Lest we forget …. We have not forgotten the sacrifices, but perhaps we have forgotten what caused those sacrifices. Twice in the last century, Europe was convulsed by bloody wars fuelled by nationalism. They were wars between sovereign states ignited by the belief amongst that national advantage could be gained through conflict, and that the forces opposed to them were too weak or irresolute to stop them. In both wars, Britain could conceivably have stood aside from the conflict, and indeed in the the case of World War II there were many who proposed just such a course of action. But in the end, the need to ensure that fascism did not dominate Europe required British intervention; too slow and too ill-prepared at first, subsequently requiring the most enormous commitment of blood and treasure to overcome the poor start. And even with that commitment both wars required the subsequent intervention of the United States to drive them to conclusion. No wonder that the words on every lip at the end of these wars were ‘never again’.
There were several international moves at the end of World War II which aimed to ensure that there could not be another major world or European war. First was the establishment of the United Nations, based in New York and with the United States as a full member. Its predecessor organisation, the League of Nations, had been a lame duck from the start as the long-standing isolationist tendency in the United States had prevented it from joining. Lest we forget, the isolationist views so frequently expressed by Donald Trump are not a new phenomenon but rather a reversion to a historic American norm.
Then there was the establishment of NATO, which served three critical objectives. It stopped Soviet expansion beyond the territories of Eastern Europe taken during the war and established peace throughout the Cold War and beyond on the simple basis that war risked Mutually Assured Destruction. It bound the countries of Western Europe, including Western Germany, into an alliance where all countries stood on the same side. And it overcame the American instinct for isolationism and bound the United States into the defence of Western Europe by agreeing the core principle of collective defence; all members will come to the defence of any who are attacked.
And, finally, there was the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the first supranational organisation in Europe. The ECSC was first proposed by French foreign minister Robert Schuman in 1950 as a way to prevent further war between France and Germany. He declared his aim was to “make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible” through the integration of national economies, of which the ECSC was the first step. The ECSC created a common market for coal and steel among its member states which served to neutralise competition over natural resources. The participating countries sacrificed sovereignty in a move designed to ensure prosperity and peace; a goal which it very successfully achieved.
A lot has happened since then. The UN continues to demonstrate that it cannot be effective when the national interest of the major powers is threatened. NATO has proven itself to be both popular and effective, and has expanded to include countries of the former Warsaw Pact after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But despite, or perhaps because of, its success, the effectiveness of NATO is now at greater risk than ever. Russia is becoming increasingly militaristic, every European country including Britain is underspending and ill-equipped to take on aggression, and the US is distracted. Donald Trump has been the most overt in questioning the US commitment to the principle of collective defence, but Trump or no Trump any European citizen who believes that the US will be automatically unwavering in its defence of any NATO member has not, as they say, been paying attention. And the probability that Russia will test this thesis is growing.
The ECSC meanwhile developed firstly into the EEC and now the EU. Britain joined in the 1970s and subsequently so did the former Warsaw Pact countries. Lest we forget, achieving EU membership for these countries was a major policy goal of successive British governments because it brought into the EU a number of countries with strong affinities with Britain and was for the citizens of those countries an important guarantor of the civil and economic freedoms for which the Cold War had been won.
Then we decided to leave. A colleague once taught me that you cannot talk your way out of something you behave yourself into. And that is so true for Britain today. However much our Brexit Government might talk about an exciting new global role, our behaviours tell of a different reality. They tell of a country turning inwards, placing a greater emphasis on nationalism and national identity, uncertain about the future but unable to return to the past. When Donald Trump describes his own objective as “doing a Brexit” it is hard to believe that this is the sort of emulation we seek.
Lest we forget, the wars which convulsed Europe in the C20 were fuelled by nationalism, and precipitated, at least in 1939, by ambivalence about whether the British (and US) would commit to a European war. Lest we forget, NATO and the EU were founded to eliminate that ambivalence and pool European sovereignty in the interests of lasting peace. Lest we forget, we have chosen to revert to nationalism and introduce ambivalence about intentions at exactly the time when US ambivalence, regardless of who is President, is greater than at any time since the war and Russian militarism at its highest level since the end of the Cold War.
Sixteen million people voted to remain in the EU, and no doubt they voted thus for sixteen million reasons. None of them were asserting that the EU operates perfectly, and does not require reform. But sixteen million people looked at the case for leaving the EU and were not convinced; they decided that the risks outweighed the benefits. Nothing has happened subsequently that could cause a voter to change that assessment. But given where we are, we have to let the government start the process of leaving. That does not mean however that we have to let the process run to conclusion if the problems of leaving, for both Britain and the wider world, become increasingly more manifest. Lest we forget, it is never too late to do the right thing.
Photograph and text ©James Hall