Report and Video: Darkest Hour? Churchill myth-making and the great Brexit fiasco

On June the 3rd 2019, The International Institute for Peace (IIP), in collaboration with the Sir Peter Ustinov Institute hosted an event Darkest Hour? Churchill myth-making and the great Brexit fiasco. The main speaker was Prof. Dr. Robert Knight, a historian from University College London. Welcome remarks were given by Hannes Swoboda, President of the International Institute for Peace (IIP), while the discussion was moderated by Maryia Hushcha, a project assistant at the IIP.

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The lecture wanted to prove the main point that an important route for the current political Brexit fiasco comes from a mistaking of World War II and Winston Churchill, specifically the role that Churchill had during the crisis of 1940 soon after taking office as Prime Minister. This is the time, that goes for one year, in which, according to many accounts, Great-Britain stood alone against Nazi-Germany. To do this Knight started showing a short clip from the movie: “Darkest Hour”. The scene shows Churchill bonding together with the people of London in the underground. (put link) After receiving their support, the Prime Minister gives the famous “Dunkirk Speech” about no surrender against Nazi-Germany. This scene was later used by Brexiter commentators to prove that in certain historical moments when the European continent is going in one direction, it is possible for the UK to go in a different one. In order to prove wrong this narration, Prof. Knight went firstly back to the author of the quotations stated by Churchill in the underground scene, Thomas Macaulay. Secondly and thirdly, he proposed two elements for alternative narratives based on a less uncritical reading of British imperialism in relation to India and Western Indies. Lastly, he concluded that the narration perfectly represented by the movie “darkest hour” has led to the current politics of fantasy and Brexit fiasco.

Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods…”
—Thomas Babington Macaulay 

Thomas Macaulay was a prominent Victorian politician and historian, a whig and early liberal. He spoke for the ending of penalties for Catholics and Jews. As a historian, he portraited a glorious English history. He was confident in the European cultural superiority and in Britain representing the highest point of civilization. Serving as Paymaster-General in India, he played a major role in the introduction of English language and western concepts in the Indian education system. He didn’t think about the anglification of the whole Indian population but only about an elite, which should work as: “Interpreter between us and the millions we govern. A class of persons Indian in color and race but English in manners, taste, and morals.” During his lifetime, he became famous for his writing. In the quoted poem, extract from “Lays of Ancient Rome”, he made a clear parallel between the Roman Republic and English national imperialism mission to civilize the rest of the world. In this sense, he was an optimist supporter of British imperialism.

This premise led the discussion to Churchill and his relations with India. He is, in fact, many times considered a late Victorian imperialist. He shared with Macaulay an optimistic approach and full trust in the superiority of British institutions. As a young man, he served in several British colonies. He was for sure an imperialist. In a recent biography, the relationship between Churchill and the Empire was defined as his “secular religion”. In a famous quote attributed to him from the year 1942, he declared that he didn’t become prime minister to preside the liquidation of the British Empire. But was Churchill also a racist? Sure he was, in the sense that most of the British upper class was at that time. We have to be cautious, Churchill didn’t have explicit racist ideas as other of his contemporaries. But it is for sure that he heavily opposed and expressed hatred against Gandhi and the Congress party.

When coming to West-Indies (e.g. Caribbean) instead, Macaulay came from a family engaged in the movement for the abolition of slavery. In this sense, he supported the abolitionist movement but with less commitment than his father and criticized both the abolitionists for their hypocrisy and the slave traders. In the century which followed emancipation, the West-Indies had less importance and a more marginal role in the British empire. In the late thirties and early forties, the living conditions in the West-Indies were awful, with very high rates of unemployment. This takes us back to the unrealistic scene in the underground, in which Churchill quoted Macaulay verses. The poem is continued by Marcus Peters, a black man from West-Indies. The scene is very unrealistic for a series of reasons which will be described below and tried to show a British empire more egalitarian and open than it ever was. First, there were very few western-Indians in London in 1940, only a few hundred working at the docks and a few more in Liverpool. Second, it would have been very unlucky for a person of such origin to be aware of Macaulay verses. The western-indies education system was totally Eurocentric but was also highly selective for what concerns social and racial hierarchy of the islands. Very few black men managed to reach secondary education, even fewer went to universities in England. Marcus Peter is unlucky to fit in any of this few exceptions. It is a fantasy narration which also does not take into consideration the racist animosity of the other travelers in the underground.

The last point concerns the connection between the mentioned imperialistic narration with the present Brexit fiasco. Prof. Knight argument is that the fantasy planet in which part of the British political class seems to inhabit has been fostered by mythology about the second World War, and films like the “darkest hour”, together with commentary from certain newspapers, are responsible for the creation of such fictional mythology. The myth is made of at least three elements. First, the illusion that the application of optimism and will power can overcome rational calculation, one just has to believe in Great Britain. Second, the illusion that we don’t have to care about the damage that our actions do, there will be in the end no hard feelings. In this sense, the British empire is portrait as an altruistic project and the former colonies (India) or in this case, the EU member states would be happy to conclude special deals with Britain. Lastly, the illusion of national harmony. Since the referendum of 2016, there has not been at all a plebiscitary position in favor of leaving. The initial triumphalism has transformed into a feeling of sabotage, considering traitors the one not aligning with the majority. This spread division and hatred in society, which later exploded also into violent actions (e.g. Assassination of labor MP Joe Cox). The debatable rhetoric according to which Great Britain stood alone between 1940 and 1941, and it won the war DESPITE or even AGAINST the rest of Europe has been wrongly translated in the completely different situation of international trade negotiations. The daily Express titled, for example, after the summit of September 2018 between EU and Theresa May: “Her finest hour in a war with the EU”.

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Coming finally back to the Darkest hour movie, Prof. Knight proposed an alternative scene as an alternative narration to the current situation. In the alternative underground scene, Churchill could have met one of the thousands of foreigners who were really traveling in the London underground. Refugees, Jews and not Jews from Germany, Austria, Poland or Czechoslovakia. He could have even bonded together with some of the recently arrived Czech or Polish pilots that would have soon risked their lives in the battle of Britain. But this more truthful scene could have easily led to a different narration: that Britain didn’t fight against Europe but against Nazi-Germany alongside European refugees. In conclusion, Knight didn’t deny Winston Churchill as a great war leader. However, journalists and politicians, have been fed far too long with the crisis of 1940 both politically and morally. The events concerning Brexit has shown that the total trust in British institution is dead and that such imperialist narration has been proven wrong to benefit the British people.

In the following Q&A session, a series of issues were tackled more concerning the situation nowadays such as the possibility of a breakup of the United Kingdom as a consequence of Brexit as well as the possibility for a second referendum and the special relationship with the US. For what concern a possible UK breakup, Prof. Knight is skeptical and referred more to Ireland than Scotland in this sense. The Northern-Ireland situation has been considered by Brexiter politicians as an extremely peripherical issue, following an imperialist narration. Requests from Northern-Ireland are rarely taken seriously into consideration, it only happens when there is a small majority in the parliament and the tories have to rely on the support of a Northern-Ireland faction. This could lead to troubles in the future if the topic is not addressed in the right way. When coming to a second referendum, it seems lucky to take place but the real risk is that it could be again inconclusive or with a lower turnout. Finally, the special relationship between the UK and the US is much time mentioned. But it is useful, in this regard, to remember Tony Blair’s experience. He gave full support to the US President Bush, trying to play a mentoring role but fail. In the same way, it seems difficult to trust and rely on president Trump. Looking back in a historical perspective instead, we can see that the US supplies, as well as the supplies from the Commonwealth, helped Great Britain to hold on during the 1940’s crisis. This question again the wrong narration of Great Britain standing alone and being successful.

Watch the video from the event here