It’s 1914 again …

… and I think I’m a conchie.

Brexiteers are fond of invoking the spirit of the Second World War for their all consuming mission. They assemble a war cabinet, Boris Johnson dons the mantle of Winston Churchill and strikes a pose as heroic saviour of the nation. No doubt a spitfire flypast is planned for November 1st.

Yet if we insist on military comparisons, in truth the atmosphere resembles more the run up to World War One. In the summer of 1914, as the Guardian columnist Rafael Behr puts it, “martial drums grew louder, pacifist voices grew fainter, a fog of fatalism descended. The nature of the question shifted from averting possible cataclysm to managing one that seemed inevitable”.

Although in theory our exit can be stopped, the armoured tank that is Brexit now has a lot of momentum and it is unclear how exactly to disable it. Though we assume all routes are still open, many may have already closed off. Historians, contemplating the build up to the Great War, are similarly uncertain when the point of no return occurred.

It was famously said that Europe was plunged into the First World War by the inexorable operation of train timetables. In other words, at a critical moment the carefully laid mobilisation plans could not be deactivated. Today, mobilisation is already proceeding apace and our diplomats in Europe have been ordered to take the train home. Parliament is set to be suspended, blue passports are being printed, celebratory coins are being struck, before long Brexit will be a fait accompli even before it has happened.

In these circumstances, the position of those of us passionately opposed to living in Brexit Britain becomes akin to that of conscientious objectors. A BBC radio play, “We will know them”, dramatised the privations of these brave individuals in sharp relief, and will resonate with all those who have been accused of being traitors or unpatriotic. It can be heard here:

The story revolves around a principled young man called Teddy Mayhew, with ethical objections to killing his fellow men. He is befriended by a young lady, but her parents are aghast when they find out he is a scrimshanker, to use the insulting term of the time. (Remoaners will sympathise).

She sticks by him through his humiliations and brutal treatment, both official and unofficial. Official by the army, unofficial by others who casually abuse him in the belief that the ‘powers that be’ would tacitly approve. Today’s equivalent would be the hostile environment legitimising violence on the street.

Then as now, it was a case of the old shafting the young. The older generation in 1914, who cheered the young recruits on with greatest enthusiasm and reserved a special contempt for conchies, were secure in the knowledge that they were themselves too old to fight.

The parallels continue. Many Brexiters still believe that it will be a short sharp shock at the most, followed by sunlit uplands. And many believed in 1914 that it would be “all over by Christmas”. The general feeling now is “let’s get it over with”. But the only sure way to do that would be to cancel Brexit, and at the same time silence the din of our Eurosceptic media, if only we could. For it is they, like the martial drums of 100 years ago, who created and sustain the present conflict.

So as we approach what could be the point of no return in the next few weeks, are there any lessons from history which could help us? I don’t know, but one thought occurs to me. The First World War became a reality because people went along with it. If instead of boarding those trains they had stayed at home or better still gone on a march, it would not have happened.

So I’m registering my conscientious objection by going on the October march, and I hope you’ll join me. No puffed up member of a privileged elite is sending me over the top, be it Boris Johnson or General Haig.

* John King is a retired doctor and Remain campaigner.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Paul Barker 29th Aug '19 - 7:19pm

    That feeling of inevitability is certainly what the Government are trying to create but its worth reminding ourselves that we are less than two fifths of the way between Johnsons Coronation & Halloween. Less than half of Voters actually believe that Brexit will happen on Time & less than a quarter are making any preparations.
    Very little outside Politics has actually happened yet, not compared to what will happen if Brexit goes ahead. We don’t know how bad things will get before October 31st or how Voters will react, we keep on.

  • It’s nothing like either war or any kind of war. What it’s actually like is when Canada and Australia broke away from England. It’s essentially an internal national political readjustment that the rest of the world is not really that invested in. No one is being sent over top towards enemy guns or any such thing. Some people in suites are trying to thrash out some local changes and some other people in suites disagree with those changes . It’s just national politics in a nation state.

  • Mark Seaman 29th Aug '19 - 7:36pm

    It is not 1914, nor any even vaguely similar scenario. Just stop the ludicrous (even for John King) ‘comparisons’, and try to bring LibDem voice back to at least somewhere on planet Earth.

  • Dennis Wake 29th Aug '19 - 8:09pm

    It is the Leavers who keep making the comparison with WWII and talk about how healthy the population were with nice slim figures and good teeth because of lack of sugar. Parents with small children received full adult rations for them so enjoyed more food. There was just that tiny little problem of the bombs and deaths both here and abroad.
    The comparison with WWI is with the way it evolved seemingly inevitably and unstoppably, not with the fighting. And the party that governed at the time we entered WWI never held power again except as a junior partner in coalitions which resulted in humiliation at subsequent elections

  • The problem we have is that we have no enthusiasm for the European project. In fact I have looked for it in the news broadcasts and newspapers. No positive arguments for European co-operation, no analysis of the reality of the EU.
    The Prime Minister has completely set the agenda. The most likely outcome is that the agreement on the mechanics of continuing passage of goods between the U.K. and the EU will be hailed as a master stroke by the Prime Minister and there will be a General Election called straight away. It is of course possible all will be chaos.
    My opinion is that regardless of our relationship with the EU chaos is inevitable within the next year with our Prime Minister.

  • nigel hunter 29th Aug '19 - 8:16pm

    That picture of Kitchener needs to by hijacked into focus leaflets with slogan ‘Your country and our party needs you to unite with us’

  • Dennis Wake
    I’ve never made a comparison with WWII. Nor would I. I’m sorry but on here and in the Guardian it is very common indeed for Remainists to compare it with WWI and WWII, and probably biblical plagues. It’s not. It is exactly like a country trying to leave a political union foisted on it , as a result of back room deals by John Major’s government, in 1993. Most of the rules of which didn’t even become fixed until 2003 to 2010 or so. The EU is not even as old as the Rave scene. The single currency is only 20 years old and I’m pretty certain I’ve got a tin of baked beans older than that somewhere.

  • Oh dear, there are times when I think LDV has lost the plot…… especially in Mr Hunter’s case.

  • William Fowler 30th Aug '19 - 7:47am

    It may have parallels in food and medicine shortages, depends how it plays out. Does seem the Irish have started to panic, talking about maybe discussing some changes if the UK can come up with an option that is better than just rolling the backstop over into the FTA discussions (which is where I think it will end up on Oct 17th). From a negotiation point of view (if you want an actual Brexit) Boris does seem to have the right idea of forcing things to an actual conclusion.

  • It is just like the build up to both World Wars. Those who forget history repeat it. Meanwhile Trump is starting a Cold War in Space. we must resist fascism. see you on the walk

  • Richard Underhill 30th Aug '19 - 8:41am

    Dennis Wake 29th Aug ’19 – 8:09pm “humiliation at subsequent elections”.
    Please see ‘Politics between the Extremes’ which is available in paperback or from public libraries. The defeat was in 2015. Four gains were made in 2017, including several high-calibre people. Better results since, up to today above.

  • Richard Underhill 30th Aug '19 - 9:21am

    Meg Thomas 30th Aug ’19 – 8:36am
    Japan has not invaded China.
    Germany has not declared war on the USA.
    There are other differences.

  • This is not a helpful or useful comparison. WW1 was far more nuanced than the myths created afterwards (largely from the memoirs of the officer class).

    The casualty rate amongst subalterns (junior officers) was 50% higher than amongst other ranks. Over 200 generals were killed, wounded or captured, which could only have happened in the front line. Whilst the British and Colonial forces were all volunteer until 1916, other combatants had conscript armies and their soldiers couldn’t “refuse to get on the train” without repercussions. I could go on …

  • Dennis Wake 30th Aug '19 - 9:42am

    Glenn: Where I live the local newspapers regularly contain letters from Leavers (but not Remainers) saying how we got through WWII so we can get through Brexit. They also talk about our glorious Russian allies, oblivious of the fact that Germany and Russia were allies until Hitler attacked Russia and they were forced to become allies because they had nowhere else to go and then demanded that we should do things we did not want to do to help them.
    The whole point about Australia and Canada breaking away from England as you put it is that they are so far away whilst Europe is on our doorstep. Although I would prefer us to remain in the EU I accept that is not what the majority of voters wanted so we must leave on the best terms that we can negotiate. I hope that we shall continue to prosper but that if we do not those who took us out do not benefit and pay an appropriate price, possibly the collapse of a Conservative party which has done so much damage to our United Kingdom although its replacement by the Brexit party would be even worse.

  • Peter Martin 30th Aug '19 - 10:19am

    @ Meg Thomas,

    “It is just like the build up to both World Wars.”

    What nonsense! I don’t expect we’ll see too many injured soldiers returning from Europe! We won’t have to open new military cemeteries in France.

    What’s likely to happen next?

    Parliament has done little else for the past three plus years but talk about Brexit. The mood of the country is that it’s time to move on. BJ is on stronger ground than many Remainers might wish.

    It looks to me that some are now lining up behind BJ. At first sight it might have appeared that Ruth Davidson had resigned because of a disagreement over BJs tactics. But a closer look at what she’s saying shows that’s not the case. She’s expecting the WA will be back and she’s advising her supporters to vote for it.

    It’s going to be down to the EU to give BJ a fig leaf to cover his embarrassment and get the deal through Parliament. My expectation is that it won’t be a large leaf. Maybe just mm to spare – but the vote will pass.

    That’s not going to be the end of it though. BJ will disappoint most of his supporters and put wind in the sails of TBP. But even so, we won’t have U-boats sinking shipping in the Atlantic!

  • Dennis Wake
    My comment was based on this and other articles on LDV and reading the Guardian, from which this article is derived. It was not based on where you live or your local newspaper.

  • Brian Evans 30th Aug '19 - 2:20pm

    “Then as now, it was a case of the old shafting the young. The older generation in 1914, who cheered the young recruits on with greatest enthusiasm and reserved a special contempt for conchies, were secure in the knowledge that they were themselves too old to fight.” … This old one did no shafting, voted remain and supports killing Brexit at every opportunity. When it comes to attitudes to the ‘young recruits’ off to the front, I’m just frustrated that I’m past fighting myself!

  • Dennis Wake 30th Aug '19 - 3:04pm

    Glenn: The Guardian and LDV are hardly representative of the population although local papers might possibly be. Just out of interest what do you do ?

  • I never said they were representative. Why are you interested in what I do? I do lots of things. I’m a parent, I eat potatoes sometimes, I go to sleep at night and I’ve been known pick my nose or do you mean what job do I do, to which I will reply none of your business because it is not relevant to anything.

  • Dennis Wake 31st Aug '19 - 2:20pm

    Glenn: Thought you might say something like that and it might very well be my business. As regards Canada, Australia etc the UK Government launched military action when some Irish people attempted to leave the UK because they were on our doorstep.

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