Lesley Riddoch: Westminster hysteria has created ludicrous war time parallels

French and British troops taken prisoner by the Germans at Dunkirk, during World War II, May 1940. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
French and British troops taken prisoner by the Germans at Dunkirk, during World War II, May 1940. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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Roll out the barrel. With just 54 shopping days till Brexit, a plethora of newspaper stories have linked Britain’s present predicament to heroic moments during the Second World War, when Britannia (arguably) ruled the waves.

The most eye-catching revelation suggests the Defence Secretary is planning a “Dunkirk-style” flotilla of Royal Navy boats to get emergency supplies from Europe after March 29th. The story is illustrated by a picture of a grim-faced, uniformed Kenneth Branagh from Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster film of the same name.

News of a Monty-Pythonesque plan to “evacuate” the Queen on the Hebridean Princess in case of post-Brexit civil disturbance has a similar wartime feel, and last week the BBC’s News at Six accidentally cut to archive footage of Second World War planes instead of Theresa May as presenter Sophie Raworth recapped the night’s main news item. The BBC shrugged it off as a production mistake, but it was as if Aunty had somehow channelled the new, crazy and alarmist message being subliminally pushed by every Brexit-supporting newspaper – Britain is at war with Europe.

On Sunday, the Brexit supporting Tory MP, Daniel Kawczynski, created a Twitter storm by claiming that Britain had got nothing from American payments in 1948 to help rebuild Europe. Au contraire, Britain received 26 per cent of Marshall Plan aid, France got 18 per cent and West Germany just 11 per cent. But this default victim mentality and the head of steam building behind the idea of a “people’s retreat” from the beaches of Europe on March 29th are both hard to counter by facts alone.

The memory of Britain’s war history is emotionally present for millions of voters right now, after the centenary of the Armistice and years of searching TV analysis about the origins, experience and aftermath of the First World War. Combine that with the enduring hold our wartime experience exercises over politicians, broadcasters and journalists and it’s hardly surprising the impending threat/challenge/disaster of Brexit is viewed by some through the distorting prism of Britain’s last haphazard retreat from mainland Europe.

But the parallel with war cuts both ways.

WW1 anniversaries produced searching documentaries, which prompted open debate about the contested nature of many of Britain’s “landmark victories.” I’d guess many Scots were amazed at the open-mouthed horror on display in London TV studios after Ross Greer’s challenge to the legacy of Winston Churchill. Of course labels like “racist” and “white supremacist” grabbed the headlines, but the Green MSP’s willingness to explain himself on TV and Radio meant the hitherto unheard war experiences of folk in Clydebank, Ireland, Palestine and Bengal finally got an airing. That seems only fair. In January, a Celtic Connections concert and an entire evening of programmes on BBC Alba told the terrible story of the Iolaire, which sank with the loss of 205 men just outside Stornoway on New Year’s Day 1919, when the over-loaded and under-resourced ship was driven onto the rocks. There were only 80 life jackets for 284 men. Only afterwards did one life jacket per passenger become mandatory in the Armed Forces.

And of course, while 300,000 soldiers were rescued at Dunkirk, 40 thousand were left on the beaches, hundreds were shot and and ten thousand from the 51st Highland Division wound up in German POW camps. Essentially Dunkirk gave a morale-boosting, positive spin to a military debacle. Is that the real wartime parallel with Brexit? Is Britain heading for a comprehensive and humiliating defeat, which will be passed off by politicians as an incredible national victory?

Actually, improbable as it sounds, that’s entirely possible.

Weekend papers were full of rumours about another snap election on the 75th anniversary of D-Day on June 6th – possible because Jeremy Corbyn is bound to back any bid to overturn the Fixed Parliament Act. Of course, the Tories and the media under-estimated Labour and its unconventional leader last time around and Diane Abbott’s argument with Question Time highlights the danger of looking at one opinion poll instead of the very mixed trend. But a weekend poll suggests the Tories have opened up a seven-point lead in the last fortnight and Labour is betwixt and between -- no longer backed by the majority of Remainders but not entirely trusted by Brexiteers either. So is the parallel with “Dunkirk” being respun and weaponised to carry Theresa May through Brexit to another General Election victory?

It is inconceivable to most Scots that Theresa May’s shambolic and shameful performance could possibly lead her to think she can hold the Tory Party never mind the country together after Brexit. But such is the irrational delusion abroad in England and the arrogance bordering on madness within Number Ten that this fatally wounded PM thinks she could just do it. Apparently the plan is for the Prime Minister to delay the Article 50 process beyond March, win Commons support for her deal in April and then go back to the country, and win. Of course the Tory leader has said a million times she will not delay the March 29th deadline or call an election. But doubtless she will reluctantly be “forced” to rethink. Hence the talk of Tory Party HQ moving onto ‘war footing’ by block-booking printing plants, boosting spending on digital advertising and allocating funds to the constituencies of Labour MPs as ‘bribes’ to a swithering electorate.

Theresa May’s chief of staff Gavin Barwell is believed to have come up with this “cash for coal” bribe wheeze – not just to secure vital MPs’ votes during the lengthy Brexit process (trade talks haven’t even started yet), but to create pre-election goodwill towards the Government in deprived communities, including former mining villages, which still blame the Tories for Margaret Thatcher’s destruction of their lives and their industry.

The D-Day election plan sounds desperate and may simply be untrue – but to paraphrase a well-worn saying; in the land of blind panic, the half-baked plan is King.

Still the obvious has to be stated. The mood of hysteria within the Westminster bubble has helped create a ludicrous parallel with a time when Germany was invading, killing and exterminating whole peoples. That Germany has gone. The new Germany has helped create a successful vehicle for peace between neighbours who’ve spent centuries at war. Germany and the rest of modern Europe stand united within the EU. Can “victorious” Britain say the same?