What Boris Johnson Doesn’t Know About British History

When they take a serious view of British history that is not coloured by Shakespeare’s plays or Errol Flynn movies, Brexiteers have never shown much understanding of the roots of Britain’s successes.

By Patrick Cockburn and cross-posted from Counterpunch 

What will be Britain’s standing in the world compared to other nation states after Brexit? Sane analysis has been overwhelmed by vituperative debate as we get closer to the day of the great rupture.

Boris Johnson claimed in his resignation speech that after a full-throttle Brexit, Britain will be in a good position to become “one of the great independent actors” on the world stage. He feared only a failure in the necessary will-power and self-confidence “to believe in this country and what it can do”.

But what can this country really do? How far will greater independence outside the EU be real rather than nominal? Will strength of will in pursuit of self-determination make much difference when we will always be holding a weaker hand of cards than our neighbours?

This imbalance of forces is highlighted every day in the Brexit negotiations, and there is no reason why this should change in our favour after we leave.

Supporters of Brexit discount such realpolitik, saying that they are inspired – and seek to emulate – a past in which Britain as a fully independent state won victories against the odds. Critics often deride this approach as self-indulgent nostalgia, but there are real lessons to be learned from past British experience.

The problem is that Brexiteers, when they take a serious view of British history that is not coloured by Shakespeare’s plays or Errol Flynn movies, have never shown much understanding of the roots of Britain’s successes.

The British only stood alone during the centuries when they had miscalculated the political wind direction, or had been left with absolutely no alternative. At the heart of British strategy was the drive to join or create alliances with other countries powerful enough to overcome any enemy.

It was this formula that put Britain on the winning side in the Napoleonic Wars, the First World War and the Second: the three great conflicts that shaped the contemporary world.

Against Napoleon, it was the combination of Britain with Russia, Prussia and the Habsburg Empire that produced the victory for which the British traditionally claimed exaggerated credit. In the 1914-18 war, the British priority was to bring about US intervention, and the same was true in 1939-45.

Britain only stood heroically alone during a relatively short period between the fall of France in 1940 and Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, followed later in the year by his declaration of war on the US after Pearl Harbour.

Churchill’s record as a military leader was dubious in both wars – remember Gallipoli and Norway. His greater and more valuable skill was to foster and maintain a grand alliance against Germany which was bound to win in the end. The centrality of these alliances tends to be masked by unwavering focus on Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the triumphs of the British codebreakers.

British pre-eminence was based on defence by the Royal Navy, which prevented invasion, and the patient construction of a war-winning coalition. The last time Britain fought a major conflict without such an alliance was the American war of independence, which concluded with disappointing results for our side…

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