War, Brexit and British National Identity

by Shaun Manning on July 26, 2019

Always at War by Thomas Colley cover

This is a guest blog post by Thomas Colley, lecturer in War Studies at King’s College London. His book Always at War: British Public Narratives of War will be published in August 2019. Follow him on Twitter @ThomasColley

Why have people forgotten 9/11? This question intrigued me as I travelled around Britain researching the stories ordinary British people tell about war. Raised in England, I finished high school a few months after 9/11. Like so many others, I remember exactly what I was doing at the time – what psychologists call a “flashbulb memory.” It was portrayed as a day the world changed – the fight against Salafi-jihadist radicalisation has been highly visible ever since. Not just for American citizens, but across the world, it was an event so horrific as to be unforgettable. Or so I thought.

In late 2014 and 2015, I went around Britain interviewing a wide range of citizens to investigate the narratives they tell about war. Many of them discussed ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet listening to them, I began to realise that even knowledgeable, politically engaged British people had begun to forget how Afghanistan started. They would talk about the War on Terror, but couldn’t recall how it began. People explained to me that they could remember that the First World War began after Franz Ferdinand was shot, that World War Two began when Germany invaded Poland and that the Gulf War began when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Yet puzzlingly they could not remember why Afghanistan began, despite it being preceded by one of the most unforgettable events in human history. My assumptions – and those of many policymakers and scholars – appeared to be wrong. People do not always tell the stories you think they do.

The sense that people may not understand the world in the same way political elites think they do motivated me to research how ordinary citizens understand war. Communicating compelling narratives is seen by many as the key to political and business success today. Yet so rarely are the stories of ordinary people told — all we often have are opinion polls and soundbites. Governments are communicating with their citizens based on the stories they think their people tell, rather than examining the stories they actually tell.

I sought to provide a new perspective – listening carefully and analyzing in great depth the stories citizens tell about wars, and seeing how well these correspond to those politicians assume that they tell. This made it possible to uncover unexpected insights not possible in the mostly quantitative methods through which public opinion on war is usually assessed. Typically when calling for war, British politicians invoke World War Two, portraying the enemy – usually some dictatorial regime – as Hitler. They then explain that evil will thrive if good people do nothing. Many citizens explained the same to me, but many others hold far more diverse understandings of war. Their plots of British military history differ, and they populate them with a variety of heroes and villains. For some, the Falklands is their key frame of reference when thinking about war. For others, Iraq in 2003. Even Vietnam is significant to middle-aged participants, suggesting its importance beyond the US.

The more I listened to people’s war stories, the more influential I realized that war is in other aspects of British national life. The world has watched Brexit create upheaval in British politics. EU leaders have been bemused at right-wing British politicians suggesting the situation is like World War Two, with the EU being the Nazis Britain needs to fight against rather than longstanding allies. But long before Brexit it was clear in my research that for British citizens, war is a routine activity and a key aspect of national identity. Britain has had one year without a soldier dying since 1660. Time and again, British citizens explained that they see war as a normal activity, not a state of exception. It is something Britain just does, they expect it, and expect that Britain will do it better than others. Certainly people recognize that wars such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have been destructive. Many oppose war and wish it never had to be fought. But a key part of British national identity across the political spectrum is the idea that Britain is more willing and able to intervene to help others where other nations may not. Britain is currently fighting wars across the world and few British people are paying attention. For “Brexiteers,” the real war is with Europe right now.

Examining British people’s war stories in depth also reveals fascinating insights into how they perceive the “special relationship” with the US. Donald Trump’s foreign policy is portrayed internationally as disruptively different to his predecessors. Counterintuitively though, for many British citizens his story represents continuity not change. British citizens narrate a nuanced relationship with Washington, where America provides material strength while Britain provides a superior understanding of international affairs. “Britain is the brain, America is the brawn,” one participant explained. Trump’s international behaviour may look different but for many British citizens he reinforces a longstanding view that Britain has a more intelligent and diplomatic understanding of international affairs than America. This must seem ironic to those that see Brexit as an irrational act of self-harm, borne out of delusions of grandeur.

How Brexit shapes Britain’s political and economic future remains uncertain. How extensively it fights wars – and whether it joins the US in them – remains to be seen. However, based on deep insights across British society, war is something that makes British people feel special. It is not something they will want to give up.

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