The Dunkirk myth never told our real story

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tags: WWII, Dunkirk



David Aaronovitch is a columnist at The Times who was once president of the National Union of Students and a communist, but is now a radical moderate. David is also a broadcaster and author. 

By January even Britain should be Churchilled out. In June it was Brian Cox’s turn to shake his wattles as the Greatest Briton in the movie Churchill, and in the new year Gary Oldman will discover new jowls as the lead in Darkest Hour. In between you can have your senses blitzed by Dunkirk, which opens tomorrow and which I saw in preview earlier in the week. Stranded men, gallant Spitfire pilots, small boats, wobbly (but ultimately firm) chins and some bars from Elgar. The movie ends with Churchill’s “fight on the beaches” speech, and it seemed to me by the end that 1940 was not just our finest hour, it has increasingly become our only hour.

I think this matters because the overwhelming nature of this, our national myth, has an effect on the decisions we make. My evidence for this is largely impressionistic, but you can’t have incontrovertible stats every week.

During and after the referendum last year I spoke to a number of voters on either side of the big question. Naturally some people talked about immigration or the economy, but more important in the conversation of many of the Leave voters was an idea of Britain as they imagined it had once been. In the past this Britain had run itself and had been in hock to no one. It hadn’t depended on anyone else and no outsider had told it what to do. ...

[W]e were never alone. Not even in the period between independence and our joining the EEC. From Ghana in 1957 to Brunei in 1984, and taking in places like Malta and the Maldives along the way, we divested ourselves, necessarily, of our great global obligations. For centuries in some cases we had manipulated our global reach to serve our own interests and now this was ending.

Yet, culturally, you would never guess it now. You know those odd early scenes in The Crown involving verandas and black people? Empire. We managed to get through six series of aristocratic doings in Downton Abbey, set at empire’s zenith, practically without mention of it. The era of empire, when we were not a defiant, self-sufficient island (as we never were) has been whitewashed over as surely as the frescoes in a Puritan church makeover. ...


 



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