“Wars are not won by evacuations”—Winston Churchill, June 4th 1940
In the daily wringing of political hands over Covid-19 and unending media coverage of “our worst crisis since World War 2: we seem to have lost much balance and perspective from history, The 80th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation seems forgotten, ley alone earlier lessons learned from our long—and often prickly—relations with our continental neighbours.
But what does an embarrassung military defeat from another century have to do with our present pandemic crisis? They are both chapters in a long, long story. Because of the national psyche involved —largely formed by the dominant culture of south-east England and centred on London—rather a lot.
For over a millennium, the South-East’s wealth and numberrs dominated other regions and nations of Britain. The proximity of continental powers shaped foreign polocy infused with mistrust and paranoia towards neighbours. From the Norman Conquest, through the Angevin Empire, the ambitions of Luis XIV to Napoleon, a dense folk history looked askance at what lay across the Channel. Interludes when the Spanish, Dutch or Germans usurped the French as the bogey-man-di-jour did nothing to dispel belief that sea routes of the world offered far more reward than involvement on the continent.
The carnage and mediocre French leadership in WW1 did nothing to dispel such beliefs. British focus was on the Empire and a navy to secure it. At the outbreak of WW2, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) sent to France included all five regular divisions, plus five reservist. Though the best Britain had, they were trained for positional war. Like the French, their commanders thought passively. After eight months of ‘Sitzkreig‘, or ‘phony war’, Lord Gort’s command had still not absorbed the lessons of the Spanish Civil War, nor the swift obliteration of Poland, let alone those of their own advanced military thinkers like Hobart and Fuller.
As a result, on May 10th 1940, the BEF, flanked by the French 1st and 9th armies marched into Belgium to counter the German thrust there. It was a feint. They were completely flat-footed by three German Panzer Corps, led by experts like Guderian, Rommel and Hoepner, lancing through the Ardennes, overwhelming a sluggish French 2nd Army at Sedan and thrusting on to the Channel at Abbeville by May 20th. Neither the French, nor the British could react to prevent this, nor assemble a effective counter-measures.
Pocketed and squeezed within a shrinking perimeter with backs to the Channel, the British blamed the French and organised Operation Dynamo without telling them, It involved dozens of destroyers and smaller flotilla craft, plus hundreds of civilian small ships to lift their shattered army from the port and beaches of Dunkirk
This began on May 26th, rescuing over 300,000 troops being evacuated by June 4th. Initially, no French troops were embarked. It was only when Churchill discovered this that surrounded French Allies were included. The only British amoured division was dispatched to late to help and much of its equipment, along with all of the BEF’s and the entire 51st division trapped at St Valery, were captured by the Germans.
Dunkirk became the latest in a long line of lessons learned by the establishment that involvement in the continent was both painful and unprofitable. And so it was that thirty years and the total loss of empire was necessary before Britain would steel itself to join what would become the European Union—and then only after a confirmatory referendum in 1975. It was the last major nation to do so
But the establishment—and especially a major section of the Conservative party—never resigned itself to this fate. The largely right-wing and jingoistic British press kept things omn the boil, fulminating against EU rules, interference in things British, enforcing metric measures, drowning in wine lakes, pillorying invasive Spanish fishermen, deprecating inefficiency of French farmers. Thatcher’s regular hand-bagging of EU meetings caused resentment among what could have been friends. A growing chorus of Euroskeptic Tories caused on-going grief to Major with his wafer-thin majority.
From then on, various Tory splinter groups from the Referendum Party though UKIP to the Brexit Party kept up a relentless drum-beat for glorious isolation that was a direct descendant of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Walpole, Pitt and Disraeli to disdain intrigues across the Channel and decline to be in any way controlled by them.
Britain’s gesture of involvement that led to Dunkirk underlay the same tentativeness prevarication leadung to 1992’s ERM debacle and the refusal to have any truck with the Euro. Seen from such long-held, ingrained bias, the over-promising enthusiasm of the 2016 NO campaign and the feverish flurry to “get Brexit done” follow as both logically and inevitably.
Though it would be churlish to describe all this as simple xenophobia, there is more than a whiff of the Tarot card of The Fool, stepping blithely into the unknown. Whether Brritain can rregain its Victoriam status of a standalone economic titam seems unproven It is clear that the 300 million people of Europe do not need Britain. Whether the reverse is true is yet to be determined.
It may not represent what the future holds, but in one respect, we already have an example of Britain going its own way—in our health services. The NHS is a fully British creation, always independent of the EU. As the Covid-19 pandemic enters its sixth month, Britain is showing the second-highest total number of cases and the second-highest number of deaths per million people. Worse than that, we are running at 8,000 new cases each day when other countries are less than 1,000, made worse by there being no full test-and-trace system in place before the end of June.
If being medically independent means becoming the Covid epicentre of Europe, what does this portend if we puill off independent-as a moderrn Dunkirk rescuing our economy from the EU? What detritus of prosperity will we leave wrecked on continental beaches? When all the viral dust has settled how will we deal with £2,500,000,000,000 (£76,000 per household)of debt?
Alone, in our glorious isolation.