The anniversary of the sinking of two great capital ships off Singapore, one of the great British defeats of the Second World War, falls unnoticed between the proposed May-Corbyn debate on 9 December and the House of Commons vote on the Brexit agreement with the EU on 11 December. This is a pity because the miscalculations that go into producing first rate disasters, both political and military, have a lot in common.
Seventy-seven years ago, on 10 December 1941, Japanese planes found and sank the battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse when they unwisely sailed north of Singapore without air cover in a bid to attack the Japanese forces invading Malaya. Describing his reaction to the sinking, in which 840 sailors died, Churchill said: “In all the war, I never received a more direct shock.”
The ingredients that led to this naval calamity were similar in general terms to those producing most disasters: inadequate resources for the task in hand, over-optimistic assessment of the risks, and self-destructive ignorance of the obstacles to be faced. The two ships went to their doom because the British had no more forces to send and underestimated the threat of Japanese air attack.
Supporters of Britain leaving the EU will bristle and say that it is far too apocalyptic to draw any parallel between a military reverse in the last century and Brexit today. They will say that this is one more exaggerated example of “Project Fear” and “Project Hysteria”, and all that is needed is to keep our nerve and exercise greater willpower until those EU leaders and negotiators come running, because they know that their countries would lose out, though not as much as the UK, from a failure to reach an agreement.
This optimistic view suffers from a profound and deeply damaging lack of understanding about what is really at stake as Britain fumbles its way towards the EU exit door. Rational debate on the EU in Britain has been hobbled for years, because it is conducted in terms of economic advantages and disadvantages with talk focusing on issues like single markets and custom unions, tariffs and those magical free trade agreements we are to sign with countries hungering for British goods and services.
But the EU is, and has always been, primarily a political rather than an economic organisation. This has been true since 9 May 1950 when the French politician Robert Schumann made his proposal for the French-German Coal and Steel Community out of which the EU was to develop. The purpose of the Schumann plan was to bind France and Germany together, but the British at that time – and up to the present day – had great difficulty in taking this on board. They have always exaggerated the extent to which the EU is about fostering free trade and economic prosperity.
The nature of the EU, the primacy of politics over economics, made Brexiteer hopes of German carmakers and industrialists pressuring their government to keep access to British markets to be so disappointingly unrealised. The quasi-democratic trappings of the EU, whereby its 27 members appear to have an equal voice, is deceptive. If Germany, France and the EU core members want something then they are going to get it and Britain is going to be over-matched, regardless of whether or not it is inside or outside the union. The outcome of the Brexit negotiations have simply underlined the extent to which the balance of power is skewed against Britain.
The myth preached in Britain down the decades that Brussels is an all-powerful behemoth has led people to underestimate the degree to which Europe is a continent of nation states bound together in a treaty-based alliance dominated by Germany and France.
The French see the revolutionary nature of what Britain is proposing to do more realistically than the British themselves. An article in Le Figaro by Adrien Jaulmes goes to the heart of what is happening, saying that “the UK has built its power on two principles: keep the British Isles united and the European continent divided. Today it is close to succeeding in doing the opposite.”
Jaulmes goes on to cite with approval Jo Johnson’s denunciation of the Brexit venture as a failure of British statecraft not seen since the Suez crisis in 1956. Unfortunately, it is a much more serious failure than Suez where the crisis was short in duration, underlining the self-evident fact that Britain could not launch wars opposed by nationalist forces against the wishes of the US.
Other peacetime crises cited as comparable to Brexit, such as the Ulster Crisis of 1912-14 or going off the gold standard in 1931, do not approach Brexit in terms of long term impact. Only wartime calamities like the loss of the Prince of Walesand Repulse, and the British defeat in Malaya that followed soon thereafter, are really similar to Brexit in terms of the damage done to the British state. To quote Churchill again, the Malayan campaign was “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”.
A further reason for drawing an analogy between Brexit and wartime disasters is that there is a gratifying but false belief by the British that they flourish in times of disaster. But the disasters usually cited as examples of national robustness at dark moments are usually not that disastrous. Gallipoli and Dunkirk, both heroic failures but not total defeats, are remembered, but not Mesopotamia, where in the First World War 100,000 British and Indian troops were killed or wounded, or Malaya where 130,000 British, Indian and Australian troops were taken prisoner by a smaller Japanese force in 1941-42.
There is nothing surprising about this. What nation anywhere in the world wants to advertise its defeats? But the British differ from other Europeans in having a positive collective memory of the Second World War which is ceaselessly massaged by books and television. The past gains a golden glow, far from reality, which fuels a comfy belief that predictions of disaster are either exaggerated or a malign effort to generate fear and sabotage the whole glorious Brexit project. It is difficult to imagine a cast of mind more likely to produce frustration and failure.
The demonisation of Brussels as a hegemonic power from whose thrall or “vassalage” Britain needs to escape, leads many to think that they can establish new trading and political relations with all 27 states. Cornish fishermen imagine that post-Brexit they will be able both to catch more fish and go on selling most of it unimpeded to France despite new bureaucratic obstacles. Anything affecting the 900,000 Poles resident in Britain will affect relations with Poland and a Poland empowered by still being a member of the EU.
The supporters of Brexit want greater control or self-determination for Britain, but departure from the EU means that we will permanently rank behind Germany and France. The country is already weaker than it was three years ago and that is even before leaving the EU. The British are more divided and the states of the EU more united than ever before – the exact opposite of British strategy down the centuries. Whatever the impact on trade and the economy, Britain will be a lesser power in future.