To many people who voted Remain, it often feels like moving Britain back into the past is a major objective for many Brexiteers.
As the plans and assessments of a no-deal Brexit – from the government and from independent bodies alike – begin to appear in earnest, it seems like such Brexiteers may get their way.
Though there’s no reason to believe that a no-deal Brexit would bring about any kind of conflict, let alone one as horrifying as the Second World War, in a number of other ways the Brexiteers could find many parallels between such an exit from the EU next year and Britain in the 1940s. And despite fond (usually imagined) memories of the ‘Blitz spirit’, they may find they really do not want to get want they thought they wanted. Here’s why:
Rationing was first introduced in 1939, initially just for petrol but then extending to cover a wide variety of foodstuffs. This was partly because Germany was torpedoing deliveries of food to the UK – a densely-populated island nation which could not even feed itself then, despite having a much smaller population than today.
What many people don’t realise though is that rationing was at its tightest after the war was over – coping with the domestic economic calamity that was the aftermath of the Second World War proved as challenging as the conflict itself.
A no-deal Brexit would likely be the most serious economic shock since that event – with even pro-Brexit ministers like Dominic Raab, and even Theresa May herself, admitting that industry should supply ‘stockpiles’ of food. This is because of the serious disruption to both UK production and importing that would likely to result from the sudden end of every food quality and inspection deal (alongside transport difficulties and other disruption).
The problem with ministers’ stockpiling plan is that no-one in government seemed to bother to check with the food industry if it was possible, let alone feasible – and it isn’t. The UK’s just-in-time factories tend to keep just 24-36 hours of ingredients in place, and most intermediate steps in the supply chain have cut their warehouse capacity down.
There would need to be huge and costly action to make stockpiling possible, which would be all-but impossible in the seven months before the UK faces the prospect of crashing out without a deal.
Digging for victory
British citizens were encouraged to ‘dig for victory’ during the 1940s – food grown in gardens or allotments was off-ration, and so a great way for families to try to improve on what they had available to eat.
This was at best a top-up to ration supplies even at the time, but the UK is now a country with 22 million more people in it now than then, and with far a far greater proportion living in cities and with no gardens. For the millions of people without a garden, it may seem as if allotments could offer an alternative – but even in modern peacetime there is a waiting list of 40 years in many council areas for a plot. If the UK is going to ‘dig for victory’ in Brexit, it may prove to be a long dig.
Where you have rationing – or even when you have shortages, as modern-day Venezuela has shown – you get queues. And while some, in theory, are proud of the UK’s history of polite queuing, few of us actually enjoy it in practice.
While we don’t know how long food queues would be – and can hope that we could find a way to avoid those – there are places we know for sure where queues would be longer. One would be any time at any borders of EU countries, when British citizens are travelling outside the UK. But we could also face longer queues coming home: Number 10 has repeatedly pushed officials for details on UK-only passport queues, despite being told these would slow airports down even further.
More significant still would be the queues for freight at ports: a risk assessment from the council supervising the port at Dover said the UK would need to convert a full 13 miles of motorway for several years as a semi-permanent queue of lorries waiting for border checks – and not just one lane, but four. Needless to say, the work to enable such a change has barely been begun.
Most of the blackouts during the Second World War were deliberate – introduced to make targeting harder for German aircraft attacking London and other major UK cities during the Blitz.
Blackouts after a no-deal Brexit would be less of a voluntary affair. Most at risk is Northern Ireland, which is hugely reliant on imported power from the Republic of Ireland to keep its lights on. The government’s no-deal Brexit plan would involve requisitioning thousands of portable generators – including returning them from areas where the military is deployed – to place them on barges just off the coast.
The UK directly imports less than 1% of its electricity from the EU, but overall is reliant on imports – of oil, coal and gas – for up to 40% of its energy supply, most of it sourced from, or travelling through, the EU or Norway, all of which could face disruption in a no-deal Brexit. And as has been covered elsewhere, the UK could face a new set of headaches about transporting nuclear fuel, radioactive waste, and other products in a no-deal Brexit.
National service outlasted the Second World War by several years before being phased out, and there has been a common call on the right to reinstate it ever since – with the policy generally proving relatively popular among the public.
For the moment, few frontline politicians are seriously raising the idea, but various Brexit supporters have suggested reintroducing it to replace fruit-pickers from the EU – volunteering university students for the role, with no opt-out – or various other roles.
Whether or not any formal national service could be introduced, Brexit could lead to many more people being required to change their work: a ministerial report noted that the UK already faces difficulties in recruiting and retaining health and social care workers, and that these could be much worse under Brexit.
This in turn would lead to many more people needing to work less to provide care to elderly, ill, and disabled family members. The report was criticised for sexism for noting these would be ‘mostly women’, though was simply reflecting the reality of who provides most of that unpaid care today.
We like to imagine an idealised picture of Britain during the Second World War, in which the country pulled together to defeat the Nazis. The reality was more complicated: the number of crimes recorded in 1939 was around 300,000. By 1945, that had surged by almost 60% to nearly 480,000.
There were a myriad of reasons – during wartime there were more laws to break, but also looters took advantage of blackouts and bombings, evacuated and under-supervised children often caused ‘delinquency’ problems.
When it comes to a no-deal Brexit, there are two reasons to expect a potential increase in crime: police leaders have warned the Home Office that such an exit from the EU could disrupt multiple systems used at present to find and convict offenders, including the European Arrest Warrant and other EU databases.
More broadly, though the effect is disputed, crime is believed to be correlated with the rate of unemployment and with the level of GDP – meaning that if a no-deal Brexit causes an economic crisis, it would likely lead to an uptick in crime, too.
The mythology of Britain has come to celebrate and venerate the ‘Blitz spirit’ – the idea of the country coming together, ignoring class and other divisions, to keep getting on with everything, with a ‘stiff upper lip’ and cheery demeanour.
The reality is not nearly so simple. The author Angus Calder wrote a book, The Myth of the Blitz, based on hundreds of contemporaneous written accounts of ordinary people living through the it.
The working classes disproportionately suffered, living nearer factories in housing that was more subject to collapse.
Rural councils tried to resist taking evacuees as they were already suffering from shortages of servants in large houses, as it would be ‘unfair to billet children on them’.
Many middle-class families resented taking in bombed-out neighbours from the slums. Residents of cities outside London felt they received less planning, less coverage and less understanding of their own often heavy bombing losses.
The UK did indeed endure and come together (to an extent) to weather the Blitz and the war, but not in the sing-song fairytale way many of us have come to believe.
That doesn’t bode well for a country that has gone ten years without a real-terms payrise, and that is already eight years into austerity, with diminished trust in its main institutions – the government, parliament, and the media.
If we are foolish enough to sleepwalk into no-deal – or downright idiotic enough to actively seek it – we cannot rely on the adversity to pull us together. It won’t.