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Sky Views: Boris Johnson is not Churchill and Brexit is not the Second World War

“Don’t mention the war”, Torquay’s most famous hotelier, Basil Fawlty so famously screamed.

In these fetid summer days, with the shadow of no deal cast ever longer, the yet greater shadow of Britain’s national creation myth and the attempt to merge the two, never seems far away. In recent days, I have longed for us to follow his advice.

The latest iteration of this sad theme of our times was a briefing from Downing Street at the weekend via the Sunday papers about the formation of a Brexit ‘war cabinet’.

This is a small group of ministers, six men (just like Churchill’s) tasked with overseeing our no-deal Brexit preparations. It also emerged that the prime minister is planning the “biggest public information campaign since the Second World War” about no deal.

The message was clear: Time to batten down the hatches, not to panic, and carry on.

This is hardly new.

The comparisons between Brexit and the Second World War specifically might have been ubiquitous since the referendum and have stepped up a gear since the prospect of a no deal has increased in probability.

Sometimes you get the impression politicians – from the prime minister down – enjoy the comparison a little bit too much.

In the last week alone, even before the ‘war cabinet’ surfaced, we’ve seen Tory backbencher Mark Francois deriding “Herr [Jean-Claude] Juncker, in the bunker” and Boris Johnson saluting, for no apparent reason, outside his home.

Since the beginning of the Brexit saga overall, politicians supporting Brexit have invoked the Second World War consistently.

David Davis said: “If our civil service can cope with World War II it can easily cope with this.” Boris Johnson said of the attempt at European political integration: “Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically. The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods.” Daniel Kawczynski, Tory MP said: “Britain helped to liberate half of Europe…Watch the way ungrateful EU treats us now. We will remember.” Mervyn King, the former Governor of the Bank of England, described Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement as “appeasement”.

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There are those who say that we should not be so hung up about this language. We employ the vernacular of warfare in politics consistently. As has rightly been pointed out, I do it myself.

However, context is everything, especially with regards to the highest office in the land. There is a difference between the occupant of Downing Street, the briefing his operation does, the humble backbencher opining, the man on the street complaining, or a journalist tweeting. The signals and cues a prime minister and government send are enormously important.

At a time of corrosive division it is imperative that national political leadership seeks to calm the tensions and heal the wounds that Brexit has wrought within communities and within the nations of these islands.

There are many EU citizens within our country who are paying taxes everyday and wonder whether it is them at whom the language of war, acrimony and division is directed.

An EU citizen texted me at the weekend: “Who, exactly is your country supposed to be at war against? Me?”

The usual suspects will dismiss such concerns and say it is not what is meant. Of course, they do because they are in elite positions of power. It doesn’t even occur to them that language like this might be hurtful because it doesn’t affect them.

Most importantly this subtle citation of parallels with European conflicts past infects our discourse and distorts our view of the way no deal might play out. Politicians know it and subtly manipulate it.

On speaking to voters about no deal, time and again they tell me: “We’ve survived worse.” Interestingly, this was the precise formulation the prime minister used last week. His inference was clear: If we survived the Blitz we can survive anything.

Our finest hour in the face of the worst monsters humanity has ever produced is, rightly, a cornerstone of national pride. I am deeply proud of it myself. It is an inspiration, the world over. But with regards to our present political situation, it is as irrelevant as Trafalgar, as the Armada, as Poitiers or the Norman Conquest.

For a start, we (or precious few of us) actually did it. Almost none of us remember 1940, let alone took any active part in the struggle. Talk to those remaining who did, far from reminiscing fondly, they will tell you it was an appalling nightmare.

Secondly, we’ve changed as a country. This is now a nation that loses its mind if the 4G doesn’t work. Let’s see how we deal with our fresh fruit and veg not being on the shelves, or even longer queues at Heathrow and Dover.

And thirdly and most importantly any comparison with a no-deal Brexit lets politicians off the hook. The comparison suggests that their plight is a similar one and that a no-deal Brexit, like the geopolitical nightmare of their forebears, is something that is as inexorable as the Luftwaffe that must be fought at all costs, do or die, with plucky British resilience and defiance. It is a theme which runs deep in the British psyche. But it is wrong. The fight against Nazism was thrust upon Britain. The cabinet in 1940 faced a choice: British vassalage or a fight to death. They rightly chose the latter. It is Churchill’s singular achievement and perhaps the greatest act of courage and wisdom of any British prime minister.

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Boris Johnson is not Winston Churchill and his decision to opt for no deal is not the same, even remotely similar, to our decision to fight on against Hitler and never surrender. No deal would be a political choice, one as much as anything about party political expediency, not national survival. It is not destined or predetermined, as Theresa May proved. It may prove be an act of potentially grave economic self harm but no-one would be doing it to us. It would instead be done to ourselves. There will be no enemies, no supply lines, no heroism, no courage, no plucky tales from the front or acts of defiance at home. Talk of war cabinets and the like obscure this fundamental fact and morph no deal into what it is not.

So I would like to propose something: a moratorium any language which compares in any way Brexit to the Second World War, or any war for that matter. Because there are no comparisons. None. Literally zip. I know it’s a source of deep disappointment to certain (always male) politicians who feel bereft of a chance to prove themselves in our darkest hour but it turns we are not, in fact, living in 1940. Our history from those years, rightly cherished, correctly heralded, justifiably relived, have precisely zero salience for our present woe.

Save perhaps, for this. Because in 1940 and beyond, as the domestic stringencies of war bit: rationing, power outages, paucity of medical supplies and difficulty travelling, with parts of the country finding it a bit harder than others.

The rich, as always, could find ways around the shortages by using their contacts and means to live almost as they were before. The poor had no such luxury. Doubtless so it will be so with a no-deal Brexit.

If the Treasury’s predictions are born out and a deep slump ensues, it will be the poor hit hardest: because they always are, because they have nowhere else to go. Too often, in recent weeks and months, the embrace by many of no deal seems to have become almost a symbol of virility, of both masochism and masculinity, of an almost ascetic embrace of the hardship it might bring.

Often, its leading proponents in the public eye do so, safe in the knowledge that they will be immune from its exigencies.

But the voters won’t be.

So if Boris Johnson really does idolise Churchill, he should remember the lesson of his career not just from 1940 but 1945: voters don’t always forgive politicians even after a successful war. If he really does conceive of a no-deal Brexit in such a way, then just imagine, prime minister, their reaction at an unsuccessful one.

:: Beth Rigby is away

Previously on Sky Views: Hannah Thomas-Peter – The Arctic is on fire and Alaska is failing to act – but there is hope

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