The Blog

Gove and Johnson Go Over the Top: Brexit and World War 1 Fantasies

Said the Pot: "We should not look on ------ as "a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite."

Said the Kettle: "One of the reasons I am a Conservative is that, in the end, I just can't stand the intellectual dishonesty of the Left."

The two utensils concerned are, respectively, Michael Gove writing in the Daily Mail and Boris Johnson in The Telegraph. But no, reader, you oughtn't to jump to conclusions. Neither was writing - at least not directly - about Brexit. The articles are both a couple of years old, and their subject matter is the First World War. Both articles concern themselves with resuscitating the idea that Britain fought World War 1 as the anointed representatives of "freedom" and "civilisation" against an evil expansionist Germany. Those casting aspersions on the decency or competence of the British commanders of the War ("Butcher" Haig is their example) are "unpatriotic at best", while those who entertain the possibility that the causes of the War are complex and multipolar deserve a "Nobel Prize for Tripe". In making this spirited defence of nationalistic fairytales against history, they bravely take on all comers, whether Prof. Richard Evans (a Cambridge don and "Guardian writer" - this was before 'expert' was pejorative du jour), or Black Adder Goes Forth.

There are obvious potshots to be taken, and it would be remiss of me not to take them, however summarily. When a referendum for which there is little public clamour is staged as an act of party management with both campaigns de facto led by Etonian Conservatives, said referendum having as its most immediate result the plummeting of the pound and UK stocks to a point not seen in decades while the winning campaign acknowledges it has absolutely no plan for how to put in place its desired outcome, the epithet "catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite" seems apposite at worst.

Similarly, it would be surprising if "dishonesty of the Right" did not filter through the mind of at least some political neophytes listening to Nigel Farage dissociating himself from his own proposal to fund the NHS with money previously paid to the EU ("Leave shouldn't have claimed that"), Dan Hannan's acknowledgement (a day after the referendum) that immigration levels were unlikely to be reduced by the Leave vote or Iain Duncan Smith's summary revocation of anything at all promised during the campaign: "We never made any commitments. We just made a series of promises that were possibilities."

But let us return to serious matters, specifically Gove and Johnson's World War 1.

Much like UKIP's campaign posters, the vision of the War they presented back then was one widely ridiculed in all the places one would expect to ridicule it. Yet, in point of practice, it was one the country adopted with vigour. In British commemorations in 2014, the sacrifice of the more than a million soldiers from the British colony of India received no more than an 'and the Commonwealth' footnote (much as, a century earlier, they were punished for their contribution with still more oppressive rule rather than rewarded with the quasi-freedom of Dominion status). The spectacle reached its apotheosis when ceramic poppies flooded the Tower of London commemorating British Empire forces who died, a display of patriotism par excellence. Few but the widely lambasted Jonathan Jones saw fit to challenge the poppy exhibit: and what of the sacrifice of the French - who made, without doubt, the greatest sacrifice of all large nations in the War, which received no mention? And as for the German soldiers, conscripted to fight for a Kaiser whose monarchy was anything but democratic... the less commemoration of them, of course, the better. How can one ask that of a British memorial? Why should we? Our sacrifice, our memorial. Our mythmaking. Our country.

Hold in your mind those ceramic poppies, so smoothly crafted, so particular, and contrast them with the inscription at the Turkish memorial to Gallipoli:

Those heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives, you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore, rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us, where they lie, side by side, in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they shall become our sons as well.'

Those are the terrifying Turkish hordes that Gove and Johnson said we needed to vote Leave to escape. That is the view that Gove and Johnson's World War 1 wants erased. It is a stretch, but not a wild one, to see in our Empire-only poppies a few of the seeds of what became the couple of percent who carried Leave over the line - specifically, those who voted in line with what the official Leave campaign was saying (as opposed to on the basis of a separate, and probably more valid, calculus). It is less of a stretch to see in Gove and Johnson's rhetoric, on Project Freedom 1914 and Project Freedom 2016, at least a couple of the seeds of the bigotry that erupted in Britain immediately following the referendum, those men in Great Portland Street chanting "Make Britain white again", the odious anti-black, anti-Pole, anti-Pakistani graffiti, and, indeed, earlier, in the murder of British Labour politician and refugee activist Jo Cox in the days preceding it.

In light of their current place in history, it bears asking, why should Johnson and Gove care so so uncommonly much for fighting wars about the past? The answer is inextricably rooted in the present. No identity, whether personal or national, exists sui generis. The European Union, an organisation that is in many ways odious, is nevertheless also the custodian of the memory-myth of what happens when Europe isn't united. This memory-myth matters. The Leave campaign's peroration, "Let us make 23 June British Independence Day!" has no roots in the Somme, but plenty in the vision of singular and unique British sacrifice that has been belatedly superimposed upon the battlefield. And this and similar stories we tell ourselves are shaping our actions now. The fight for the past is always a fight for the present. And the fight to illuminate and defend the transnationality of our particular past, made up of empires, colonialism and subjugation of much of the world as well as incredible acts of bravery - for whatever cause, and no less brave for it - is a fight for the soul of the present, and for the language and memories which frame the present.

A parting question: a political Rorschach test, if you like. What is problematic in the sentence: 'But let us return to serious matters, specifically Gove and Johnson's World War 1.' Is it

a) the trivialisation of the present-day crisis provoked by Brexit, and the imputation that it is unserious?

b) that the sentence is misleading: while World War 1 is more serious, talking about it is certainly not more urgent?

c) the implication that Gove and Johnson's parochial version of World War 1 should be taken seriously? Or,

d) the suggestion that the view of World War 1 they describe is not one widely shared by the British public - with all the knock on effects for public discourse this entails?

Dear Reader, I leave the answer/s to your judgement.

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