Brexit and the Cultural Memory of the Second World War

In the first half of 2016, prior to the EU referendum, I read British Cultural Memory and the Second World War. Post-referendum, I am continually reminded of this book, for it seems that virtually every time a public figure talks of Brexit they talk also of WWII.

Cultural memory of the war, and particularly of 1940 when ‘Britain stood alone’, has been cited for years first to convince us and now to assure us that Britain does not need the EU.

British commentary on the EU is typically obsessed by the war: the EU is dominated by ‘expansionist Germany’  and ‘Britain alone’ is brave and standing against those who would take away our sovereignty. The war is used to strengthen a particular British identity, to set us (a very qualified ‘us’) apart from the rest of the world.

What is this identity? It is one of togetherness, of standing against an enemy larger than us and doing it with humour and determination, everyone ‘pulling together’. Public memory of 1940s Britain is of the home front, ‘the people’ are white and English-speaking, culturally and ethnically homogenous. When this wartime identity is asserted in regard to Brexit, it is done so in order to implicitly criticise deviations from it.

And yet this 1940 wartime identity of the isolated British is spurious. Cultural memory privileges particular memories and narratives over others and so it determines not only what we remember, but what we forget[1]. Brexit might mean Brexit, but when it comes to the Second World War alone doesn’t mean alone.

The Battle of Britain was fought by airmen from fifteen different countries. The RAF roll of honour names 2353 British airmen and 574 from overseas. The Polish airmen in particular are remembered for their skill in combat, Unit 303 recognised as the most successful fighter command unit in the Battle of Britain. However, by focusing only on the airmen, we miss the true scale of the contribution by people of colour and of international participants. There were, for example, 10,000 Caribbean and 14,000 Polish servicemen and servicewomen in the RAF.

Many of the European servicemen and servicewomen in the RAF were exiles and refugees. Those who were not European were part of the British Empire. It is difficult to reconcile the view of Britain alone with the knowledge that Britain was the political centre for a quarter of the world’s population. (Indeed Kojo Koram has argued that Britain has never even existed as a nation, never mind one that stood alone.)

Cultural memory of war marginalises and excludes those who do not fit into the identity of the white, English-speaking, home front. (And to be clear I’ve mentioned only the servicemen and women of the RAF for brevity’s sake, not because the RAF was an exception.) It is important to note that a white wartime Britain also erases the people of colour present in Britain prior to 1939: immigration in the public memory then becomes ‘new’.

Post-war Britain encouraged immigration, but did so while constructing a post-colonial national identity of war-winning white British solidarity, masking the loss of national power that came with the end of Empire. The marginalisation of non-British and non-white communities from cultural memory pre-1945 continues to allow exclusion and marginalisation. This has been evident in the Brexit campaign (and for many years prior), when ‘the British at war’ have been venerated as exhibiting the true British identity – and if to be British means to be white, then the acceptance of others into that community becomes less possible.

It is important then to challenge the popular narrative of wartime Britain ‘standing alone’ and of the validity of the war time British identity. For with Brexit on the horizon our future is set to be built on the memories of a past that did not exist.


[1] Cultural memory of the war does not shape itself spontaneously of course, but is shaped, for example, by acts of public remembrance. This is particularly obvious every November, when any public figure who refuses to wear a poppy (i.e. refuses to conform to a specific act of remembrance) can expect to receive a great deal of criticism.

The privileging of particular narratives is clear in the breaking of the Enigma code – this may have been done at Bletchley Park, but it was not until 2014 did Britain acknowledge the contribution of the Polish code-breakers who made the first breakthrough.


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