John Bird: Compromise is no-one’s idea of destiny

Is it possible to see this break with Europe as an “enough is enough” kind of feeling?

Just before the First World War among a class of people who were well-off and educated, beneficiaries of the plenty of the empire at home and abroad, there developed a sense of “enough is enough”. Or you might call it a resolution to break open the seemingly oppressive prosperity and sameness of everyday life.

In the advantage of our later years looking back we might call this a fatalism, or even a passion for bloodletting. A desire to break open a compromise, to destroy and end. Even if it meant sacrifice; and even death.

It seemed that Europe and its white-led colonies were united in this ‘champing at the bit’ to get on with it. And this transformed itself, this desire for action, into an intense passion for the war that started in August 1914.


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Many historians have talked about political leaders stumbling into war, or arriving there by mistake. But you only have to read around the lives of the ordinary and comfortable middle classes, and at times parts of the upper and working classes, to see this thirst for a “resolution”. Almost an end to sameness and compromise.

And it affected most countries where there was a comfortable class of people above largely abject labour and back-breaking work. Unfortunately every belligerent nation also believed that it would be a short, swift throat-cutting exercise – the enemy’s throats of course – and everyone would be home for Christmas.

As we know, looking back at the carnage, it did not happen that way. But the sense of “we can’t just carry on like this” was prevalent pre-war and is worthy of further research and understanding. “Destiny” was calling and with it the end of a compromise.


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I was reminded of this “spirit” of breaking the compromise in and around the 2016 EU Referendum. So many people young and old I spoke to, back then and even now, wanted to end this compromise; that is among those who voted to leave.

It suggests to me it was this desire to get to a different reality, or even get into reality, that dominated many people’s thinking. That Britain was living a kind of sham life and it could not simply go on. Suggesting in my mind at the time that people were rejecting something; perhaps the hollowness of this extreme consumerism; of this fickle prosperity. Of this false continentalism that was never more than cappuccino-foam deep.

I hope I am not making the same mistake, but it’s entirely possible, of conjuring up a whole theory about reality from bits of chats and snippets of observation; very much like the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole who has written a book about it and lectured about it. He specifically thinks the English, not the Scots, who voted to leave have an obsession with self-harm. As if there’re all on the old self-destruct, with a kind of stuffing their faces with Prozac while reading old war comics and listening to the speeches of Churchill; still mired and marinated in the memories of Dunkirk and D-Day.

You only have to read around the lives of the ordinary and comfortable middle classes, and at times parts of the upper and working classes, to see this thirst for a “resolution”

That’s kind of neatly tying up some evidence and making it into an acceptable enough theory to warrant a book and a lecture tour and a prosperous audience of remainers to grasp at any old tosh; the tosh helping them to digest the fact that they lost. Leaving a feeling that it was a variation of mental illness that united a self-harming nation, so no reason to respect its result.

My suggestion is that as in the pre-First World War years a sense of living a falsehood pervaded among sections of the middle classes. I get a feeling later among people, who did not seem a part of the prosperity of contemporary Britain, that they want to end a falsehood called European Union membership.

That Europe was a game played at their expense.

Of course I could be entirely wrong and Mr O’Toole might well be right but I thought it worthwhile to float an alternative. As a remainer it does not make me feel good to see the scurrying around, producing theories of decline and self-abnegation without trying to counter it. All used as ammunition against voiding the vote of those who voted to leave.

I voted to stay in the EU. I accepted the rules of the referendum as did every last one of us who voted in it. Until after the vote when much of the political leadership of us remainers rejected the rules. Leading many of us to likewise question its validity.

Is it possible to see this break with Europe as a kind of “enough is enough” kind of feeling? Hence when you talk to many leavers they seem to discount the damage it does to their economy. That they want to end the compromise. They say “bollocks to Europe” because the EU never did it for them.

Is this, as Mr O’Toole says, a sign of something like self-harm? Maybe we need to understand that people can’t always live a compromise, however uncomfortable what follows is for others.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue.