Leaving aside the heroism displayed there by thousands, whether military or civilian, the reality was a disaster that saw tens of thousands dead and others left to face imprisonment for the war’s duration. It wasn’t the start of good times but the prelude to privation and bombing, and it also forgets how close Britain came to surrendering.
The country survived but the dismantling of the empire began when the conflict was over. It was the price of victory, as well as a recognition of a new world order in which Britain had slipped down the rankings.
That, though, was a war that had to be fought to see off fascism. This isn’t a war whatever bellicose language is used but a political decision of quite incredible self-harm. But its ramifications are severe and the reverberations might well bring both the pillars and the state crashing down.
Of course, the United Kingdom hasn’t been inviolate since 1707. As the historian Norman Davies has argued the creation of the Irish Free State came at the price of the dismantling of the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland. Now the remnants of that order in Northern Ireland and Scotland, perhaps even Wales are threatened.
Institutions of state come and go but some remain fundamental. With the United Kingdom Crown, Parliament, Church and Military all spring to mind. But all are pale shadows of the former prestige that once radiated from them. Despite the bravado of Brexiteer politicians the age of empire is over.
Britain had 100,000 soldiers in Ireland alone during the war of independence. Now the army doesn’t have anything like that number even worldwide. Pouring so much money into Trident missiles means that even the ones they possess are ill equipped and the navy’s flagship aircraft carrier has no planes. Hardly their finest hour.
In our secular society the national churches have become largely symbolic and their role greatly reduced. The displays of the empire’s victories adorning cathedral walls both sides of the border are from a time when those buildings were packed. Now many lie empty and new beliefs have arrived. Faith may still have a place in society but it’s no longer a pillar of state despite the lingering absurdity of the protestant ascendancy.
That leaves Parliament and the Crown. The latter has become embroiled by the PMs actions. Arguably the Queen required to sign the recall yesterday but it leaves the Monarchy vulnerable. Whatever they do or fail to do, they alienate one side of a deeply divided land. How ironic that those claiming to be taking back control from an unelected EU, now imperil an unelected Monarchy they claim to revere. Republicanism has been empowered, the issue decades ago over Australia’s Governor General is but nothing to this.
The Crown’s already facing enough troubles. Prince Andrew’s a story that’s not going away any time soon. Jeffrey Epstein’s going to run and run as the American press smell blood and far from just with an heir to the throne. Who knows what will come out of that but his removal from public life is telling? Stories already swirl in circles in America regarding other members of the Royal Household and even spats between Royals have gone public. Social media which has boosted their profile, may prove their undoing.
All of which leaves Parliament as the last bastion of the British State. Yet it’s failing and the political class is being held in contempt. Some of that’s through electoral circumstance but both the behaviour and failure of many elected leaders has compounded that.
Proroguing parliament is undemocratic and the action of a despot. It was done in the Scottish Parliament pre 1707 by Charles I but that didn’t end well either. In these modern democratic times, it’s simply disgraceful and shows the charlatan that he is and the sinister nature of his backers.
Since the Independence referendum it’s not just EU membership, the pension age or the supposed certainty of sterling that’s disappeared like snow of a dyke. Now it’s the apparent benefit of being part of the British State with all its symbols, prestige and power. As those pillars of state crumble, what holds the United Kingdom together other than some sentiment and history? It’s a potential revolutionary moment but not as Brexiteers planned.