It’s a five-minute walk from the Houses of Parliament in London to the spot where Great Britain was last at its greatest.
Squeezed between the Treasury and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, a discreet set of steps leads down to a bunker complex that served as Winston Churchill’s underground command centre during the Second World War. It’s here that the country’s most vaunted prime minister, the War Cabinet and chiefs of staff worked and slept, sifted intelligence, plotted campaigns and ultimately helped turn the tide of the war against Nazi Germany.
What Churchill famously referred to as Britain’s finest hour is invoked nostalgically in the UK among those pressing to leave the European Union. But as another deadline to depart the EU comes and goes, the prolonged uncertainty over Britain’s future is instead bringing out the worst of the British character on both sides of the Brexit divide.
The animosity threatens the most bitter election campaign in memory over the next six weeks as delivering or preventing Brexit become ideologies in themselves. The normalisation of bellicose language directed at opponents both at home and abroad suggests the postwar model of a liberal, internationalist Britain has had its day.
Instead, slurs are directed at Ireland for not bowing to British demands. There are threats to withhold money due to the EU. Cooperation with member states on security matters is seen as a bargaining chip.
Even as some politicians try to calm the rhetoric in the House of Commons, the public has gone the other way. Whether it’s death threats to members of Parliament, marches in London or radio phone-ins and the BBC’s flagship Question Time show, the impression now is of a country bristling with Brexit-induced aggression.
At least two MPs, Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan and former Conservative Heidi Allen, cited abuse for doing their job when announcing they would stand down and not contest the election.
Britain, of course, is no stranger to violence. Whether it’s building a global empire or pub fights between rival soccer fans, there’s always been an edge to the national psyche. But it’s also been a magnet for immigrants with a reputation for tolerance. The first purpose-built mosque, for example, came in the late 19th century.
It’s the ugly side that’s dominating now, though. More than three years on from the 2016 referendum, the language of Brexit has become more deliberately confrontational.
Johnson, who said he’d “rather be dead in a ditch” than request an extension to the October 31 departure date, blames the “zombie Parliament” for frustrating his bid to quit the EU. He refers to opposition surrender to Europe, and accuses Parliament of holding the country “hostage.” Challenged, Johnson dismissed concerns over his language as “humbug.”
The pro-Brexit press routinely labels lawmakers and judges traitors, while campaign group Leave. EU made an explicit link between Brexit and the war in a Twitter post this month that referred to Chancellor Angela Merkel as a “kraut.” It shrugged off the ensuing storm and deleted the tweet.
There are real world consequences: The risk is the UK will alienate allies just when it needs them most-to sign trade deals, grease international collaboration and, not least, foster goodwill toward a middling power cutting loose from a bloc of 500 million people of which it’s been a part since 1973.
Nowhere outside Brussels has been the subject of as much righteous British anger as Ireland, with widespread incredulity that the Irish government could wield so much influence in the Brexit process.
Strolling down Whitehall past Downing Street and Britain’s grand offices of state, it’s not hard to imagine the UK thriving free of the EU institutions that are so locked into the postwar politics of Berlin, Rome or Paris.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Britain wanted to be friends with Europe, but also “buccaneering global free traders,” he wrote in an article for the Sunday Telegraph published on September 23.
What kind of image Britain will project post-Brexit is open to question. During the referendum campaign, Johnson, Churchill’s biographer, said that “sunlit meadows” would be ushered in by a vote to leave the EU. That was a play on Churchill’s “finest hour” speech in which he exhorted Britain and her allies to stand up to Hitler and “move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.”
“Get Brexit done” is now Johnson’s refrain. And as he fights an election that will defined by Brexit, he might reflect on the fate of his hero: In 1945, having won the war, Churchill was voted out of office.
Alan Crawford is a senior columnist and political commentator