Boris may wish he was Churchill but as the RAF flies over London, let's remember Brexiteers don't have a monopoly on patriotism

Remainers can love a Spitfire just as much as the most ardent Brexiteer

Will Gore
Wednesday 11 July 2018 18:38
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RAF 100 flypast: Watch the route the planes will take

We all have our visions of Britain. They might be founded on values, they may even be specific images, perhaps real or imagined moments from history.

Some of these visions may still unite us as a nation – World Cup anyone? But the Brexit years have created the perception at least that we have become polarised into two camps – Remainers and Leavers – each with distinct, even competing ideas of what Britain is, should be, and once was.

In this division, Brexiteers have sought to grab the patriotic high ground for their own. Here, Britain’s future is allied closely to notions of a glorious past. Pastoral scenes feature prominently in this occasionally jingoistic vision, as do Winston Churchill and Spitfires.

Boris Johnson, the outgoing foreign secretary, has tapped into this narrative with particularly effective zeal. That he could pass for a character from an Ealing comedy helps perhaps, but it is his channelling of Churchill that most obviously shines through.

As a biographer of Britain’s wartime prime minister, Johnson’s obsession with the man seems to have reached new heights, to judge by today’s Daily Telegraph front page. The image of Johnson ruefully signing his resignation letter, seated behind a magisterial desk in his oak-panelled office is so wannabe Churchill he might as well have gone the whole hog and done a photo shoot at Chartwell; cigar, boiler-suit and all.

Yet with Johnson and David Davis now gone from the cabinet after a dramatic start to the week, it is somehow rather apt that London will today witness a flypast marking the 100th anniversary of the Royal Air Force. It is an event, which arch-Brexiteers like Boris, would position neatly into their vision of a glorious Britain, cut adrift from an EU that might as well be Hitler’s Third Reich such is its tyranny (that comparison, beloved of Brexit extremists, really is potty).

In fact though, the RAF – in its modern guise or by virtue of its history – is not, and must not be, the preserve of Brexiteers: neither they, nor any sub-group within British society have a monopoly on patriotism.

It is one of the most galling of all the claims made by those who demand a “hard” Brexit that anybody who wishes for anything different does not love Britain or does not believe that it can thrive outside the EU. Indeed, it is a gross calumny really, which presumes that a person’s position on the EU question is determinative of their entire outlook and character.

For what it’s worth, I have a notional vision of Britain: liberal, progressive, internationalist, tolerant, hard-working and welcoming. I don’t think the EU is perfect, but I’d rather we had voted to stay in; as it is, I believe the UK will eventually find a way to being successful outside.

But I have a more visceral image too; a moment captured in time just a few weeks ago as it happens.

In this scene, two children – my children – play in the lower branches of an oak tree in the midst of a hilltop village common, where long grasses give way to a cricket pitch at its northern edge. Further on, out of shot, I know there to be (because I have just been there) the remains of an Iron Age ringfort, in the middle of which is a beautiful 12th century church. Over the road from the common – just beyond a monument laid to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria – is a pub, which flies the flag of St George and serves locally brewed beer.

Immediately behind it is a whitewashed windmill. And as I look west, I see (and hear) a slow-moving aircraft flying low in the deep blue sky. It is a Douglas D-47 Dakota, part of the RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, painted to represent a Dakota of the D-Day period. It is June 2018, but it might just as easily be 1944 (aside from the fact that I would have presumably been fighting in a war then, not standing in the middle of the Hertfordshire countryside).

All this might sound like a Nigel Farage dream, but it is just as much my Britain as it is his, or anyone else’s. Disagreements over our future relationship with the EU cannot obliterate feelings of love each of us has for our country; or pride in Britain’s public services and armed forces; or passion for our history; or desire for a positive future.

Johnson can carry on playing Churchill if he likes. Indeed, he should have plenty of time on his hands. But today’s RAF celebration should provide the perfect reminder that patriotism is not synonymous with wanting a hard withdrawal from the EU and that Remainers can love a Spitfire just as much as the most ardent of Brexiteers.

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