If you grew up in the UK in the mid-to-late 1970s, reminders of the last war were everywhere. The nation’s three TV channels heaved with programmes depicting the events of 1939-45. Thames TV’s epic 26-part series The World at War (first shown in 1973) was one of the landmark television events of its era. Two of the most popular sitcoms, Dad’s Army (first broadcast in 1968) and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (first shown in 1974) were set very firmly in wartime and hammered home many of its familiar tropes. They sat alongside drama serials like Colditz, the Secret Army and A Family at War, which all revisited, and to some extent glamorised, events still fresh in many adult minds.
Boys were bombarded with war imagery. Action Man dolls were ubiquitous, with at least 8 million in circulation by 1980. Plastic guns, soldier figurines and war comics were standard issue in bedrooms across the land. As the rest of Western Europe sought to heal its wounds in those post-war decades (or at least do some artful forgetting), Britain, like some jaded rock star, was repeatedly falling back on its greatest hit.
In time, that hit became less a memento of what we had been and ever more an aspiration for what we could be again. From the invasion of Iraq in 2004 and certainly following the financial crisis of 2008, the cargo cult of British exceptionalism and war nostalgia staged a comeback. Critical to the faith was the notion that the people of these islands were somehow imbued with a heroic ‘Blitz’ (or sometimes ‘Dunkirk’) spirit that would always see us through times of turmoil. Despite war’s end and the decades of peace that had followed, it was a magical essence that we still held in abundance.
“Britain is not just another country; it has never been just another country!” Margaret Thatcher declared in a 1987 BBC interview. To be British, and specifically English, was to be inimitable; a widely-held sentiment then and one that’s increasingly alive today.
A shared narrative is the glue that binds societies together. The problem comes when these narratives morph into that branch of nationalism that we shall call ‘the conceit of we’.
The self-aggrandising stories that all nations tell themselves are critical to maintaining a national sense of identity. The great paradox of exceptionalism is that it is not unique to any one particular populace. The need for our families, tribes, football teams or nations to be the best is hard-wired into the species; it is in our nature to place ourselves at the centre of events. Doing so creates a commonality and sense of purpose in times of crisis.
We see this in the rhetoric employed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy when addressing his people, demonstrating himself to be adept at weaving a narrative even as his country is under invasion. Three weeks into the war he addressed the nation, telling them:
“Thanks to our military, the National Guard, the border guards, the police, the Territorial Defense Forces and everyone who joined the defense of the state, we did not become slaves. And we never will,” he said. “Because this is our spirit, this is our destiny.”
These words are not so different to those uttered by Churchill in 1940 or by French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau in 1918. At the outbreak of war between nations, a narrative of common history and endeavour makes sense.
But the narrative goes both ways. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is, after all, the end game of a series of beguiling stories that Putin and the Kremlin have spun for the last 20 years. These stories were deployed so effectively that many commentators, far beyond the country’s borders, take it for granted that Russia is a great, historic power, with the right to defend its interests even if that means imposing its tyranny on others. This extraordinary state of affairs leads many to tolerate and even propagate the Russian narrative that it has the divine right to be ‘concerned about its borders’ and its ‘historic spheres of influence’ even if they go against the democratic rights and values of other people.
Patriotism, meaning ‘appreciating the place you are from’, is not necessarily a bad thing. A shared narrative is the glue that binds societies together. The problem comes when these narratives morph into that branch of nationalism that we shall call ‘the conceit of we’. It goes like this: ‘we’ have a unique sense of humour; ‘we’ are the only people in the world who queue properly; ‘we’ are the only ones who drink proper tea; and ‘we’ invented football, cricket, jam tarts, America and rock and roll. At its worst, the conceit of we can morph into toxic nationalism and the belief that ‘our’ country can do no wrong. Nationalism would have us believe that ‘our Empire’ was beneficent and benign, that ‘our Nation’ is the best and that to challenge either assertion is to betray the national group.
The great paradox of exceptionalism is that it is not unique to any one particular populace.
“Nationalism is an infantile disease,” wrote Einstein, “it is the measles of mankind” and like any virus it can easily spread among a population, just as it did in the years leading up to the Brexit vote in 2016.
Brexit exceptionalism was built, in large part, on many Britons’ inherent belief that ‘we’ were better than our European neighbours and that they were somehow holding us back. It was also infused with a general lack of understanding of both our national and European history and our place in the wider world. That mix encouraged Brexit-minded Britons to buy into a narrative that said we had no need for ‘trading blocs’; new trading partners would come direct to us. “We hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want,” said Michael Gove in 2016.
Despite the ongoing fallout that has followed, many continue to believe that we hold all the cards. A common condition of cults is that when prophecy fails, the cult puts it down to a lack of belief in the prophecy. We see this at play in the ‘culture wars’ that have followed Brexit, with symbols of Britishness endlessly deployed alongside invocations to trust in Britain and its ability to weather any storm. If we survived the Blitz, we can surely survive this!
But most people fundamentally misunderstand the twin wartime tales of Dunkirk and The Battle of Britain. Both place ‘little Britain’ standing alone, an underdog against the might of the Nazi war machine. But Britain was a global superpower in 1940, with an Empire of conquered colonies to draw on for support. Despite there being no real danger of the UK being invaded, the idea that ‘we would all have been speaking German if it wasn’t for the RAF’ persists. Wartime propaganda has pervaded long after the armistice, and its effect has warped our understanding of history — and of ourselves.
Britain is very far from being the only country that has sought to take back control of its history. Trump wanted to ‘Make America great again’ and part of that process was an attempt to reimpose the old narrative on the new. In 2020, with the Presidential election looming, Trump attacked ‘radical activists’ for undermining Christopher Columbus’ legacy:
“These extremists seek to replace discussion of his vast contributions with talk of failings, his discoveries with atrocities and his achievements with transgressions," he said, adding that, “we must teach future generations about our storied heritage, starting with the protection of monuments to our intrepid heroes like Columbus.”
Whether he was aware of it or not, Trump was trying to shore up a myth. The real Columbus was as dreadful a human being as he was a navigator. When he stumbled upon the Caribbean, he thought he was in Japan and his violent excesses against the indigenous people amounted to acts of genocide. His depraved behaviour eventually saw him arrested and sent back to Spain in disgrace, where he died in ignominy.
Columbus was not the first European to discover the Americas and never even set foot in the North. But as the US sought to forge an origin myth in the early 19th century, he was deemed to be the best candidate as founding father of the nation. A hagiography of the man, written by Sleepy Hollow author Washington Irving in 1828, gave us the legend of a brave man heading west to create a new Utopia. But it was a fiction, albeit one that millions of Americans came to love.
It is no coincidence that our former prime minister, Boris Johnson, wrote a hagiography of Winston Churchill. In Britain, many believe that if we can just click our ruby shoes metaphorically together we can be cast back to the halcyon, Edwardian neverland that preceded 1914, when life for the ruling classes was particularly sweet. But in 1914, life expectancy was 48. Women couldn’t vote and nor could around 40% of men. 25% of British people lived in poverty, with 10% in such abject poverty that many children didn’t have shoes. There was no NHS, most people left school at age 12 and hundreds of thousands of people did dirty, dangerous jobs that sent them to early graves.
Compared to the subjects of the Empire, they had it easy. Britain ruthlessly exploited its colonies, took what it pleased, started proxy wars to expand its territory, drew arbitrary lines in the sand that still impact on the world today, and imposed a racist colonialism on millions of people who had no option but to obey.
All of that runs counter to the story we have long been told about ourselves. It is deeply inconvenient for the politicians who have so prospered on the comfort blanket of the Brexit narrative. And more — to tell the counterstory is to begin the process of unravelling everything else. Because if you start to question our questionable history, you can end up questioning everything else, from our unelected upper house, to our unelected head of state, to our established church and indeed the very order of things.
Putinism, like Trumpism and Brexitism, is ultimately rooted in a notion of a paradise lost.
Putinism, like Trumpism and Brexitism, is ultimately rooted in a notion of a paradise lost. In Russia, that paradise was found in the good old days of the USSR and, further back, in the era of Peter and Catherine the Great. Putin’s tactic, just like Gove and Trump, has been to deploy a falsified history of the country as he seeks to turn back the clock to the glory days.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Nations that have taken strides to understand and reconcile the worst parts of their past have not fared too badly — Germany in particular. Just as families and relationships thrive on honesty, so too should we, even as we indulge in our patriotism. There is nothing inherently wrong in telling common stories about ourselves, but as we do, we should never shy away from the uncomfortable truths in our past, nor let things go on unchallenged simply because they always have been.
Many former empires would benefit from more honesty in the appraisal of their pasts and politicians willing to hold a mirror up to them. Examining nationhood, warts and all, is actually a path to better understanding it. Perhaps if we could stop constantly looking over our shoulders we’d realise that the good times are not always behind us. There are new chapters to write, and the best may be yet to come.