Military metaphors and imagery are enthusiastically deployed by the Prime Minister. Like broadsides they thunder into his opponents and ricochet around British politics. They cheer his supporters and bring fear to his opponents. A seasoned journalist and experienced national newspaper editor he knows how to deploy his words like great canons and he is not averse to freely deploying verbal grapeshot. It is suggested the government is summoning up the spirit of the Blitz, that through plucky British grit and resilience we can and will push on through Brexit to better times ahead. Collaborating and surrender have no place in Boris’s Britain.
So much of the tone and language in the Brexit debate harks back to the Second World War that we could be forgiven for thinking we are in a struggle for our very survival. We are not of course in such a struggle. No invasion force is massing on the Normandy coastline. Plans are not in place to evacuate the Monarch to Canada in the event of invasion. Greater challenges to our economic prosperity and wellbeing than Brexit confront the nation in the shape of climate change and the government’s commitment to be carbon neutral by 2050 – a policy which will fundamentally change the whole economy and the way we live. Second World War comparisons and metaphors may be colourful but are not always helpful, and in fact do not actually conjure up the right image of what Boris is trying to do. It is perhaps the action of an earlier engagement that better portrays what the Prime Minister is up to.
On 21 October 1805, Vice Admiral Lord Nelson brought the combined fleets of France and Spain to battle off Cape Trafalgar. He was outgunned and outnumbered. The battle was the latest in a series of engagements between Britain and her continental opponents that would last a total of twelve years.
Nelson abandoned the tactical orthodoxy of the day, which was that ships should engage ship-to-ship in single parallel lines, in favour of sailing his column of ships straight through the lines of the enemy. In doing so Nelson focussed his attack on a narrow specific point in the hope of confusing his opponents long enough for his fleet to be able to wreak their destruction from behind.
This is in effect what Boris has done with his Brexit Deal proposals. He has focussed on the big-ticket item of Northern Ireland and made suggestions on how the issues around it should be addressed. He has engaged on a narrow and specific point. The other issues that concerned MPs with the Withdrawal Agreement, originally negotiated by Theresa May, have been left untouched. Like Nelson, Boris has determined to sail straight through the lines of his opponents in Parliament and in Brussels, to confound them and achieve victory through an agreement with the EU.
Britain has been skirmishing with continental Europe for most of its history. The relationship has followed the path of a sine curve, flowing up and down but always there and always important. The forty-five year membership of the European Union is but the latest chapter in a story that will continue. Nelson’s victory secured Britain’s safety and prosperity for over two hundred years. Now, it is in the fundamental interests of both the EU and the UK to reach an agreement about Brexit and Boris’s proposals form the only basis to achieve that.
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