Brexit, COVID & the Rhyme of History
Reverend Joe Haward explores the current parallels around power, propaganda and patriotism with the First World War
It has been said that history does not repeat itself, but often rhymes. As historical verses reverberate off the chambers of our past, it is easy to miss the lessons they can teach us. But history can often serve, not as a melody, but as an alarm – one that is ringing out and deserves our attention.
Britain is currently caught within the dual crises of Brexit and COVID-19, each handled by the Government with utter negligence. The most vulnerable have once again been abandoned to the whims of the powerful.
So much of the suffering and mendacity facing the UK rhymes with the past – particularly with life for Britons during the First World War.
At the outbreak of World War One, when Britain did not have mandatory conscription, the Government recognised the importance of stoking patriotic emotions that would ensure enough young men signed up to fight.
Prime Minister Asquith sought the help of Charles Masterman, who was put in charge of the newly formed War Propaganda Bureau. As a result, more than two million books and pamphlets were published between 1914-16, all secretly sponsored by the Government.
Masterman called together some of Britain’s greatest novelists and writers, including Arthur Conan Doyle and HG Wells. From the very beginning, the literature focused on making Germany an evil enemy and rumours of German atrocities a fact. Whispers became truth and the bureau ensured that Britons were shocked and horrified.
Articles and books spoke of German soldiers crucifying Belgians, killing babies with bayonets, and the Kaiser being satisfied with it all. Rudyard Kipling implored British patriots to fight against “the German… typhoid or plague”.
The Government also created the first propaganda film called Battle of the Somme, played in cinemas in the summer of 1916. Scenes of soldiers rushing out from the trenches to attack the enemy, explosions, daily routines and the British wounded did everything the Government hoped it would. Civilian support for the war grew; the monumental cost and suffering deemed necessary for a noble cause.
The language of “war”, “fighting”, “rule” and “freedom”, used frequently with such ease by Boris Johnson’s Government and its media allies, becomes easy to understand: create patriotic, wartime longing, where cost and suffering are ‘worth it’.
Throughout the 2016 EU Referendum campaign, the Vote Leave group pushed support for ‘Britishness’ and pride for flag and country. People got behind a mythological Brexit and, in doing, so xenophobia grew as a form of pride for a nostalgic greatness rooted in the past.
Right-wing nationalism and the faux wars it continues to manufacture have become the land upon which truth and history are sacrificed.
There was a nationalistic fever in 1914 that spread across the country, wooing the working, middle, and upper classes.
Xenophobia and paranoia grew, with people beaten and their businesses destroyed for being German spies. Newspapers were given special instructions as to what they were allowed to print about the war, to ensure that the news was always optimistic, painting it as a continuous victory. Prime Minister Lloyd George said he would not hesitate to prosecute someone for publishing the Sermon on the Mount if it interfered with the war effort.
For those who were against the war, such as the Labour politician Keir Hardie, the war fever was disturbing and surprising. At a public meeting in the Welsh coal-mining town of Merthyr Tydfil, Hardie was jeered at for opposing the war. The working-class miners sang Rule Britannia! and shouted that Hardie was a German who needed to be driven out of town.
In 1916, Lord Alfred Milner – as far from being working-class or socialist as one could find – successfully created the British Workers’ League, a working-class, stridently nationalistic party that vowed victory over the “Germans and Austrians who are now doing their best to destroy us”. Although support for the war among the working-class was high, Milner wanted to destroy the other unions and further his own political agenda. 100 years later, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson would use the same methods for Brexit.
The patriotic propaganda machine continues relentlessly. Cabinet ministers sit in front of Union Jacks in every interview as if, without them, the illusion of Britain’s superior greatness might, well, just be an illusion. Jacob Rees-Mogg, rather than responding to Brexit-fuelled decimation of industry, prefers to shout about “happy” British fish.
The Government’s response to the Coronavirus crisis has been defined by the same arrogance and ignorance of English exceptionalism.
In the summer of 1914, civil war in Ireland loomed large, frustrated rebels threatened party stability, and the international situation looked fragile, with Prime Minister Asquith’s policies doing little to ease fears.
When war broke out, he was deeply unpopular and that unpopularity only grew with every month. People believed that he drank too much, was unwilling to allow any crisis to interfere with his two hours of bridge every evening, and while hundreds of thousands of people died, he enjoyed leisurely non-working weekends at friends’ country houses.
Similar criticisms can be levelled at Boris Johnson, with both Brexit and COVID-19 highlighting Johnson’s Etonian arrogance and how this will only look after the interests of the self and powerful.
There are many who refuse to recite the verses of this Government and its friends, who believe in the collective power of empathy, justice, and compassion.
As history continues to rhyme, there is much that deserves our attention. We must listen to what it tells us and look to a future of hope – one defined by the good that is possible when we value the life of our neighbour.
Reverend Joe Haward is a community and business chaplain
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