The Second World War has been on my mind for the past few days. We’ve had another one of those weeks when the war, and war analogies, popped up in the middle of our political life. Boris Johnson and David Davis both, in different contexts, brought it back into the Brexit debate.
In some ways the war is never really far away. There’s the overt “two world wars and one world cup” version of the national story that surfaces at the uglier end of public discourse but on a more subtle level, the modern foundation myth of the United Kingdom starts in May 1940. It’s a story of defeat somehow into something to celebrate (Dunkirk), of the bravery of “the few” in the Battle of Britain, of standing alone, of Low cartoons and of Britain defeating the Nazis.
Stories matter whether they are true or not, and this is a story with much truth in it. Britain’s (almost but not quite) unique place as a European Union member that experienced neither totalitarian rule nor military defeat and occupation in the mid-twentieth century goes some way towards explaining our differing attitude to the European project.
Mark Wallace wrote an excellent post this week on why we keep on “mentioning the war”. And he’s surely right that the collective experience of decades of WW2 movies plays a large role in keeping one version of this story alive.
There’s nothing wrong with setting fiction in real historical events, obviously. But the number and popularity of war films means that many of us have an instinctive shared view of World War Two which is as much — or more — about the silver screen than history. It’s a stage on which questions of identity, fellowship, bravery, cowardice and cruelty are played out like medieval morality plays.
The generation that fought the war is almost gone but the memory lives on, not just on the screen but in the stories that parents told to children and grandparents to their grand kids.
I grew up spending a lot of time with a grandfather who had spent much of his twenties in Asia. From a very early age I was aware of Kohima, of Imphal and of the experience of the Arakan Front.
Burma - Arakan Front
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The story as told isn’t, of course, completely true. It can be easy to overlook that around one in six of “the few” wasn’t British. And the very notion of “standing alone” tends to discount the role of, what was still in May 1940, the world’s largest Empire. May 1940 isn’t just about an Island Nation standing up to the continental power, but an Island Nation which had the backing of around one in five people on the planet.
The national story, like all good stories, has a hero. And if the foundation myth of the modern UK is to be found in May 1940, then the semi-legendary founder is of course Winston Churchill. Boris Johnson tells this version of the tale well.
These days we dimly believe that the Second World War was won with Russian blood and American money; and though that is in some ways true, it is also true that, without Winston Churchill, Hitler would almost certainly have won.
What I mean is that Nazi gains in Europe might well have been irreversible. We rightly moan today about the deficiencies of the European Union — and yet we have forgotten about the sheer horror of that all too possible of possible worlds.
We need to remember it today, and we need to remember the ways in which this British Prime Minister helped to make the world we still live in. Across the globe — from Europe to Russia to Africa to the Middle East — we see traces of his shaping mind.
At several moments he was the beaver who dammed the flow of events; and never did he affect the course of history more profoundly than in 1940.
I recognise this story but it’s not the one I believe or tell myself. Putting Churchill — the public’s greatest Briton — at the centre doesn’t quite work for me.
My story reflects the slightly outdated historiography of Ken Morgan and Paul Addison, it starts with Labour ditching Lansbury and being on the right side of the debate on appeasement, on rearmament and on Spain. It’s a story of Guilty Men, of Greenwood speaking for England, of the War Cabinet deciding to fight on with Churchill relying on Labour votes whilst Chamberlain and Halifax sought a peace with Hitler, of a People’s War and of a People’s Peace.
It’s a story of the experience of depression, followed by total war fundamentally changing the nature of British politics, British society and the British economy. About the growing role of the state to win both the war and then the peace. Of a New Jerusalem being built out of the ruins of the old order. A story in which the war, what came before it and what came after it are all fundamentally linked. The Social Democratic story of trying to build a distinctly British model of the Good Society that stood between American capitalism and Soviet Communism. It’s the story of the Attlee government, but the version which not only doesn’t exclude the acquisition of the bomb, the decision to found NATO or the war against totalitarian aggression in Korea but recognises that they were as integral to that government as the NHS and the welfare state. It was Major Attlee’s government after all.
It’s the story of my grandfather growing up in a depressed north east, going to fight in Asia and returning to work in a newly nationalised — and now much safer — coal mine. Of the creation of a system which sent the son of a coal miner to university and his son to Oxford. It’s a system which fell apart as I was growing up.
This used to a be a popular story. Oddly enough it was best captured by Bill Bryson towards the end of Notes from a Small Island.
You can still find pockets of the country where it is believed. Talk to the older blokes in Ashington working men’s clubs (clubs with names like The Comrades or The Progressive) and you’ll find traces of it.
But much of the public has moved on. We have the Churchill-centric view of the 1940s that can be found in the Telegraph and the Mail and we have the “two world wars and one world cup” view that comes out when things gets ugly.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the Second World War popping up in our national politics from time to time, it holds an important place in the national psyche. It’s just a great shame that we talk so little about the social democratic version of this story.