A week on from watching Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece, Dunkirk, I remain stunned. The genius of the film is the way in which it captures both the brutal intimacy of warfare and its dehumanising elements. As a viewer, you are transfixed both by the terror of the Nazi bombers, and by how robotic and regimented the War has made the rank-and-file soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force.
The film moves not through contrivance, but through realism. Not through blood and guts, but through love and hate. Not through drama, but through the honest exposition of human madness. Had my grandfather – who kept our Spitfires soaring so that they could guard our stranded troops – seen the film, I know how highly he would have regarded it. His truly was the greatest generation.
The emotion that me and fellow grandchildren of those who fought the Nazis feel about that remarkable deliverance is palpable. It is core to our British identity. To compensate for the loss of empire, Britain renewed its identity partly by focussing on the plucky heroism that was displayed at Dunkirk. Which is why I found Rafael Behr’s “peak Guardian” article about the relationship between Dunkirk and Brexit so utterly infuriating.
In his piece, Behr says both Brexit and Dunkirk were driven by “humiliation.” Now, I don’t know why The Guardian makes such an effort to run this country down so frequently – although I know it does the left no favours. But I can assure you, my grandfather felt no humiliation when he, along with hundreds of thousands of other servicemen and ordinary fishermen, saved the Allied war effort, and with it, the fate of Europe, over a series of seminal days in June, 1940.
There is no glory in retreats, whether from Dunkirk or the European Union. Brexit is a retreat from the world. To regard it as a triumph for the nation would be to find common ground with the infamous grandson of a German migrant – Nigel Farage. But to say that Brexit was driven by “humiliation” is an insult. It wasn’t. It was driven by furious patriotic pride which, were it marshalled anew by the Labour Party, would remind the world of Britain’s greatness.
It was out of Britain’s survival and victory in the Second World War that the greatest Labour government of all emerged. As John Bew argues in his biography of Clement Attlee, that gilded ministry was built on “social patriotism.” Labour made socialist arguments and introduced socialist policies on a foundation of British patriotism, not in diminution of it.
A similar challenge now presents itself to the modern Labour Party. The fallout from our retreat from Europe demands a Labour Party that is once again willing to embrace patriotism. Capture that zeitgeist, pour it out through a vision of a fairer future for all, and Labour will once again win the trust and respect of the British people.
If Brexit is to be our new Dunrkirk, then let Labour – the party my grandfather voted for with pride – provide the sailing boats, and with them – a new hope for Britain.