Haunted by the ghosts of 1940: why Britain is truly alone in the world

The vote to leave the EU in 2016 drew on the deep well of nostalgia for the moment when Britain stood gloriously alone. But times have changed. 

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It is the fate of all old nations that the ghosts of their past linger in their present. The fateful summer of 1940, when France fell to Nazi Germany and British troops were rescued from Dunkirk, still haunts the collective memory in Britain.

The 80th anniversary of Charles de Gaulle’s broadcast on the BBC on 18 June 1940, in which he implored his fellow citizens to fight fascism, showed what a strong emotional charge that founding act of resistance still carries for the French.

The postwar policies of both countries have been shaped by their experiences that summer, and the myths that have been built around them.

Memories of Britain standing alone in 1940 have been a vital source of the state’s exceptionalism ever since. But as the historian David Edgerton and others have shown in these pages, Britain was never entirely alone.

From the outset it called on the extensive resources – human and material – of the empire. Around a fifth of pilots who flew for the RAF in the Battle of Britain were not British, but came from as far away as Australia, New Zealand, Barbados and Jamaica.

Still, Churchill’s inspirational leadership in 1940 gave credence to the heroic narrative he crafted in the second volume of his war memoirs, Their Finest Hour (1949).

General de Gaulle’s version of standing alone was different, but equally epic. Whipostle Churchill defied Hitler, de Gaulle rebelled against the collaborationist Pétain regime. Starting with nothing except the force of his personality, he brought together under his banner the various French military units outside the country, and imposed his authority on the disparate resistance groups inside France (he was assisted in this endeavour by the Resistance hero Jean Moulin).

This gave him the authority to keep the free French cause alive in Allied counsels. These were also the actions that gave him the themes and ideals from which he later wove his postwar narrative: the real France was embodied not by Vichy but by the Free French Forces and the Resistance. After the war, he convinced the French people that he and they had saved French honour and played a key part in their own liberation in 1944. This heroic story would have fallen flat if it had not had some grounding in his actions during the war.

Churchill and de Gaulle were different in personality. Yet both seemed to compose their public life so that it could be cut and pasted straight into myth – myths that they themselves would help write.

Both had an uncanny capacity to shape the way their countrymen thought of themselves and the events they had lived through.

De Gaulle was haunted by the ghost of national defeat in 1940 for the rest of his life. It fuelled his determination that France would never again be defeated by enemies or wholly dependent on powerful allies. That shaped the French approach to the US as an ally but not an unconditional one. This wariness was reinforced after being reprimanded by the US for the Suez crisis in 1956, when British, French and Israeli forces invaded Egypt to secure the Suez Canal and remove President Gamal Abdel Nasser from power.

While the British concluded from the debacle in Suez that they must work even harder to be the US’s most reliable ally, the French resolved that they must never again be at the mercy of the US on matters of strategic importance.

De Gaulle acted on that conviction once he returned to power in 1958. He downgraded France’s membership of Nato and embarked on an independent nuclear deterrent. He was always chafing against what he called the “stifling rigidity” of the Cold War, and ensured that France had its own channels to the Soviet Union and, after 1964, to China.

The different memories of 1940 in France and Britain have been at the heart of their contrasting European policies. The French and Germans determined to make war between them impossible by locking their economies together. The British, dreaming they were still a world power, treated Jean Monnet’s invitation to join the talks on a European Coal and Steel Community in 1950 with disdain. Even when they realised their mistake and joined the Common Market in 1973, British politicians consistently misunderstood the emotional as well as political investment in France and Germany in the success of the European project.

That does not mean that Paris and Berlin see their interests in the world in the same way. Emmanuel Macron has the ghost of 1940 whispering in his ear as he pursues the Gaullist vision to make France leader of the free world.

That does not sit comfortably with Germany’s less exalted view of the EU’s role in international affairs. Macron’s solution for bridging the gap between France’s global aspirations and the EU’s more limited horizon is the idea of European strategic autonomy from the US. This has a new resonance now that Western countries are scrambling to reduce their dependence on China for essential products and technology.

The British imagination is still haunted by 1940, but its consequences have been less benign. The vote to leave the EU in 2016 drew on the deep well of nostalgia for the moment when Britain stood gloriously alone. But times have changed. We no longer have the empire at our side – at least not economically.

The latest figures from the Department for International Trade show that a free trade agreement with Australia might increase UK GDP by 0.01 per cent. The much-vaunted agreement with the US could, in a realistic scenario, add 0.07 per cent in the long term.

Compare that with the government’s own 2018 forecast that a Canada-style trade deal with the EU would cost the UK at least 4.9 per cent of GDP growth after 15 years.

Strategically, the US’s security priorities have shifted away from Europe to Asia. While France has gone a long way to exorcising the ghosts of 1940 with the idea of European strategic autonomy, Britain is now more truly alone than it was in 1940. 

Peter Ricketts was UK ambassador to France 2012-16

This article appears in the 17 July 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Race for the vaccine

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