As we hurtle towards the Brexit precipice, our politicians should reflect upon some illuminating yet unsettling history. For the tragic truth is that historically, Britain’s political class has disturbing form when it comes to betraying the geopolitical interests of our country and our continent.
For anyone who cares to look, there are horrific parallels between Tory and Labour foreign policy in the 1930s and now. Both then and now, both party leaderships, in their own different ways, turned their backs on Europe.
Now, of course, both party leaderships support (albeit to different degrees) a course of action, initially promulgated predominantly by the right, that will inevitably result in us reducing the scale of our political engagement with our continent. They must surely realise that their actions could well ultimately contribute to a serious destabilisation of Europe which can only please our major geopolitical adversary, Vladimir Putin, and drive us into the arms of Trump’s America. Similarly, back in the 1930s, Britain’s political parties refused to help strengthen stability and democracy in Europe and instead contributed to their horrific demise.
And as in the 1930s, an unholy mixture of political opportunism and misguided ideology by both major political party leaderships has been driving our country and our continent towards another geopolitical precipice. In the case of the Tories, there is even a degree of personal continuity from the pro-appeasement wing of that party in the 1930s to the Eurosceptic wing of the party in more modern times. In that sense, the geopolitical thinking behind appeasement fed into the roots of the modern Leave movement which won the 2016 Brexit referendum. Indeed, significant pre-war pro-appeasement Tory politicians such as Derek Walker Smith (MP for East Hertfordshire until 1983), Robert Turton (MP for Thirsk and Malton until 1974) and Somerset de Chair (who first entered parliament in 1935, and whose son-in-law is the arch Leave advocate Jacob Rees-Mogg) became notable post-war proto-Eurosceptics.
British Tory betrayal of Europe in the 1930s was nothing short of spectacular. For the Tories, the great and overwhelming priority was the promotion and defence of the empire. They were, on the whole, comparatively uninterested in safeguarding democracy and stability in continental Europe. Indeed, many of them were quite prepared to see Germany rule supreme on the continent, as long as the British Empire could rule supreme in much of the rest of the world.
This unholy yet unwritten policy was in fact what led the Tory-dominated British government to acquiesce (indeed in some ways, encourage) the fascist-backed overthrow (achieved with Italian and German help) of the democratically elected Spanish government, and to acquiesce in the German takeover of Austria and the Czechoslovak Sudetenland. It is also in part what led it to expand the British army (the only potential way of helping to deter Hitler in Europe) at less than 10 per cent a year (after a huge reduction in the 1920s) at a time when Hitler was expanding his army at many times that rate. Between 1935 and 1939, Germany increased its total military spending more than tenfold – while Britain’s Tory-dominated government expanded total UK militarily spending at only around a third of that rate. What’s more, during the Spanish Civil War, Britain maintained an officially neutral position, but in reality secretly connived at helping General Franco’s Nazi-backed rightist rebels as part of its appeasement policy.
The existence of the empire acted as an economic and ideological magnet which enabled and encouraged the government to imagine that Britain had no major strategic need to more substantially involve itself in Europe. The result of this blinkered view was of course catastrophic and led to the deaths of millions.
Likewise, today, the current Tory government seems to think that we have no strategic need to fully participate politically in continental Europe. It fondly imagines that, conceptually, the empire is still there (“disguised” as the Commonwealth), just waiting to sustain and help rescue us. Again, in continental Europe, Tory policies will lead (in the absence of the UK) to a consequent massive increase in German power in Europe, an increase which is likely ultimately to lead to problems in the EU as a whole. And just as in the 1930s, the UK’s departure from Europe (due to appeasement and the Second World War) made us utterly dependent on the USA, so our 2019 departure from Europe (due to Brexit) will also massively increase American influence over our economic and geopolitical existence.
So much for the parallels in Tory policy, but what of the Labour Party leaderships? They too were, and, to an extent, are equally guilty.
Just eight months after Hitler came to power in late January 1933, the Labour leader George Lansbury delivered a speech which would have been music to the Fuhrer’s ears if he ever heard about it – and which represented an abandonment by Labour of the possibility of supporting any real physical backing for European stability: “I would close every recruiting station, disband the army, dismantle the navy, and dismiss the air force. I would abolish the whole dreadful equipment of war and say to the world, ‘Do your worst!’ I believe it would do its best.” Two years later, as Hitler was beginning to massively expand the aggressive capacity of the Luftwaffe, the Labour leadership actually blocked an internal party policy proposal to support British air parity with Germany.
Then, in August 1936, the party leadership (now under Clement Attlee) opted to support the Tory policy of virtual neutrality in the Spanish Civil War. This meant starving the democratically elected Spanish government of the weapons it desperately needed to defend itself against the Nazi and fascist-backed extreme-right military rebels led by General Franco.
The attitude of the British government and Labour opposition tragically eroded European democrats’ and progressives’ confidence that Britain would help bolster stability and democracy in Europe.
Although in June 1937, the Labour leadership technically changed its view on Spain-related neutrality, it was a largely ineffective policy change because the party leadership (though not all the party’s members) still opposed allowing arms to be sent to help save democracy. Instead, it developed a respectable-sounding compromise: the sending of milk and other foodstuffs to victims of the conflict rather than pressing the UK government to allow arms shipments to protect Spanish democracy. Indeed, for almost two years, as fascism was taking over Spain, Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) refused to meet with the Labour grassroots-backed popular campaign. Even just four months before the Second World War finally broke out, the Labour Party conference, on the urging of the party leadership, rejected a motion critical of the NEC’s complete failure to campaign effectively against Nazi-backed aggression in Spain. That was despite the fact that the leadership had, in 1938, spoken strongly against Chamberlain’s notorious Munich agreement with Hitler.
Neither did the Liberals consistently cover themselves in glory. They too, for most of the period, failed in any concrete way to help the Spanish republic defeat the fascist and Nazi-backed forces ranged against it. However, the Liberal leadership was critical of appeasement (and voted against the Munich Agreement), despite the fact that three years after Hitler had come to power (and well after his totalitarian and antisemitic attitudes had become blatantly obvious), the father of the House of Commons, David Lloyd George (who had been Liberal Party leader till 1931) had gone to Berlin to meet the Fuhrer and had publicly declared that his host was none other than “the George Washington of Germany” and “one of the greatest [men] I have ever met”.
That whole sorry story of much of the British political establishment’s ill-conceived slow-motion abandonment of our continent took place eight decades ago. But tragically, here we are again, with a Tory government and the Labour leadership both betraying our continent through their support for Brexit, albeit substantially different potential versions of it.
Pre-referendum, 74 per cent of MPs were anti-Brexit – but that did not stop the vast majority of them, for politically opportunistic reasons (sidelining Ukip) from voting to hold a referendum. Most of the anti-Brexit MPs (including most Labour, Tory, Liberal Democrat and Green ones) thought they could have their cake and eat it. They thought they could come up smelling of roses and still win the referendum. They were ever so wrong and, tragically, had absolutely no understanding of the forces they were unleashing.
Most of those 74 per cent of MPs still know that Brexit is likely to severely damage Britain and our continent, both economically and in terms of political stability and security. They still know that the key people who will rejoice over Brexit will be Putin and other ultra-nationalist, often Russia-aligned, extreme-right movements in Europe. They know that geopolitically European democracy will be weakened. They know that pro-Putin forces still occupy parts of Ukraine, and that some Russian politicians have threatened parts of the EU. They know that Brexit is likely to harm Nato. They know that far-right nationalists are on the rise in many parts of Europe and that both directly and indirectly, politically and economically, Brexit is likely to help their cause.
And yet, the leaderships of both major political parties persist in hurtling towards the Brexit precipice like lemmings bent on ignoring the lessons of the past, and weakening Europe and its long term stability.
Over a century ago, the Spanish-born Harvard philosopher Professor George Santayama warned humanity that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Since the end of the Second World War, most of Europe has enjoyed relative peace and prosperity, partly thanks to the existence of the European Union and its predecessor organisations.
The history of Europe over the past several hundred years has repeatedly demonstrated what an inherently unstable continent we live in. The EU has helped reduce national rivalries and held our continent together. If that geopolitical gravitational energy did not exist, then Europe would risk reverting to its past; nationalist and xenophobic centrifugal forces would erode its unity, be exploited by its enemies, and eventually tear it asunder.
Britain has one of the three biggest populations and economies in Europe, one of its the largest militaries, and has been traditionally a major link between the EU and the rest of the world. Britain’s role in Europe is therefore crucial for long term European stability and prosperity.
If – helped by Brexit – Europe splinters, declines and enters into an era of instability, it is the British people just as much as the French, the Germans, the Italians, the Poles, who will suffer. If only more of our politicians would listen to the good professor.