For a country with a rich history of victories, Britain has a curious tendency to celebrate the defeats.
Boris Johnson, the runaway favorite to succeed Theresa May as prime minister, sparked controversy this week following a pledge to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union by October 31 “do or die.” Rory Stewart, one of more than a dozen candidates who challenged Johnson for the leadership, pointed out that the phrase do or die comes from “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” a poem by Alfred Tennyson honoring Britain’s defeat at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854, during the Crimean War. The line, in fact, is “do and die.”
For the British, that day it was very much do and die. The Light Brigade suffered a massacre at the hands of a Russian artillery battery in what amounted to a suicidal attack against the overwhelming force of a well-organized enemy, which was subsequently immortalized in verse: “Theirs not to reason why / Theirs but to do and die / Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred.” As it happens, it is also the denouement of Robert Burns’s ode to Robert the Bruce and the Scottish victory over the English at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314: “Lay the proud usurpers low! / Tyrants fall in every foe! / Liberty’s in every blow! / Let us do or die!”
The unfortunate comparisons come as Britain finds itself at a crucial juncture in its history. For those who advocated for Brexit, separation from the EU is an assertion of the country’s independence. But leaving the bloc, possibly without a formal agreement, as Johnson has advocated, risks a severe economic shock. By resurrecting episodes of British heroism, those advocating for Brexit, “do or die,” hope to lift the crisis from the soul-sapping humdrum of everyday economics into a wider, more glorious narrative of British derring-do—of adversity overcome on the road to national liberation.
Johnson’s poetic pledge, which came in response to a question from a journalist who used the phrase, has quickly led to uncomfortable comparisons between his proposed Brexit strategy—leave with or without a deal by October 31—and the slaughter in Crimea. Is Johnson really proposing a suicidal assault against a far mightier opponent—the EU—with inevitably disastrous consequences for the country?
But Johnson is not alone in falling back on the language of glorious defeat in trying to make sense of Britain’s Brexit strategy. A senior U.K. official heavily involved in the British government’s negotiations with Brussels, who asked for anonymity because he was not permitted to speak on the record, told me that he expected the next government to try to turn the prospective chaos of a no-deal exit from the EU into a 21st-century Dunkirk—an even greater example of heroic defeat, this time during World War II, that is lodged in the collective British psyche. In this scenario, a Prime Minister Johnson would attempt to rally the country behind the government using the “Dunkirk spirit” if things began to spiral out of control. The miracle of Dunkirk has attained semi-mythical status, sustaining morale during the early years of the war and coming to symbolize the power of British resolve in the face of unimaginable odds.
But like all national myths, the Charge of the Light Brigade and Dunkirk conceal as much as they reveal. “Britain’s history is actually one of crushing victories against technologically and financially less sophisticated entities,” Dan Snow, a British historian and TV presenter, told me. “Britain conquered Australasia, New Zealand, Canada, and destroyed the Mughal empire in India, by an application of overwhelming force and an ability to borrow money at historically low levels of interest. But the stories we have chosen to remember, curiously, are the more romantic stories of do or die.”
Snow said the reason the British can celebrate the Charge of the Light Brigade, despite the fact that it was an overwhelming defeat, is because, ultimately, it was but a blip on the road to victory in the Crimean War, setting up another half century of global British hegemony.
Popular British history is, in fact, replete with similar examples. The Battle of Rorke’s Drift, made famous in the film Zulu, starring Michael Caine, is remembered for the small unit of British soldiers who held off thousands of African warriors. The Black Hole of Calcutta grabbed the popular imagination, describing the infamous prison in India where scores of British soldiers captured after the fall of Fort William to the last independent ruler of Bengal died in appalling conditions. The Retreat to Jalalabad—or the Massacre of Elphinstone’s Army—is remembered for the British troops slaughtered by Afghan forces fleeing Kabul in 1842. Even Boudicca, the native warrior queen crushed by Roman conquerors, is honored with a statue outside Parliament—erected by the Victorians while they were busy putting down their own colonial revolts.
There are seemingly endless examples. Britain chooses not to remember the Battle of Omdurman in present-day Sudan, when imperial troops massacred the African enemy using the overwhelming technological superiority of the machine gun. Instead, what has lodged in the memory is Gordon of Khartoum, the imperial officer who died in the siege of the city before British troops could relieve him. Equally, Britain chooses not to remember its real strategic failures: the Battle of the Chesapeake, which led to the loss of Yorktown—and the United States—or the fall of Singapore, which was captured by the Japanese during World War II; the Dutch burning the English fleet in 1667, or the partition of India in 1947.
Anne Applebaum, the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian and a professor at the London School of Economics’ Institute of Global Affairs, told me that the events Britain chooses to remember are designed to appeal to its romantic image of success against the odds, which is why leading Brexiteers such as Johnson are returning to them once again. By citing the Charge of the Light Brigade, or even Dunkirk, Johnson and others aren’t appealing to the celebration of defeat, but to adversity on the road to victory.
“That’s what [Johnson] is trying to appeal to: It will be a temporary setback, but on the long road to rebuilding Britain’s greatness,” she said.
And yet the episodes paint a largely misleading picture of Britain’s recent history: The real victories in British history are Waterloo, fighting alongside the Prussians; Trafalgar, establishing British rule of the waves; and World War II, made possible by American might and Russian blood.
Mary Beard, a Cambridge history professor, agrees that Britain is focused on the wrong lessons from its history. “I think there is a fascination with ‘valiant’ defeats,” she told me in an email. “But more than that, it is old Empire/‘buccaneering’ (i.e. piratical) language.”
The real lesson from British history, then, is not the myth of the plucky underdog but the power wrought from financial dominance, military alliances, and overwhelming force: D-Day, not Dunkirk.