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The great myth of British pluck (and why it’s a symbol of decline)

(Photo by Harrison /Topical Press Agency/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

Brexiteers have deluded themselves with a belief in the native pluck of the British which will eventually win the day.

Our Brexit Negotiators just can’t stop telling us that if we only keep on chanting ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ for long enough, the EU will eventually crack. Why will it crack? Because EU exporters, above all the German car-industry will, perhaps at the last minute, force the German government to require the EU to do Britain’s bidding.

Not everyone is so convinced. Analysts at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, for instance, who report: ‘We are often confronted with the view that Germany’s stance… will have to soften because the UK market is too important for German exporters – car makers in particular. We are sceptical.’ They are also logical: ‘If Germany had to choose between protecting a market, which absorbs 50% of its exports (ie the EUxUK) and is thereby a 6.7 times bigger export market than the UK, it seems obvious where the long-term strategic economics preferences may be.’

But Liam Fox & Co. simply know, in their hearts, that the EU is a wholly-owned division of Germany and that Germany, despite being so logically mighty – no, because it is so logically mighty! – can always be outplayed by plucky Brits. Because we British do not work on wretched Germanic logic. If the Leave narrative has changed from ‘there will be no Brexit downside’ to ‘OK, so now we need the Dunkirk spirit’, so much the better! Did we vote Leave out of any short-term economic calculation? No! We acted from a noble desire reclaim our ancient sovereignty, and in glorious trust that things will then naturally, somehow, start getting better, by, say 2030. The Germans, on the other hand being naturally calculating, rational, but fatally unimaginative, will go for the short-term bottom line.

Extraordinarily, the future of our country is being decided by men who actually believe this tripe. They are living out War Story for Boys – or perhaps Dr Who and the Daleks, in which an English amateur with a galactic private income somehow defeats order-barking pepperpots bent on racial purity and domination (in some early programmes, they actually gave robotic ‘Sieg Heil’ salutes, in case 1960s audiences missed the point).

It would be funny, except it’s not. Because when national myths hit reality, they lead to national debacles which hurt real people. So when and why did we hit upon the idea that the Germans were (bad) rational polar opposites to our (good) irrational selves? It might seem obvious that the myth arose during two World Wars. In fact, it predates them both, and is a salutary tale from our national decline.

Throughout our golden era, from around 1740 to around 1860, we were mighty proud but never imagined ourselves born with unique powers. How could we, when ‘we’ so clearly meant a curious and deeply multicultural entity? The state which expected that every man would do his duty was less than 50% English. About 40% of us were deeply uncomfortable speaking English, if we could do so at all – including King George II, who personally led his Anglo-German army to victory against the French in 1743.

The key to our sudden rise was the Royal Navy, the greatest and best-funded scientific, technical and industrial phenomenon of the age, a unique motor of imperial triumph and social mobility. John Perkins, a mixed-race sailor from Jamaica with no helpful patrons whatever, rose through its victorious ranks to become captain by 1800 (the equivalent of a full colonel in the Army).

At the height of our powers, we saw ourselves as the land of industry, trade and merit; our poor ‘cousins’ (as we called them) in Germany were hopeless dreamers, poets and philosophers. We were sure that one day they would unite and adopt our own ways, becoming, as Victoria herself said, ‘a most useful ally for Britain’. Then came the Prussian conquest.

In 1866, Prussia defeated Austria and all the other kingdoms of Germany. The dust had hardly settled when Bismarck finished the job in 1870-1. Britons were stunned. The Times compared the Prussians to Attila’s Huns, while the Graphic sounded like a pre-echo of The War of the Worlds, writing of the terrible organisation of the German armies, the all-pervading intelligence. This new, prussianised Germany seemed almost inhuman, somehow combining unheard-of military science with sheer brutality. The runaway British bestseller of 1871 was The Battle of Dorking, in which the Prussians follow up with a successful invasion of England. It caused such a stir that Gladstone himself felt obliged to remind Britons publicly that it was mere fiction. The familiar 20th-century image was born in 1871.

There was nothing irrational in our ancestors’ fear. The question was how to deal with this strange new beast. Disraeli’s answer was an active British policy in Europe. In 1875, he almost overnight created a league with France and Britain’s default enemy, Russia, to deter a second strike on France. Bismarck backed down, furious – and filled with respect for Disraeli. With Britain active and ready to fight, Prussia knew it could not aspire to hegemony. But in 1880, Gladstone began his ascendancy. He offered Britain’s new, consumer electorate a Panglossian vista in which moral force (cost to taxpayer: nothing) would maintain the Empire without troublesome alliances and ‘bloated armaments’. Britain retreated from Europe.

By 1887, the outlines of the next major war were clear for all to see: it would be France/Russia vs Germany Austria. Had we at any time between 1887 and 1914 made it clear whose side we’d be on, and that we really would (as we ended up having to) fight tooth and claw, the Great War might well never have come about.

Instead, we sat on our hands in ‘splendid isolation’. But our great-great grandfathers knew in their bones that it was all fudge. The secret mood was perfectly summed up in three of the biggest publishing hits of 1896-1897: E.E. Williams’ Made in Germany (‘insidious and deadly … battling with might and main for the extinction of our supremacy’), Kipling’s Recessional (‘Lo, all our pomp of yesterday/ Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!’) and Well’s The War of the Worlds (‘…intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic … slowly and surely drew their plans against us’).

It was now, in late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain, that the mindset of the likes of Liam Fox and Daniel Hannan was invented, not out of strength but as a desperate evasion of reality. The mass-scribes of a fat and fading consumer nation decided that things like method, planning, funding, education, merit, dedication, professionalism – the very things which had created the Empire – were now for the Germans. We didn’t need them, and we didn’t need alliances because we had, well, a Special Racial Power. The buzz-word of the age was pluck. Since we and we alone were born with British Pluck, if we just played up and played the game, we would somehow best a rival which everyone knew was better educated, out-producing and technologically outstripping us.

There was always something almost crack-brainedly suicidal about the notion. By 1900, the Royal Navy (in which an obviously half-black captain would now have been quite unthinkable) was clad in Krupp’s armour plate because it was so undeniably better than our own. But never mind, pluck would win the day! When it didn’t quite work out at the great naval Battle of Jutland in 1916, the British press fawned on Admiral Beatty, who had caused most of our casualties by leading his battle-cruisers to semi-extermination. Beatty was accordingly made Commander in Chief of the Grand Fleet for ‘his pluck and audacity’, as his adoring hacks put it. At the Somme, and 25 years later in the Western Desert, before the arrival of Montgomery, thousands of young Britons died because senior commanders genuinely believed that in the chaos of a free-running battlefield, plucky young British public school men would naturally be better leaders than production-line German junior officers. The truth was the exact opposite: the Army could indeed beat the Germans, but only when the numbers were right and when generals copied the allegedly Germanic virtues of careful staff-work and meticulous planning, as at Amiens and Alamein.

Prussia is gone – we ended up having to spill vast amounts of blood to help abolish it, for God’s sake, so we should know! – but the wretched mindset lives on. We continue to evade the truth that the same laws of nature and economics apply to us as to every other country. At the end of last millennium, we discovered the idea of ‘buccaneering capitalism’.

Anglo-Americans couldn’t compete in manufacturing any more, but it didn’t matter because we (this briefly and memorably included the Icelanders) were somehow uniquely equipped for acts of bold financial semi-piracy. The boring, non-buccaneering side of capitalism was for the methodical but plodding Germans. The Economist of June 1999 even gloated that Germany was ‘the sick man of Europe’. Our Brexit negotiators, horribly, are men who believed this nonsense then and still do today. They truly believe that even if people like the Bank of America Merrill Lynch warn them the EU holds all the cards, they don’t need to negotiate rationally. They can outplay the Germans – who, of course, secretly rule the EU – by plucky British bluffing.

In the real world, when the Gatling was jammed and the colonel dead, British pluck usually just ended up as sad names on a memorial. An Edwardian myth, born out of national denial, is leading us once again over the top to certain disaster.

James Hawes leads the MA Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes. His website is and his most recent book is The Shortest History of Germany. His 2005 satirical novel, Speak for England, predicted Brexit

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