Today, eighty years ago, the first of the ‘little ships’ that helped rescue the defeated British Expeditionary Force appeared off the coast of Dunkirk. Thanks to the ferocious resistance put up by the garrison at Calais, and Hitler’s hesitation, the bulk of the men were safely taken off the beaches at Dunkirk to fight another day. Whatever their private feelings during those terrible hours may have been, most of them knew even then, that they would return to Europe to finish the job. This they did in 1944 and 1945. After all, their ancestors had been intervening in Europe for as long as anyone could remember.
From Shakespeare’s Henry V, who had exhorted his men ‘unto the breach’ once more, through Elizabeth I’s support for the Dutch revolt, the ‘Second Hundred Years War’ against Louis XIV, the Revolution and Napoleon, and the First World War, the English and then the British had always been profoundly invested in the continent. Defending the ‘liberties of Europe’ and thus British freedoms was what Englishmen and Britons did, it was part of what they were. This was a very different heritage from that of the rest of Europe, most of which was either an occupier or occupied during the Second World War.
What all this means for the United Kingdom (UK) today is not clear. Until a few months ago, the framework within which we tended to see Dunkirk, on both sides of the divide, was that of Britain’s relationship with Europe. The remainers tended to stress the way in which the events of 1940 showed Britain’s deep involvement in Europe; leavers tended to emphasise the extent to which Britain could ‘stand alone’ in the face of European Union (EU) antagonism. In 2017, shortly after the Brexit referendum, Private Eye satirised this debate with a cover showing still from that year’s blockbuster Dunkirk. It depicted a group of Tommies being bombed on the mole at Dunkirk, and carried the caption ‘It’s harder to leave Europe than we thought’.
At the start of the year, with the irresistible force of a self-consciously ‘Churchillian’ Prime Minister with a large parliamentary majority on collision course with the immovable object of the EU over the post-Brexit relationship, it looked as if these tropes would be revived. Then came the Covid-19 pandemic, and everything changed. After a brief hesitation, the British government rowed in behind the European (and indeed world consensus) and ‘locked down’. Brexit, in this context, has counted for little. The Covid-19 experience on both sides of the Channel has been remarkably similar. Britain toyed with ‘herd immunity’ but it ended up following the crowd. There was a country which ‘stood alone’ in Europe, but it was Sweden, not the UK. It is hard to see any relevance for Dunkirk here.
To be sure, Her Majesty the Queen has spoken movingly that we ‘will meet again’, alluding to the iconic song ‘We’ll meet again’. As a veteran of those times, she had every right to make the connection and people were moved by her words. But in the mouths of most politicians and commentators the echoes sound strained. The parallel, in any case, is not flattering to the government. At the start of the crisis, the lack of screening capacity and ventilators made one wonder how the Battle of Britain would have worked out without sufficient Spitfires or radar sets.
If there is a parallel worth exploring, it is this. Churchill famously remarked shortly after Dunkirk that ‘wars are not won by evacuations’. He knew that extricating oneself from the continent could only be preparatory to returning to it. This is a sentiment the government is well aware of as it wrestles with the exit strategy after, or better during, Covid-19. ‘Protecting’ the National Health Service (NHS) was not an end in itself. Protecting society and enabling as much of it to function as normally as possible, is. The ‘lockdown’ was originally intended to gain breathing space for the provision of ventilators and personal protective equipment; it was not supposed to be a semi-permanent state of emergency.
It is perhaps in this sense that Dunkirk retains its relevance, by reminding us that while the British could leave Europe, they were also fated to return there.
The stakes here are not just societal but geopolitical. If the country exits too soon, it risks being forced back into lockdown. If the government is too timid, the result will certainly be a reduction of Britain’s relative global and European weight. This will have implications for the post-Brexit trade discussions and the relationship with China. Churchill did not just sit in the home islands in 1940-1941, but sent men and tanks to Egypt to attack the Italians. In the same way, the government cannot simply pause ‘Global Britain’ while it sorts out the pandemic. It must press ahead with a vision for the UK’s place in the world after Covid-19.
Most importantly of all, whatever one thinks of the ‘evacuation’ from Europe that was Brexit, it should only be the prelude for a renewed, if altered, engagement with the continent. The ‘mainland’ remains Britain’s near abroad. As we have seen, the relationship between the four nations of the UK is inextricably bound up with the relations with the rest of Europe (even more so than in 1940). The EU is also hugely important market, and by far the most important of Britain’s neighbours. A powerful Brussels is potentially a challenge to the interests of the UK. A weak or even fragmenting EU would be an even greater threat, as the resulting economic, demographic and geopolitical fallout would fall into Britain’s lap.
The modern UK is not, of course, the British Empire of 1940, but it is still the most important single European actor today. It is one of the world’s largest economies (it is much bigger than Russia) and strongest militaries (more powerful than that of Germany, say). Despite the heavy weather it is making of the virus, and the substantially better job being done by, say, Berlin, London’s view will be, or should be, a critical factor in European politics in the decade ahead.
Planning for a ‘second front’ began well before D-Day. Today, the government is, perhaps understandably, fixated on ending the transition period, but it is what comes after that really matters. Virus or no virus, the post-Brexit trade deal and political agreement with the EU will be the most important issue confronting all of us this autumn. It is perhaps in this sense that Dunkirk retains its relevance, by reminding us that while the British could leave Europe, they were also fated to return there.
This article was made possible due to the kind support of the Engelsberg Programme for Applied History, Grand Strategy and Geopolitics at the Centre for Geopolitics, supported by the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Public Benefit.