Past and Present
Like everyone else in the UK and a good many people outside of it, I’ve followed the EU Referendum with a mixture of alarm and incredulity. Even though I believed (wrongly) that when it came to the actual decision there would be enough common sense left to prompt a ‘Remain’ vote the tone of the ‘debate’ – if that is indeed what one should call it – in the final stages was an immensely worrying indicator of where the country’s political culture currently is. As I type this, there’s no sign of anything being resolved any time soon, so there will surely be more uncertainty, more recrimination, more vitriol, more attempts to secure a solution without conceding anything, and less to feel optimistic about in the months ahead.
You didn’t need to be researching a book on the culture and politics of the 1930s to recognise the signs of extremism that coloured much of the ‘Leave’ campaign publicity, but I’ve found that my recent reading has shaded into current affairs with a little too much regularity to maintain that sense of ‘academic’ study that often accompanies a research project. Images are re-packaged, rhetoric is recycled, and in a climate of fear and distrust another decade when nationalism rose and faith in international institutions dwindled starts to look worryingly familiar. And I’m not even going to push the analogies further by considering the rise of Russian influence and the prospect of American isolationism in 2016. Sometimes you have to check the calendar to be sure where you are.
Unfortunately, reading a pile of books on Nazi Germany, or the social and economic tensions that briefly made Oswald Moseley look like an English dictator in waiting, enables you to spot the signs but not always to be able to do much else. Given how much we know about those pre-War years, though, it would be a tragedy for all if Europe, a continent that for all its disagreements has not been fully at war for seventy years, were to slide into nationalistic rivalry at a time when it arguably needs stability and coherence more than ever. A tragedy, too, if Britain, out of nostalgia for a past that was never really there in the first place, were to think that what the world of today needs is more little-England style thinking, and not much, much less.
Next month sees the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and I’m looking forward to what promises to be an excellent conference in London for scholars of the literature produced by the conflict. Looking again at W. H. Auden’s poem ‘Spain’, though, is enough to remind a reader of the stakes when the situation is so urgent. “We are left alone with our day,” Auden writes, “and the time is short and / History to the defeated / May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.” Although the 1930s produced some great literature, they were a dark time that it took a lot to redress, so let’s hope we don’t have any more to say ‘Alas’ about than we have already. The 21st century can mirror the 20th, but it would be better surely, if it differed in a few crucial respects.