‘If you think you can bully our country, all I can do is recommend you read some history books’.
– David Davis, former Brexit secretary at a Brexit rally calling for Theresa May to ‘chuck Chequers’.
Much of Britain’s current Brexit shambles has its origins in mythologies about the Second World War. A prominent recent example is Joe Wright’s much acclaimed film Darkest Hour, particularly the unlikely scene where Winston Churchill – for the first time in his life – descends into the London Underground. The implausibility of the scene did not worry Conservative Brexit-supporting commentator Charles Moore who thought that ‘regardless of its historical accuracy’ the film’s great merit was that it was ‘superb Brexit propaganda’. According to Moore, it showed ‘that it is sometimes both possible and necessary, if continental Europe is going one way, for Britain to go the other.’ US journalist John Cass likewise hailed the film for charting directions for a European West ‘that often seems lost and almost eager to capitulate to a diminished future.’
One moment in Churchill’s tube trip captures the film’s myth-making power: the recitation of a verse from Lord Macaulay’s famous poem Horatius. Churchill has ntered the tube carriage at St. James Park station with the apparent purpose of listening to the Voice of the People. He starts to bond with ordinary Londoners before – for no obvious reason – launching into a recitation of a stirring verse from Macaulay’s pastiche of ancient Rome:
To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods.
Crucially, the verse is rounded off by a neatly dressed West Indian called Marcus Peters. Churchill – moved to tears, but strengthened and stiffened in his resolve – re-emerges into the sunlight at Westminster Station and proceeds to the Commons, where he tells the assembled MPs that there will be no negotiation and no surrender.
What can we make of this startling scene, which underpins an unshakable myth of British valour, drawing a line from Macaulay’s Whig imperialism to Churchill’s heroic wartime resolve to the current moment of Brexit?
Marcus Peters is an improbable creation for several reasons, as we will see. But his basic function here is clear enough: he allows the ‘Myth of the Blitz’ to be extended from the ‘plucky’ East End to the British Empire. This scene not only transforms Churchill into a purported multiculturalist, but also mutates Europe’s role from Britain’s ally against Nazi Germany into an obstacle or irrelevance to British victory. Macaulay’s verse plays a key part in these transformations.
To understand what is going on here we need first to go back to Macaulay himself and his Whig belief that England’s special destiny was to lead the world from darkness into light. Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) was perhaps the most famous nineteenth-century British historian and essayist but he was also a prominent Whig politician and powerful speaker, who spoke out for reforms like Catholic Emancipation and the abolition of disabilities for Jews, as well as parliamentary reform. The basic narrative of his five-volume History of England was of the triumph of English enlightenment, above all constitutional liberty, in the years following the 1688 ‘Glorious Revolution’ and the defeat of absolutism. The pageant of progress he presented rested on the stirring deeds of Great Men. They – like Horatius – had fought against the odds and triumphed. As a result Britain (or rather England) had moved away from bigotry, admitting Catholics, Dissenters and Jews into the blessings of English liberties. The other key aspect of Whig progress was the avoidance of the mob rule which emerged in France after 1789 – represented in England by the demands of Chartists, Owenites, socialists and the like.
Macaulay’s Whig world view was universalist in principle, but constantly undercut by the narrowness of his empathy. His readiness to exclude those deemed inferior can be seen in his attitude to the Irish during the famine, and perhaps most notoriously, Robert Sullivan argues, in his brief stay in India. As Legal Member to the East India Council (1834-7) Macaulay pressed forward with the Anglicising agenda of Governor-General William Bentinck, regarding India, and particularly Hindu India, as sunk in a morass of superstition and idolatry.
In two areas in particular he pushed for reform, with mixture of blithe self-confidence and considerable energy: the subsidising of English language education and the ‘modernisation’ of the penal code. In both cases he was bolstered by his unshakable belief in European cultural superiority, resting on the Greek and Roman classics, as rejuvenated by the humanists in the sixteenth century. As his famous – or notorious – Minute on Education (1835) put it, ‘a single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.’ While Macaulay anticipated the day, however remote in the future, when India might be capable of self-government by an Anglicised Indian elite, he nonetheless lacked understanding for much of what lay outside his Anglocentric sphere.
This imperial conviction continued long after he returned to England to build an extraordinarily successful literary career. Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, written alongside his History of England, were the foundation of his fame and fortune. In these four ‘ballads’, parallels between Roman valour and England’s imperial mission are striking, amounting to what Sullivan calls an ‘ersatz national epic’. Horatius and his two fellow soldiers hold off the Etruscan enemy at the gates of Rome, while behind him the bridge into the city is destroyed. He then entrusts his fate to ‘Father Tiber’ and jumps into the river. Horatius survives and prospers. The river takes him safely to the opposite bank, where he is greeted by the Senate and later heaped with honours. His heroic survival against the odds underpins a fantasy of national harmony:
Then none was for a party
Then all were for the state.
Then the great man helped the poor
And the poor man loved the great.
Even the Etruscans, though foreign enemies, were still capable of recognising Horatius’s valour. Transmuted onto Indian soil, they were like the martial Muslims who Macaulay contrasted to the priest-ridden, effeminate Hindus.
As for the other people of the British Empire, Macaulay (in contrast to his evangelical abolitionist father Zachery) showed little interest in slavery or slaves, past or present. As he wrote to his sister Hannah, although he hated slavery ‘from the bottom of [his] soul’, he was ‘made sick by the cant and the silly mock reasons of the Abolitionists…the nigger driver and the negrophile – are two odious things to me’. He opposed distinctions based on colour but undermined his own position through assumptions of cultural and historical superiority. As Catherine Hall puts it, ‘Exclusion and equality were wedded together in the liberal imperial state’. Macaulay’s contempt for the non-English world also applied to the ‘gibberish of the negroes of Jamaica’ – and no doubt to Marcus Peters’ ancestors.
The route from Macaulay’s stirring verse to Churchill’s imperialism was a well-trodden one. Macaulay’s Lays became standard fodder for several generations of public school boys, in Britain and the Empire. But the optimistic claim by Richard M. Langworth of The Churchill Project, in his review of Darkest Hour, that they were part of ‘an education British subjects of all stations once received’ (emphasis added) merely reinforces the myth of multicultural British equality. In Churchill’s case, a recitation competition at Harrow led him to memorise the poems, and their tales of derring-do doubtless shaped and reinforced his belief in British imperial superiority. In the case of India, Churchill’s contempt for Hinduism and his hatred of Gandhi provided a clear echo of Macaulay. And it is well established that Churchill’s indifference to Indian suffering had appalling consequences in 1943 when he refused to support measures to mitigate the disastrous Bengal famine.
Churchill’s most likely response to hearing Marcus Peters recite Macaulay in the London tube would have been sheer amazement. During the Second World War there were only a small number of West Indians working in the London docks (more worked in Liverpool). And the odds were heavily stacked against one of them emerging through the West Indian education system and the dominant ‘pigmentocracy’ to gain a Macaulayite education. Biographies of C. L. R. James and Eric Williams have highlighted deep tensions felt by the few West Indians who were recruited for this education. Williams later recalled that he had learnt the Latin dictum that ‘the plantation economy ruined Italy, but had not the slightest idea of how it had ruined the West Indies and was even then ruining Trinidad’. But the fantasy West Indian of Darkest Hour is clearly a more conformist case – not far from the Anglicized Indian elite envisaged by Macaulay.
Marcus Peters’ appearance is Brexotic mythmaking in another sense. It involves a directorial decision not to feature any of the large group of foreigners who really were travelling on the London Underground in May 1940: mainly Jewish refugees, from Germany, Austria, the ‘Sudetenland’ and Poland, who had fled to Britain from Nazi Germany and in some cases were fighting in the British armed forces. But showing these refugees would clearly have detracted from the filmmaker’s message, reminding audiences that Britain fought the war not only to save itself but to liberate continental Europe and did so alongside thousands of Europeans.
It is not surprising that the implication that Britain was actually fighting against Europe in the Second World War pervades the Brexiteer press. Indeed, it is for this reason that The Daily Express was able to hail Theresa May’s assertive response to her humiliation at the Salzburg summit in September 2018 as ‘her finest hour’ in a ‘war’ with the EU.
Robert Knight (born 1952) studied at Cambridge and Manchester Universities and the L.S.E. and then taught history at Loughborough University. He is Honorary Research Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies, University College London. In 2016 he published Slavs in Post-Nazi Austria: Carinthian Slovenes and the Politics of Assimilation, 1945-1960 (Bloomsbury). He is working on a book comparing Western German and Austrian post-war responses to National Socialism.