Something unusual is happening in British cinemas. Audiences are reported to be breaking into spontaneous applause at the end of the recently-released film about Winston Churchill during the summer of 1940, Darkest Hour. The film concludes with Gary Oldman, as Churchill, delivering part of the speech made to the Commons in the wake of Dunkirk – the most famous part of perhaps the most famous speech that Churchill ever made. “We shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” And so on to the end.
Eric Fellner, the film’s producer, says that since the film was conceived, “the world has changed politically. We’ve had Brexit, we’ve had Trump, we’ve had all sorts of volcanic political and social eruptions and I think we’ve just hit a zeitgeist where people are fascinated by and feeling a need for leadership. This story goes beyond the reasons for which we made it, and now it’s playing into those themes”.
This sounds as accurate a snapshot take as one can get, and Fellner’s reference to the referendum vote is suggestive. Churchill’s views on Britain’s relationship with Europe are complicated, first, by the fact that he said different things at different times and, second, by the contexts in which those differences arose. For example, he said “each time we must choose between Europe and the open sea, we shall always choose the open sea” during a dispute with De Gaulle. A dispassionate summary of his take would be that he had a long-running sympathy for a United States of Europe, particularly in the aftermath of World War Two, but that he saw Britain as being associated but not absorbed by it. He became sympathetic to Britain joining the Common Market;
This seems to have had less to do with an attachment to Parliamentary sovereignty than a view of Britain as the space where three circles intersect: the Commonwealth, America and Europe. After all, Churchill was a creation of his time, though less limited by that constriction than most of us, and the period in which his attitudes, views and reflexes were shaped was late Victorian England. He was a man of Empire – not a little Englander, but a Great Britainer.
One might also say a Global Britainer, which returns one to Brexit and the film. Obviously, not all those applauding will have voted for Britain to leave the EU. And not all those who backed Brexit had self-government as their first consideration. Some made a case that stressed global trade. For example, Rishi Sunak told his local paper that global business has taught him the key to growth is to remove the bureaucracy of Brussels. Richard Fuller, who sadly lost his Commons seat last year, wrote that Britain “would trade with renewed ferocity as an open economy”. His forward-looking statement can be read in full here. Above all, not all those who supported Brexit were Tories. Labour seats played a crucial role in backing it, as Labour MPs did in backing Churchill. (A point the film conveys.)
None the less, it was integral to that forward-looking case for Leave that only self-government can unlock our economic potential. And a county’s future is inevitably shaped by its past. One day, some other country may vote to leave the EU. If it is does, it will do so for its own reasons, and these will have nothing much to do with what has been called Our Island Story.
But just as Churchill, in that unsurpassable Commons oration, referred back to Napoleon’s failed plan to invade Britain, so it is that the Leave campaigns were able to draw on a view of the nation standing alone against tyranny – against Bonaparte’s army; against Spain’s Armada. For very many people, Britain’s survival in 1940 has framed that story as a way of understanding ourselves, just as the mass losses of the First World War shaped the outlook of the pre-war generation. It is a statement of the obvious to say that it would not be so so had we been invaded and subjugated. And it is necessary to honour the commitment of America and the contribution of Russia, without which the defeat of naziism wouldn’t have happened, at least in the form that took place.
The climax of the film shows Churchill taking the Underground, and being told by those in his carriage that Britain must fight on. The scene is at once mawkish and moving, not to mention fictitious. A cynic might say that when those audiences clap at the end of the film, they are clapping themselves – the lion that gave the roar, as Churchill put it. But cynicism corrodes judgement. The summer of 1940 was a narrow squeak. We don’t know what would have followed invasion. The applause is for him.