed into a crowdsourced, if assiduously edited, photo album of my social life over the past decade. My phone is a museum of quick-fire text exchanges. With a few clicks, I can retrieve, in mind-numbing detail, information about my previous movements, thoughts and feelings. So could someone else. Even my most private digital memories are not mine alone. They have become data to be restructured, repackaged, aggregated, copied, deleted, monetised or sold by internet firms. Our digital memories extend far beyond our reach.

In the late 1990s the philosopher David Chalmers coined the term “the extended mind” to describe how when we use pen and paper, calculators, or laptops to help us think or remember, these external objects are incorporated into our cognitive processes. “The technology we use becomes part of our minds, extending our minds and indeed our selves into the world,” Chalmers said in a 2011 Ted talk. Our iPhones have not been physically implanted into our brains, he explained, but it’s as if they have been. There’s a big difference between offloading memory on to a notepad and doing it on to a smartphone. One is a passive receptacle, the other is active. A notebook won’t reorganise the information you give it or ping you an alert; its layout and functions won’t change overnight; its contents aren’t part-owned by the stationery firm that made it. The more we extend our minds online, the harder it is becoming to keep control of our digital pasts, or to tell where our memories begin or end. And, while society’s collective memory is expanding at an astonishing rate, our internal, individual ones are shrinking.

***

Our brains are lazy; we are reluctant to remember things when we can in effect delegate the task to someone or something else. You can observe this by listening to couples, who often consult one another’s memories: “What was the name of that nice Chinese restaurant we went to the other day?” Subconsciously, partners distribute responsibility for remembering information according to each other’s strengths. I ask my husband for directions, he consults me on people’s names.

In one study conducted in 1991, psychologists assigned a series of memory exercises to pairs of students, some of whom had been dating for at least three months and some of whom did not know one another. The dating couples remembered more than the non-dating pairs. They also remembered more unique information; when a fact fell into their partner’s area of expertise, they were more likely to forget it.

In a similar way, when we know that a computer can remember something for us we are less likely to remember it ourselves. For a study published by the journal Science in 1991, people were asked to type some trivia facts into a computer. Those who believed the facts would be saved at the end of the experiment remembered less than those who thought they would be deleted – even when they were explicitly asked to memorise them. In an era when technology is doing ever more remembering, it is unsurprising that we are more inclined to forget.

It is sometimes suggested that in time the worry that the internet is making us forgetful will sound as silly as early fears that books would do the same. But the internet is not an incremental step in the progression of written culture, it is revolutionising the way we consume information. When you pull an encyclopaedia down from a library shelf, it is obvious that you are retrieving a fact you have forgotten, or never knew. Google is so fast and easy to use that we can forget we have consulted it at all: we are at risk of confusing the internet’s memory with our own. A Harvard University project in 2013 found that when people were allowed to use Google to check their answers to trivia questions they rated their own intelligence and memories more highly – even if they were given artificially low test results. Students usually believed more often that Google was confirming a fact they already knew, rather than providing them with new information.

This changed when Adrian Ward, now an assistant professor at the University of Austin, who designed the study as part of his PhD research, mimicked a slow internet connection so that students were forced to wait 25 seconds to read the answer to a Google query. The delay, he noted, stripped them of the “feeling of knowing” because they became more aware that they were consulting an external source. In the internet age, Ward writes, people “may offload more and more information while losing sight of the distinction between information stored in their minds and information stored online”.

By blurring the distinction between our personal and our digital memories, modern technology could encourage intellectual complacency, making people less curious about new information because they feel they already know it, and less likely to pay attention to detail because our computers are remembering it. What if the same could be said for our own lives: are we less attentive to our experiences because we know that computers will record them for us?

An experiment by the American psychologist Linda Henkel suggests this could be the case; she has found that when people take photographs at museums they are more likely to forget details of what they have seen. To some extent, we’re all tourists exploring the world from behind a camera, too distracted by our digital memories to inhabit our analogue lives fully. Relying on computers to remember telephone numbers or trivia does not seem to deprive our internal memories of too much – provided you can remember where you’ve stored it, factual information is fairly straightforward to retrieve. Yet a digital memory is a poor substitute for the richness of a personal experience revisited, and our autobiographical memories cannot be “retrieved” by opening the relevant online file.

Our relationship with the past is capricious. Sometimes an old photograph can appear completely unfamiliar, while at other times the faintest hint – the smell of an ex-lover’s perfume on a crowded Tube carriage – can induce overwhelming nostalgia. Remembering is in part a feeling, of recognition, of having been there, of reinhabiting a former self. This feeling is misleading; we often imagine memories offer an authentic insight into our past. They do not.

Memory is closely linked to self-identity, but it is a poor personal record. Remembering is a creative act. It is closely linked to imagining. When people suffer from dementia they are often robbed not only of the past but also of the future; without memory it is hard to construct an idea of future events. We often mistakenly convert our imaginings into memories – scientists call the process “imagination inflation”. This puts biological memories at odds with digital ones. While memories stored online can be retrieved intact, our internal memories are constantly changing and evolving. Each time we relive a memory, we reconfigure it to suit our present needs and world-view. In his book Pieces of Light, an exploration of the new science of memory, the neuroscientist Charles Fernyhough compares the construction of memory to storytelling. To impose meaning on to our chaotic, complex lives we need to know which sections to abridge and which details can be ignored. “We are all natural born storytellers. We are constantly editing and remaking our memory stories as our knowledge and emotions change. They may be fictions, but they are our fictions,” Fernyhough writes.

We do not write these stories alone. The human mind is suggestible. In 2013, scientists at MIT made international headlines when they said they had successfully implanted a false memory into a mouse using a form of light stimulation, but human beings implant false memories into each other all the time, using more low-tech methods. Friends and family members are forever distorting one another’s memories. I remember distinctly being teased for my Dutch accent at school and indignantly telling my mother when I arrived home that, “It’s pronounced one, two, three. Not one, two, tree.” My brother is sure it was him. The anecdote is tightly woven into the story of our pasts, but one of us must be wrong. When we record our personal memories online we open up new possibilities for their verification but we also create different opportunities for their distortion. In subtle ways, internet firms are manipulating our digital memories all the time – and we are often dangerously unaware of it.

***

Facebook occasionally gives me a reminder of Mahmoud Tlissy, the caretaker at my former office in Libya who died quietly of pancreatic cancer in 2011 while the civil war was raging. Every so often he sends me a picture of a multicoloured heart via a free app that outlived him. Mahmoud was a kind man with a sardonic sense of humour, a deep smoker’s laugh and a fondness for recounting his wild days as a student in Prague. I am always pleased to be reminded of him, but I feel uncomfortable because I doubt he would have chosen such a naff way to communicate with me after death. Our digital lives will survive us, sending out e-hearts and populating databases long after we have dropped off the census. When we deposit our life memories online, they start to develop lives of their own.

Those who want to limit the extent to which their lives are recorded digitally are swimming against the tide. Internet firms have a commercial interest in encouraging us not only to offload more personal information online, but also to use digital technology to reflect on our lives. Take Face­book, which was developed as a means of communicating but is becoming a tool for remembering and memorialising, too. The first Facebook users, who were university students in 2004, are mostly in their thirties now. Their graduations, first jobs, first loves, marriages and first children are likely to be recorded on the site; friends who have died young are likely to be mourned on it. The website understands that nostalgia is a powerful marketing tool, and so it has released gimmicky tools, such as automated videos, to help people “look back”.

These new online forms of remembrance are becoming popular. On Instagram and Twitter it is common for users to post sentimental old snaps under the hashtag #tbt, which stands for “Throwback Thursday”. Every day, seven million people check Timehop, an app that says it “helps you see the best moments of your past” by showing you old tweets, photos and online messages. Such tools are presented as a way of enriching our ability to relive the past but they are limiting. We can use them to tell stories about our lives, but the pace and structure of the narrative is defined for us. Remembering is an imaginative act, but internet firms are selling nostalgia by algorithm – and we’re buying it.

At their most ambitious, tech companies are offering the possibility of objective and complete insight into our pasts. In the future, “digital memories” could “[enhance] personal reflection in much the same way as the internet has aided scientific investigations”, the computer scientists Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell wrote in the magazine Scientific American in 2006. The assumption is that our complex, emotional autobiographic memories can be captured as data to be ordered, quantified and analysed – and that computer programs could make better sense of them than our own, flawed brains. The pair have been collaborating on a Microsoft Research “life-logging” project since 2001, in which Bell logs everything he has said, written, seen and heard into a specially designed database.

Bell understood that the greatest challenge is finding a way to make digital archives usable. Without a program to help us extract information, digital memories are virtually useless: imagine trying to retrieve a telephone number from a month’s worth of continuous video footage. In our increasingly life-logged futures, we will all depend on powerful computer programs to index, analyse, repackage and retrieve our digital memories for us. The act of remembering will become automated. We will no longer make our “own fictions”.

This might sound like a distant sci-fi fantasy, but we are a long way there. Billions of people share their news and views by email or on social media daily, and unwittingly leave digital trails as they browse the web. The use of tracking devices to measure and record sleep, diet, exercise patterns, health and even mood is increasing. In the future, these comprehensive databases could prove very useful. When you go to the doctor, you might be able to provide details of your precise diet, exercise and sleep patterns. When a relationship breaks down you could be left with many gigabytes of digital memory to explore and make sense of. Did you really ­always put him down? Should you have broken up four years ago? In a few years’ time there could be an app for that.

Our reliance on digital memories is self-perpetuating: the more we depend on computer memories to provide us with detailed personal data, the more inadequate our own minds seem. Yet the fallibility of the human memory isn’t a design flaw, it is one of its best features. Recently, I typed the name of an ex-boyfriend into my Gmail search bar. This wasn’t like opening a box of old letters. For a start, I could access both sides of our email correspondence. Second, I could browse dozens of G-chats, instant messaging conversations so mundane and spontaneous that reading them can feel more like eavesdropping on a former self, or a stranger. The messages surprised me. I had remembered the relationship as short-lived and volatile but lacking any depth of feeling. So why had I sent those long, late-night emails? And what could explain his shorter, no less dramatic replies, “Will u ever speak to me again? You will ignore this I suspect but I love you.” Did he love me? Was I really so hurt? I barely recognise myself as the author of my messages; the feelings seem to belong to someone else.

My digital archives will offer a very different narrative from the half-truths and lies I tell myself, but I am more at home with my fictions. The “me” at the centre of my own memories is constantly evolving, but my digital identity is frozen in time. I feel a different person now; my computer suggests otherwise. Practically, this can pose problems (many of us are in possession of teenage social media posts we hope will never be made public) and psychologically it matters, too. To a greater or lesser extent, we all want to shed our former selves – but digital memories keep us firmly connected to our past. Forgetting and misremembering is a source of freedom: the freedom to reinvent oneself, to move on, to rewrite our stories. It means that old wounds need not hurt for ever, that love can be allowed to fade, that people can change.

With every passing year, we are shackling ourselves more tightly to our digital legacies, and relying more heavily on computer programs to narrate our personal histories for us. It is becoming ever harder to escape the past, or remake the future. Years from now, our digitally enhanced memories could allow us to have near-perfect recall, but who would want to live with their head in the cloud?

Sophie McBain is an NS contributing writer. This article was a runner-up in the 2015 Bodley Head FT Essay Prize

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A storm is coming

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