Friday, March 11, 2011

A positive object

In the latter stages of the book-writing, the conclusion I am coming to is that the Battle of Britain was as much, if not more, a political event than it was a "shoot 'em up" battle. One tends to think that, when a war breaks out, the focus is then on fighting and winning the war, and that normal politics is suspended.

In 1940, this was very far from the case. Political issues – such as European political integration – were being widely discussed, all in the more general context of defining British "war aims". It was not simply enough to fight and win, we had to have a reason for fighting, or so the argument went.

This was discussed in a parliamentary debate on 15 October 1940. As the wreckage of London lay around them, MPs gathered to call find out whether the Government was prepared to make a definitive statement on war aims. But Churchill refused, point blank. He was guardian of the status quo, suppressing any debate on the issue.

Churchill's Information Minister Duff Cooper, very much supported the idea, and had been speaking secretly for it in Cabinet. On this day, he expressed his support as far as he could, but had been brought up sharply by Richard Stokes. He was the Labour MP for Ipswich, a Military Cross winner in the First World War (and bar) and soon to become an arch critic of the area bombing policy.

Cooper, said Stokes, had enunciated what we were fighting against, but not what we were fighting for. "[It] is no use fighting for a negative object. You must have a positive one, and the sooner that [is] stated the better".

That brings us right up to date and is the thinking behind my piece on a new "ism". It lies at the heart of my long-running dispute with UKIP and my frustration with the Eurosceptic cause. Both are very good at telling us what we are fighting against. But, as Stokes said, it is no use fighting for a negative object. You must have a positive one.

It is all very well wanting to get out of the EU – the "negative object". But what would we do with our new-found freedom? Where is our "positive object"? Until we have one, we are going nowhere. We emerged from the war without one, and that is why we lost the peace.

The one "positive object" to emerge intact was the idea of European integration. When we failed to maintain Churchill's status quo, with the end of Empire, intellectually, we in Britain had nowhere to go. Looking with envy at an apparently resurgent Europe, our ruling classes therefore rushed to join in - their bid to fill the intellectual void.  Now, it still is the "only game in town", which is why we are still losing the battle.

We will continue to lose that battle until we are able to deal with the issues put by Richard Stokes, back on that awful day of 15 October 1940. We need a positive object ... a new "ism".