Bill Jamieson: Leadership needed to win Battle of Brexit

The new film telling the story of the Dunkirk retreat has one strand that should be a lesson for the present day, writes Bill Jamieson

Dunkirk has been a hit at the box office. Picture: Warner Bros
Dunkirk has been a hit at the box office. Picture: Warner Bros

What is it that can turn defeat into national inspiration, and a disaster into a source of pride? Those flocking to see Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster film Dunkirk have these questions emphatically answered in a production hailed by critics and that has already grossed more than $113 million world-wide.

Its evocation of bravery, heroism, and the rallying of dozens of little boats to an apocalyptic rescue operation marks one of the most pivotal moments in our national story.

But the narrative could equally have been told as an unalloyed military catastrophe: an expeditionary force bombed and strafed into a chaotic retreat on the beaches of Dunkirk and driven into the sea. Belgium had collapsed, France routed and the Western front was in total disarray. No amount of glamour can conceal the humiliating failure of the UK’s first major engagement against a superior and rampant German military machine.

Thousands were to lose their lives in the retreat to Dunkirk and on its beaches. So what turned this disaster into a cause of pride and a national rallying point – one from which ultimate victory was to be secured? Desperate heroism played a huge part. So, too, did the arrival of ships that rallied to help rescue thousands of troops from certain death.

But the pivotal element was leadership and the ability of Winston Churchill to have some of the most inspirational speeches in the English language.

Not all are sure of the ‘moral’ of Dunkirk, or that the film’s depiction is as clear and authentic. Christopher Nolan went to considerable trouble to recreate the evacuation of Dunkirk as accurately as possible. But laughably, the film critic of USA Today took issue with its lack of diversity and equality because only two women are featured and there are no lead actors of colour.

How much better it would have been, perhaps, had it featured Clare Balding in football shorts clutching a microphone, or a group of fist-bumping rappers sharing their experiences with Oprah Winfrey. That America did not enter the war until late 1941 and newsreel footage at the time showed rescuers and rescued as almost universally male may be condemned as a terrible insult to diversity, but historical fact nonetheless.

More seriously, the BBC Radio 4 Today programme item on the film queried whether it might carry a veiled warning about Brexit and indeed whether it was unfair to the French. Did Dunkirk unfairly sideline the contribution of the French resistance? Might not the film be playing to a Brexit escapist mythology: that “we’re never better than when we stand alone”?

But like the British Expeditionary Force, Brexit ministers, outnumbered and out-classed, are being forced into humiliating retreat. The pound is battered, the economy buckling, business investment sinking and living standards headed down.

There is one element at least where such a parallel is true: the lack of national leadership that explains why the government is failing to win the war of hearts and minds on Brexit.

In truth, there are grounds for taking a less defeatist view. Employment is now at an all-time high, while unemployment has fallen.

This week brought news that car giant BMW is to build a fully electric version of the Mini in the UK. It said it had “neither sought nor received” any reassurances from the UK on post-Brexit trading arrangements. And there have been reports that Toyota agreed to invest in the UK after receiving a letter reassuring the Japanese carmaker over post-Brexit arrangements.

Amazon revealed it was doubling the number of R&D specialists it is looking to recruit in London and EasyJet announced it is seeking 1,200 new cabin crew - its largest ever single recruitment drive - of whom half will be based at Gatwick Airport. All positive news and a further vote of confidence in the British economy.

Meanwhile, the latest quarterly CBI Industrial Trends Survey this week reveals that production among UK manufacturers grew at the fastest pace since January 1995 in the three months to July.

The survey of 397 manufacturers also found that employee headcount increased at the fastest rate for three years and that hiring intentions for the coming quarter also improved. Optimism rose marginally in the three months to July, while export optimism for the year ahead rose at a slower, but still healthy pace.

Domestic orders expanded at a strong pace, similar to the rate in the previous quarter, and growth in export orders also remained brisk, despite slowing somewhat.

Output growth is expected to continue to grow strongly in the quarter ahead and manufacturers are upbeat about prospects for overall demand. Domestic orders are expected to continue growing strongly, while expectations for growth in export orders improved to a four-decade high.

Nor has Scotland missed out on better than feared news – or news “despite Brexit” as the BBC might prefer to phrase it.

There was the 0.8 per cent GDP growth recorded for the first quarter of the year – against widespread forecasts that Scotland would slide into recession.

July, in the words of economist Tony Mackay, has been an “encouraging month for the Scottish economy, with many more positive developments than negative ones”.

The good news included a further 800 fall in the number of people unemployed; new shipbuilding orders for Royal Navy vessels; AGO to create 470 call centre jobs in East Kilbride; and a 7.7 per cent increase in passenger numbers at the three main airports. Other good news included a £3 million expansion by RR Spink in Arbroath, Barrhead Travel creating 45 jobs in Glasgow, Smart Vehicle Solutions creating 40 jobs in Livingston and Orion Group of Inverness winning multi-million pound overseas contract.

Of particular interest is news that Scottish law firm Morton Fraser has linked a rise in annual revenues to the Brexit referendum.

It said this week “Brexit positives” had led to “a notable increase” in corporate and property transactions. It also benefited from overseas investors looking to take advantage of the drop in value of sterling. The company said the year had been “punctuated by several positive outcomes from the Brexit referendum, including a notable increase in corporate and property transactions in Scotland”.

So much for “despite Brexit”.

And the latest Scottish Chambers of Commerce survey findings for the second quarter revealed “a broadly positive story in terms of business performance across most sectors”. Neil Amner, chair of the SCC’s economic advisory group, said performance in the construction sector has improved since the beginning of the year… Manufacturing businesses have again reported strong results, with evidence of a sharp increase in export revenues, possibly as a result of the exchange rate.

“The tourism sector is also looking well set for the summer, whilst key indicators in the financial and business services sector, such as profitability and employment, have returned to their best levels for over two years.”

It’s not all good news, of course, but neither is it a one-way walk down Doom Street. What we lack most is belief – and, as Dunkirk vividly showed, a national leadership capable of providing it.