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Brexit and Military Losses of the Past Show Up British Exceptionalism
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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 Repulsewhen 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.

ORDER IT NOW

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.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brexit, Britain, EU 
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  1. peterAUS says:

    Is it just me but all the recent articles about Brexit on this site are against it?

    That’s fine. A bit weird, but fine.

    Still….any chance we could see just ONE article speaking about the thing from the position of those who voted for Brexit?
    Just one, please.

    Cheers

    • Replies: @Seraphim
  2. Britain will be a lesser power in future.

    Cry me a river.

  3. Sean says:

    Some good solid analysis, and yes there is a primacy of foreign policy over domestic, but it was being taken too far. The importation of workers to keep wages down in those jobs not lost since Britain was opened up to to European Economic Community competitor was sustainable. Immigration from the EC was really a flood that showed no sign of ending and the country as a whole could not take any more and remain cohesive. Just as with the post war Empire the EU was a case of over-extension, Britain just did not have the power to project.

    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.

    It is mainly a British capitalist conspiracy that wants the Poles to continue to come in. The perspective is very narrow and leads to the country coming apart.

    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.

    Well Britain’s status should reflect a reality. the UK made a mistake trying to maintain it’s world power status after WW2, a similar one when it tried to go into Europe and be important there. Following this repeated over-reach we are weak but still a substantial country. Destiny consists of minding one’s own business.

  4. Bystander says:

    Patrick Cockburn’s arguments against Brexit were made by many in 1904 as Iceland attempted to sever itself from colonial Denmark. The little nation of less than 100,000 was the poorest, most illiterate in Europe and suffered from the highest TB rate. Apart from wool and fish, the island had no natural resources. And yet the, largely illiterate, islanders had an ‘insane’ belief they would be better off without prosperous Denmark!

    Fortunately for Iceland, in the midst of WWII, the US Navy came calling. An unsinkable landing strip, the US needed Iceland as a refueling stop-over for aircraft en-route to Great Britain.

    A polite divorce letter was duly delivered to the King of Denmark in 1944 and Iceland began a national project to educate its children and build TB sanitariums. When these children graduated from High School, Iceland financed collegiate studies abroad, largely in Norway and Scotland. (These scholarships were ultimately, if unexpectedly, repaid by the young scholars who developed a custom of translating significant books in their respective professional fields into Icelandic.)

    Today, Iceland is the wealthiest and most educated nation in Europe — essentially selling intellectual output world-wide. There is no reason why the United Kingdom, with a much larger population and a deep institutional heritage, cannot perform a comparable economic turn-around.

  5. Britain’s effort to keep Europe divided post WW2 was already a dismal failure, when France & Germany have a solid alliance under German hegemony. The French have made their choice and we need to let it go. Our leaving the EU should help stop us playing a lost game.

    • Agree: byrresheim
  6. @Bystander

    Why can’t we see post-Colonial African countries pull themselves up by the bootstraps like Iceland did?

    • LOL: YetAnotherAnon
    • Replies: @Podgemex
  7. DFH says:

    What’s more important, national sovereignty, or ‘being a lesser power’ (i.e. not being part of an EU army with a common EU foreign policy)? Obviously sovereignty is irrelevant so long as we keep a domestic government which believes almost exactly the same thing, but it’s a necessary prerequisite.

  8. plantman says:

    Cockburn is right to say that Britain’s separation will be costly and painful, but what is the alternative?
    And what price would Cockburn place on independence, sovereignty and “self rule”? Isn’t that the real question?

    The founders of our country preached “Give me liberty or give me death.”

    In Cockburn’s view, those sentiments will only lead to economic hardship and isolation.

    So what is to be done?

    We’ve seen how the EU responds to an economic disaster like the financial crisis. The ECB quickly moves to preserve the banks and struggling financial institutions, gobbling up nearly $2 trillion in bonds. As for the beleaguered states, like Greece and Italy, they saw their elected leaders replaced in a flash by globalist financiers who promptly enforced an austerity regime that has thrust Greece into a permanent state of depression.

    Who decided that Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain should have to suffer so Germany could rack up budget surpluses and enrich itself at the expense of its trading partners?

    Are these the policies that Cockburn supports–the impoverishing of millions in the south so Germans can live high off the hog?

    And what about the EU’s vastly unpopular immigration policy?

    Has that policy fueled the rise of right wing groups across the continent or not??

    Yes, it has. But, even so, EU leaders have not reconsidered their position. They continue to claim that nations do not have the right to control their own borders and that Brussels knows better than the millions of people who have been radicalized by an imbecilic policy that is clearly rejected by the majority of rational-thinking individuals.

    Cockburn says: 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.”

    But this is deliberately misleading, isn’t it? After all, the question is not “weaker” or “stronger”, the question is independence, sovereignty and self rule. That’s the question.

    The majority of British do not want to be subsumed by an EU superstate that threatens and impoverishes its own members, that decides policy behind closed doors, and that compromises the ability of elected officials to govern their own countries as the true representatives of the people.

    • Replies: @peterAUS
    , @Philip Owen
  9. peterAUS says:
    @plantman

    Good comment, again.

    Especially:

    After all, the question is not “weaker” or “stronger”, the question is independence, sovereignty and self rule. That’s the question.

    Of course. BUT, those concepts simply don’t even get registered by the “class” the author belongs.
    The lines are being drawn. Simple as that.
    The problem is…..author “class” knows that. “Brexiters”, apparently, still haven’t figured that out.
    Which brings us to the important thing:

    The majority of British do not want to be subsumed by an EU superstate that threatens and impoverishes its own members, that decides policy behind closed doors, and that compromises the ability of elected officials to govern their own countries as the true representatives of the people.

    Yes.
    The problem is…they do knot know how to achieve that.

    Sounds great, a?
    One side knows exactly what it wants, is quite aware of who’s who and what’s what and has proven methods and means at their disposal to achieve what it wants.

    The other side…….well…….do we need to go there?

    So……if you were to watch a battle, war actually, between two forces described above….what do you think the most likely outcome will be?
    Not right, correct,moral…blah…blah…..but most likely?

    History is full of similar examples.

  10. To quote Churchill again, the Malayan campaign was “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”

    Since Churchill was a half-Yank, we cannot expect him to grasp history at anything more than a sophomoric level… but the idea that Malaya rivals Auckland’s Folly is laughable.

    It’s laughable almost irrespective of what metric you choose: the impact on ‘national prestige’; the longer-term effects on the willingness of ‘the natives’ to put up with Empire; even the bodycount (~13,500 dead in Malaya, ~16,500 during the 1842 retreat from Kabul).

    And that bodycount disparity becomes greater in the context of the total manpower dedicated to each venture.

    For Auckland’s Folly, the death toll was over 90% – including civilian camp-followers and families. In Malaya, the death toll was less than 10%, and the Allies won everything back (eventually).

    After Afghanistan, the Empire faced almost constant mutinies in India from that time onward: even the Maori in New Zealand were emboldened to defy the Empire – when the British violated the Treaty of Waitangi in 1845, the Maori declared war, and the defiance continued for almost 30 years.

    Auckland’s Folly was to the British Empire, what the Battle of the Teutoberger Wald was to the Roman Empire, and what Afghanistan 2002-2018 is for the American Empire.

    It was the signal to everyone else that the Empire was past its apogee, and was no longer to be taken seriously, long-term.

  11. @Bystander

    Today, Iceland is the wealthiest and most educated nation in Europe — essentially selling intellectual output world-wide.

    Sure – if you consider seafood and aluminium to be ‘intellectual output’; historically those account for more than 70% of Icelandic exports by value (more recently, tourism has emerged as a significant export – let’s not pretend that ice hotels are ‘intellectual output’ either).

    Tech-oriented exports are slightly less than 5% of total exports (with a total value of about US$300m).

    Exports from Iceland are massively dependent on access to EU markets; it’s a fishery and a mine, in much the same way that with 75% of exports in primary production of one form or another, Australia is best approximated by “a mine and a farm” – see this image of Australia’s main exports by value ->

    There’s no modern Icelandic Miracle: it’s just a standard story of capital deepening and post-WWII advance, augmented by having a gigantic trading bloc next door who are positively disposed to deal with you (coz you is white, innit bruv).

    There was an Icelandic Miracle – during the Icelandic Commonwealth; a system of competing free-association quasi–panarchic governments without the power to tax, and with competing, overlapping privately-enforced legal jurisdictions. Lastly but not leastly, this is also a good potted history (but the main Icelandic Commonwealth link above is the best).

    Ordered Anarchy – and it worked for 300-odd years.

    Remind me: which full-franchise parliamentary democracies have lasted 300 years? (Hint: the sting is in the extent of the franchise).

  12. British failures in World War II were numerous. The loss of Singapore for example, where the Brits surrendered to a much smaller Japanese force. But I understand that the average Brit had little interest in dying for the empire.

    I recently came across another loss, from my blog:

    Sep 23, 2018 – The Battle of Leros

    I’ve read much about World War II and watched endless documentaries. I saw a series on Netflix that explains mad imperialist Winston Churchill was not interested in winning the war quickly. He was content to allow the Germans and Russians to slug away for years while Britain secured new colonies by taking possession of all North Africa and several islands in the Mediterranean. The British empire already ruled Malta and Cyprus. Italy had several islands near Turkey that Churchill wanted. (pictured in red) The British attempted to seize one island in 1941 but failed.

    After Italy changed sides in 1943, Churchill ordered a major effort to seize these islands, called the Dodecanese Campaign. The Americans knew this effort was pointless and refused to provide support. German forces in Greece intervened and routed the larger British force, culminating with the little known Battle of Leros. In this disaster, some 2800 lightly armed German troops landed haphazardly on the fortress island of Leros defended by over 10,000 allied troops. The British lost 115 aircraft and three destroyers during the invasion. After just four days of fighting, 3200 British soldiers surrendered and the remainder fled.

  13. orionyx says:
    @Bystander

    You write:
    “There is no reason why the United Kingdom, with a much larger population and a deep institutional heritage, cannot perform a comparable economic turn-around.”

    On the contrary, there are millions upon millions of such reasons, from West Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Somalia; and countless millions of more-or-less aboriginal British who see no further than the telly and the football.

    With such a mixture, your intellectual output will have a hard time keeping frank idiocracy at bay.

    • Replies: @Philip Owen
  14. Tony M says:

    The Navy wanted to keep the ships out in the Indian Ocean, Churchill over-ruled them sent them to Singapore, then the navy wanted to keep them far out to sea where they had room to manouevre, Churchill wanted them close in to the coast, to ‘put on a show’, where they were sitting ducks and needed tugs to turn in the limited space or back out to sea.

    • Agree: Philip Owen
  15. Tony M says:

    Patrick Cockburn: “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. ”

    Surely then this was implicitly then not a political union, but an economic transaction, a corporate merger or rationalisation. Ownership of these industries in both Germany and France, even at the start of ww1 was international and over-lapping, neither French or German state or nationals controlled either. The French surrendered much of the French-based, but not French-owned steel-industry to Germany at the start of ww1, by making no effort to prevent but actually facilitating the orderly German takeover of the Briery works which pre ww1 supplied more than 80% of German steel demands, and its owners would not permit mere French politicians whom they controlled, or its military, or war to jeopardise their capital investment or their profits. The ‘coal and steel community’ was just a paper exercise, a PR job, it had already long existed as part of an international cartel since the late 19thC and certainly did not then or later ever portend any political union of the two countries.

  16. “… the Malayan campaign was ‘the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.’”

    Nah, that would be Yorktown, because that set up the Empire’s biggest future rival.

    “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.”

    Yes, I ordered sparkling water from one of them yesterday, and got non-sparkling. Seems language skills like English are useful in places like England.

    Look at it this way: You are aboard the RMS Titanic on 15 April 1912. You feel a shudder, and notice a few crewmembers scurrying around, but it is warm and bright inside and the band is playing sweet, sweet music. You feel another shudder, the ship lists a little, and the lights blink, but they come back on. Although you wonder if you should head for the lifeboats, you feel no urgency because the ship is billed as unsinkable, and besides, it’s freezing cold and dark outside, while inside is bright and warm and the band continues playing sweet music.

    There is life outside the EU … there is disaster ahead inside it.

  17. Denis says:

    Again, Mr. Cockburn refuses to address the immigration elephant in the room. The reason the economic and political arguments made in favour of Brexit do not add up is because most of them don’t address the fact that immigration, particularly non-European immigration, was a huge factor in the vote. After Merkel hugely screwed up by throwing the door open to limitless immigration from the Middle East and Africa, the EU itself was inextricably tied to that open-door policy in the minds of many. This is not addressed widely, partly due to the onerous hate speech laws in the UK having created a chilled atmosphere around the subject, but it is clearly a huge part of what motivated Brexit voters.

    • Replies: @Podgemex
  18. Podgemex says:
    @Sir Launcelot Canning

    Because their former colonial masters are still raping Africa . Gadaffi wanted African nations to break away from these parasites and look what happened.

  19. Podgemex says:
    @Denis

    Britain after brexit will have less European immigration but more immigrants from the commonwealth countries of the former British empire. These people are Africans and south Asians such as Pakistanis. Even Nigel farrage admitted as much. You could say that brexit is an anti white policy lol . In fact this year immigration from the eu is down while immigration from britains former colonies is up.

    • Replies: @peterAUS
    , @Denis
  20. peterAUS says:
    @Podgemex

    ….You could say that brexit is an anti white policy lol ….

    You could be onto something here.

    At the same time, much easier to control immigration from Commonwealth than invasion from M.E. and Africa.

  21. @plantman

    Sovereignty without power is pointless. The EU gives the UK power to enhance its sovereignty, for example, in regulations to set mobile phone standards. Standing alone means no power.

  22. @orionyx

    This is the British problem. On the one hand we have a very creative intellectual and craft elite. They are world leading. On the other hand the lower working class is resistant to improvement.

    • Replies: @Byrresheim
  23. JLK says:

    The modern UK is a country built around a square-mile banking center, and a lot of its foreign policy is calculated to reinforce that.

  24. The elephant in the sitting room is not illegal immigration.
    The elephant in the british sitting room is a lost world war or two.
    Yes, TV is full of past glory and of how all the large cities in another country were burnt down and of how the dams were busted.

    A lot less effort goes into describing the peace dividend — wich is not really astonishing, come to think of it.

    It’s not enough to make others fail: you must succeed.

  25. @Philip Owen

    That is why the british started their demographic reform in the late fourties: to put a bit more pressure on the lower working class.

    That attitude also goes a long way to explain Rotherham and similar cases.

    Pity our elites are wont to copy the British elites.

  26. Denis says:
    @Podgemex

    I am well aware of that; I have made comments to that effect previously. But I don’t think this was properly explained by the Remain campaign; had Remain made it clear that Brexit was not the same thing as cutting immigration, and that they could stay in the EU while decreasing immigration, the UK might still be in the EU right now.

  27. the states of the EU more united than ever before

    Is this cockwomble serious? Has he simply ignored the heated debate over uncontrolled turd world immigration, especially in eastern Europe?

    He also makes heavy going over the loss of the PoW and Repulse, but the real lesson here wasn’t specific to the British: as the sinking of the Bismarck, the Battle of Taranto, and Pearl Harbor had already decisively proven, the era of the battleship was over, and the era of the airplane had begun. The parallels to Brexit are forced, as nothing in the conditions are really similar, and if we’re going to look back through history for comparisons, how about the Hoare–Laval Pact and the failure of the League of Nations?

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