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Mawkish nursery games. It’s time to leave the Second World War in the history books

May 5th, 2020

Sir Winston Churchill died in January 1965. He was accorded a state funeral, as befitted the man who embodied Britain’s struggle in the Second World War, and the country poured out its emotion for a giant of the age.  An album of his speeches even made the top ten.  His death marked the end of an era.

Except it didn’t. As the years went by, British veneration of those who fought in that war only grew. “Their finest hour” became our foundation myth. By the 1980s, Jim Hacker was being mocked affectionately by the Yes Prime Minister writers for affecting a Churchillian growl at his most self-important moments.

It didn’t get better. Nick Clegg observed in 2002 that:

“All nations have a cross to bear, and none more so than Germany with its memories of Nazism. But the British cross is more insidious still.

“A misplaced sense of superiority, sustained by delusions of grandeur and a tenacious obsession with the last war, is much harder to shake off. We need to be put back in our place.”

He got into a lot of hot water in the 2010 election for that observation. He wasn’t wrong though.

All the martial tropes came gushing forth from Leavers during the EU referendum campaign. Nigel Farage turned up to rallies playing “The Great Escape”. Boris Johnson went further, likening the EU to Hitler: “Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically. The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods”.

The harking back didn’t end with the referendum campaign. David Davis informed us that: “if our civil service can cope with world war II it can easily cope with this [Brexit]”. Mark Francois lambasted the CEO of Airbus with the ringing words: “My father, Reginald Francois, was a D-Day veteran. He never submitted to bullying by any German and neither will his son.”  Daniel Kawczynski fulminated: “Britain helped to liberate half of Europe. She mortgaged herself up to eye balls in process. No Marshall Plan for us only for Germany [Britain was in fact by far the biggest beneficiary of the Marshall Plan]. We gave up war reparations in 1990. We put £370 billion into EU since we joined. Watch the way ungrateful EU treats us now. We will remember.”

Even during this pandemic, Britain’s war history is being misused. Effie Deans is not alone among Conservative commentators in complaining that the media has been insufficiently supportive of the government. She argued, in a much-circulated article, that:

“If we had had the modern journalist profession in 1940, we would have lost the war. They would have complained about the Governments disastrous mistakes at Narvik. It should have known that the Maginot line wouldn’t work. Journalists would have demanded that Churchill should have been immediately sacked for the defeat at Dunkirk. They would have described our situation as hopeless and would have ridiculed our ability to fight them on the beaches and would have said it was mere arrogance to suppose that our pathetic little country could have a finest hour. After all the Germans do everything so much more efficiently than we do. They would have listed all the mistakes our country had made and called it insight.” 

It should not need to be said, but a pandemic is not a war. The virus is not reading the newspapers or watching the TV channels. It is not following the government’s plans or sowing dissension. It is not strategising, it has no aims, it is not sentient. It is simply dangerous.

So the best strategy can be debated vigorously and in public. If the government seems to have failed, those failures can be dissected in detail.  If other approaches might be considered, there is no harm in discussing them publicly.  This is not treachery but a civic duty.

And as it happens, those who now hark back to the war are, as so often, woefully ignorant. Churchill would not have been Prime Minister at all if the country had not been prepared to replace a failing leader. The disastrous mistakes at Narvik, that Ms Deans seems to think journalists should not have complained about, played a central part in this. (Britain replaced Prime Ministers in both world wars, as it happens). Churchill faced a vote of no confidence in 1942. Blind loyalty was not required then and it is not required now either.

It’s not as if the Prime Minister has earned blind loyalty. Boris Johnson is reputed to imagine himself as a new Churchill. While the original incarnation spent a decade in the wilderness warning of the gathering storm in the 1930s, Boris Johnson spent much of the gathering storm in February on holiday with his fiancée. When he belatedly woke up to the danger, he underestimated Covid-19 so badly that he – along with his chief of staff, his Health Secretary, Health Minister and Chief Medical Officer – promptly fell victim to it. He had nothing to offer.

It is now 2020.  No one younger than 93 could have fought in the Second World War (no matter how many Facebook memes would have you believe that the current generation of sturdy pensioners saved the nation). There are perhaps 300,000 people of that age or older – less than 0.5% of the population. Most of those will have been non-combatants. Colonel Tom is a real rarity.

Yet on Friday, the 99% are expected yet again to commemorate this now historical event. Few could claim that it’s an underexplored period of our history.  It won’t be as much fun as Guy Fawkes Night. The casualties of war are, properly, honoured on Remembrance Sunday.  So why on earth are we doing this all over again? All it is going to do is give an extra shot in the arm to a cult that is already unhealthily strong, that leads its acolytes into historical absurdities and bedevils every attempt to give Britain a forward-looking agenda.

Instead of yet another tribute on Friday to the glorious dead who long ago passed away, we would be better advised to mourn the avoidably dead (roughly 50,000 so far) who have died as a consequence of this pandemic. But that would require leaving behind the comfort of nostalgia by proxy and confronting the uncomfortable present of grief and suffering and, in time, anger. There is absolutely no sign that this Dad’s Army government is ready to do that.

Alastair Meeks