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On VE Day: we should look to 1942 for inspiration, not the Blitz or 1945

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Is anyone else wondering why, in the midst of a pandemic, we are encouraged to look back, not to past pandemics or public health crises for lessons, but instead to draw inspiration from the Britain of the Second World War, and the people who, allegedly, faced the sacrifices of the war years with stoicism, good humour and resilience? The period of the war most often invoked in this mobilisation of cultural memory is the Blitz, the period of intensive bombing of London and other British cities between September 1940 and May 1941, which killed just over 40,000 civilians and destroyed many thousands of homes, workplaces, churches and schools. Specifically, it is the ‘Blitz spirit’ which has had to do work as a metaphor again and again during our current crisis: from ex-UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom’s opposition to pub closures to Matt Hancock calling upon Britons to emulate their grandparents’ behaviour during the Blitz.

At times it has felt as if such invocations of the Second World War are, literally, all that we have (in the absence of effective medical treatment, and, in the crucial early weeks of the pandemic, of political leadership). After the Queen’s broadcast to the nation in early April Vera Lynn’s wartime hit We’ll Meet Again briefly shot up the charts, only to be replaced at number one by Second World War veteran and NHS fundraiser Captain Tom Moore. As a historian of the experience and memory of the Second World War in Britain, I am not surprised by the continued resonance of the war in the life of the nation, even though I remain unconvinced that a war against a political enemy, fought for geo-political and ideological reasons, is the best metaphor for a ‘war’ against a virus which has no overall aims, no ideology and no strategic plan.

In fact, the dominant memory of the war, with its images of a united nation, good-naturedly battling against initially overwhelming odds to defeat an evil enemy, was created in the war itself. It was formed by a range of public commentators, from Churchill on the political right to J.B. Priestley and George Orwell on the left, in the crucial year of 1940, which saw the retreat from Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the first months of the Blitz. It’s a comforting, if very partial, memory, which marginalises the death, injury and capture of over 30,000 professional soldiers that Britain could ill-afford to lose at Dunkirk, in favour of an emphasis on the improvised rescue of many more; the excitement of dog fights on sunny afternoons for the inhabitants of Southern counties over the death and terrible physical and mental injuries suffered by the young airmen; and good-natured crowds bedding down for the night on London Underground stations over the ‘bits of bodies’ that Civil Defence workers recalled washing off the walls of the homes and shelters that were the target of nightly bombing raids.

But in this week of VE Day, when we are encouraged by the British Legion to join with our neighbours in a doorstep rendition of We’ll Meet Again, I want to suggest that – if we must look back to the war – we should be looking not at 1940 or 1945, but at 1942. 1942 was the nadir of the war for Britain – it saw the fall of Singapore, Europe occupied or allied to the Axis Powers, and increased shortages of food and fuel – but it was also the first year that the end seemed to be, distantly, in sight. The United States had joined the war in December 1941, and in 1942 victory at El Alamein followed by the Torch Landings in November saw the Allies triumph over Axis forces in North Africa. But at home it was also the year that ideas about reconstruction – planning for the postwar world – began to be widely discussed. 

Reconstruction was not a new topic. The historian and diplomat E. H. Carr had famously argued in The Times, shortly after the withdrawal from Dunkirk in 1940, that the war could not be a war in defence of the status quo. Instead, Carr argued ‘if we speak of democracy we do not mean a democracy which maintains the right to vote but forgets the right to work and the right to live…if we speak of equality we do not mean a political equality nullified by political and economic privilege.’  Newspapers and magazines had been discussing plans for social and economic reconstruction since at least 1940 and the Social Survey organisation Mass Observation had long been asking for people’s feelings about the kinds of homes, work and lives that they wanted to see after the war. A return to the status quo of the 1930s, it was clear, was not on the cards.

But it was the publication of the Social Insurance and Allied Services’ White Paper, more popularly known as the Beveridge Report in December 1942 that really caught the public imagination. With its plans for a postwar welfare state, and its identification of the ‘five giants’ that any postwar government would have to slay – poverty, disease, idleness, squalor and ignorance – the findings and recommendations of the Committee led by Sir William Beveridge sold 100,000 copies in its first month, and another 600,000 thereafter. Widely discussed and debated by civilians and service personnel, the Report showed that people were clearly hungry for a postwar future very different from the divided and divisive 1930s. Churchill’s reluctance to legislate for the postwar implementation of Beveridge’s recommendations was, at least in part, responsible for his defeat at the ballot box in the summer of 1945.

As all historians of total war know, crises are the midwives of social, economic and political change. The First and Second World Wars heralded probably the most profound changes in British life, from the creation of the medical triage system and the expansion of the franchise in the First World War to the conscription of women, the introduction of the 11 Plus, and the eventual establishment of the Welfare State and the NHS during and in the aftermath of the Second World War.  Times of crisis speed up existing changes and create fertile ground for the implementation of new ideas.

Today, many of us are learning to work from home, meeting colleagues and friends via Zoom calls, and discovering a sense of community and neighbourliness we thought was lost. We are thinking about whether we want to return to the ‘old world’ of lengthy commutes, environmental degradation, zero hours contracts and swingeing austerity cuts. The NHS has consolidated its love affair with the British people, and many are as determined to protect it against privatisation by stealth as they have been to protect it against being overwhelmed by Covid-19. If we must look back to the Second World War for inspiration, we should be looking back to 1942, and to the people who took time in the middle of a total war to think about and to work for the kind of world they wanted to win.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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