I confess that, a few days ago, I was toying with the idea of writing something about the similarities between the rows about appeasement, in the 1930s, and the horrid rows we now have about Brexit.
As you can imagine, I was going to refer to the establishment conviction, as Hitler prepared for war, that he could be stopped by little gestures (give him this country tomorrow and that the next day and he will forget he ever had greater territorial ambitions). I was going to go on to consider the vicious behaviour of the appeasers, who absolutely hated Churchill and his pals (the ones who said we should re-arm rather than put all our faith in appeasement). I would then pass on to consider today’s establishment, which is convinced that a European super state is inevitable and that we should be part of of it or die, and which hates anyone who disagrees with it with almost the same venom that the appeasers hated Churchill.
It took me only a few moments to realise that the idea was silly. Yes, of course, the days of appeasement teach us something. They show us, as if we needed it, that the establishment can get everything horribly wrong. That is a valuable lesson. We are very foolish if we fall for the nonsensical theory that, if most of our leaders think X, X must be right. That, of course, is how the BBC thinks, but the rest of us don’t have to go along with it, and are very stupid if we do.
But, as I quickly grasped, practically no other lesson can be learned from all those rows about appeasement. In particular, we don’t know how Brexit will turn out. We don’t know whether the EU will survive. We can’t, if we are honest, know whether we will be better off outside the EU than we were in it. It may be that this is one of those times, not frequent but not rare, when the establishment got it right (I don’t think it did, but that is a different point).
With appeasement we now have the benefit of hindsight. We don’t yet have that with Brexit. And that is an important point. Almost every politician who has heard about what went on in the 1930s (perhaps not many fall into that category) will tell you that they would have sided with Churchill against Chamberlain. But that must be wrong. I don’t even know what I would have thought in the late 1930s. Obviously, I hope I would have opposed appeasement, but I may well not have done. I might have been impressed by the fact that pretty well all mainstream politicians and most of the serious newspapers were convinced that the only way to avoid war was to do a deal with Hitler.
And that brings us to another difference between appeasement and Brexit. Yes, the establishment (or the “elite” as it is now called) was desperately in favour of appeasement, just as today’s establishment is in favour of our continued membership of the EU, but so was almost everyone else an appeaser. The celebrations, when Chamberlain brought his piece of paper back from Munich, were almost universal. There was no suggestion that it was only the educated people who supported him. Everyone got it wrong. Today, of course, we are told endlessly that it is only the really stupid who want us to leave the EU. Today’s battle is portrayed as being a battle between the educated (that seems to mean those who have 2:2 degrees from third rate red brick universities) and the wholly uneducated (frightfully common people who live in the north of England and who should never have been given the vote).
Oh, I know, the appeasement debates do, on the surface, seem to suggest that the establishment usually gets it wrong. And, as you know, my own opinion is that the establishment has got it wrong this time. But I am not prepared to go too far with this analogy. There are issues on which I think the establishment gets it right. I don’t think this is one of them, but I think it would be rash of me to say it is definitely wrong.
Perhaps I should explain why I decided to write about appeasement and Brexit despite having come to the conclusion that there was no true analogy. I did so because, the other day, I heard a truly fatuous “remainer” on the wireless saying that his side were akin to those who opposed appeasement in the 1930s. I don’t think I have ever heard such tripe in my life.