Brexit and WW2: Why the comparison?

Patrick Hollis
4 min readSep 30, 2019

The Brexit saga is one which has plagued the UK for over three years now. it is a political matter which has become bogged down in often negative rhetoric and frustrated arguments online and in the streets of the nation. It is a matter of sorting out the future, so why are so many comparisons made with the second world war?

The global conflict of 1939–45 is a pillar of pride to many Britons. It is the symbol of our resilience as an island nation and an example of what the country could do when faced with dire straits. Reflecting on WW2 is vital to the memories of those who were involved and their families. It is also something which shouldn’t be mentioned in comparison with Brexit.

Social media provides the perfect platform for these arguments, with members of the public who voted Leave sometimes adopting war rhetoric when justifying the need for the UK to leave the European Union. The idea of the UK being ‘bullied’ by Europe after all which it has done for the continent in the last century is enough for many people to say the UK is better off without the European Union. Individuals act like they have been specifically badly done to by the EU.

The truth is that most Britons, whether Leave or Remain, would not have had much knowledge of EU legislation or trade deals before the topic of the Brexit arose. This attitude that the UK is ‘downtrodden’ and needs to recreate Dunkirk spirit to save face against the EU. Some of the language used is frankly embarrassing.

The second world war was a defining period in British history, and it did show how the nation could come together in dark times. However, it is just completely different to Brexit. Comparing the sacrifice at home and overseas during WW2 to wanting to not be a part of the European Union are only being made to appear similar through politicians and their words.

Nigel Farage was one of the faces of the Vote Leave campaign in 2016 and the UK has been unable to shake him. as leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), a now almost obsolete political group, he fronted the leave campaign. Aside from his attempts at being a regular stand up guy, Farage adopted the war rhetoric by blaring the ‘Great Escape theme tune to trigger his hopes of the UK staging a daring escape from the ‘evil clutches of the EU. It was cringy, but he wasn’t the last British politician to act in this way.

Then Brexit secretary David Davis commented on how the UK civil service would do after Brexit, “our civil service can cope with world war II it can easily cope with this”. what was later pointed out was that the UK civil service was larger during WW2 than it is now.

The use of boisterous, embroiling WW2 terms has not been reserved for the leave camp. In his hopes for Jeremy Corbyn to back a peoples vote, MP Andrew Adonis said that the Labour leader should be more like Clement Atlee. Adonis paid tribute to the efforts of Atlee to put a stop to Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy:

“When Attlee as Leader of the Opposition pulled the plug on Chamberlain & appeasement in May 1940 & installed Churchill — the situation which the crisis most resembles — he didn’t look at opinion polls but acted on the best interests of the country,”

Arguably the most ignorant use of WW2 rhetoric came from Boris Johnson. When trying to say the EU was a dangerous superstate, Johnson was quoted saying the following, “Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically. The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods.” It was outdated and misinformed language which benefitted nobody.

The need to compare Brexit to WW2 has been a strange necessity to politicians and members of the public alike. They feel the need to imagine they helped in the war effort, despite being born years after the guns fell silent. Maybe they’ve felt nothing good has been achieved in their lives so they need to turn to history, perhaps.

Brexit is set to take place on Halloween and doing so will bring to a close over three of the most bizarre years of British politics. WW2 analogies have had their chance in the spotlight for Brexit, but you can be sure that they will be thrown around in British politics some day soon.



Patrick Hollis

I am a journalist with an honours degree from Coventry University. I’m a published author and journalist with several years experience in the industry