A country for old men?
ESSAY: Why our desperate leaders try but fail to hide behind the elderly heroes of the Few and some pensionable Second World War myths.
The events marking the seventieth anniversary of the Battle of Britain have not only served as an official history lesson, but have also been unintentionally revealing about the parlous state of the nation today.
The anniversary services and media bombardment have focused on the surviving members of ‘the Few’, the Royal Air Force pilots who fought Hitler’s Luftwaffe in the skies over Britain in 1940 and inspired Winston Churchill’s famous declaration that ‘never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’. They have been feted again this past week as the men who defended our liberty and made modern Britain what it is.
The service in Westminster Abbey confirmed, however, that those brave young men of 1940 are now pretty old men, some who survive still as bright as their medals but have trouble standing to attention. So it seemed slightly incongruous that they should be proclaimed as our greatest living national heroes, with every politician and celebrity from David Cameron and the royals downwards keen to get next to the RAF veterans in the hope of getting a piece of their courageous image.
What does it say about a nation’s elite that the finest heroes and ‘role models’ it can parade before the public should have lived their finest hour 70 years ago? The inevitable impression given is that ours is a country for old men, where some in high places are more comfortable remembering a sanitised version of the past than thinking about the uncertain future.
The contrast between the 1940 generation and today’s leaders and commanders appears stark. Who would believe the British state could fight and win such a major war in 2010? And how could it inspire today’s generation of largely indifferent youth to make such sacrifices? What would they be fighting for?
The wave of Second World War nostalgia is not just about remembering. These things are also about trying to connect the past with the present, drawing parallels that can boost the authority of those in power now and provide a national feelgood factor. The Tory government tried that in 1995, with a series of events to mark the fiftieth anniversary of victory in the Second World War. Many people came out to celebrate, though even then the nostalgia-fest also gave rise to what we at Living Marxism magazine described as ‘anniversary fatigue’. Fifteen years later, the recent events marking the seventieth anniversary of 1940 have only served to highlight more starkly the differences between Britain’s politicians, peoples and wars then and now.
The British elite still clings to the fading memory of the Second World War as its last great victory on the world stage. That is why there is more fuss about the seventieth anniversary than there ever was about the thirtieth or fortieth. The events of 1940, from the Dunkirk evacuation through the Battle of Britain to the Blitz, are particularly important to the national legend. That was the year when little Britain stood alone against the Nazis – with the Soviet Union still supposedly in alliance with Germany and with the US on the sidelines – as a gallant beacon of liberty. Little wonder that prime minister Cameron got into trouble this year when he suggested that Britain had been America’s ‘junior partner’ even in 1940.
The central place of the war in the national memory has always been at least partly based – like much war propaganda – on myths that have become widely accepted as the historical truth. We have seen many of these myths peddled again around this year’s anniversaries, none more so than with the Blitz and the Battle of Britain. It may be worth questioning a few of them, before looking at how they cannot play the same role for the authorities today.
Myths of the Blitz spirit
From the summer of 1940, the German bombing raids on London and other British cities are said to have been met with the ‘Blitz spirit’ of national unity and stoical resistance – a spirit that governments of all stripes have sought to call upon in all subsequent crises. There were indeed many remarkable examples of heroism, resilience and solidarity during the Blitz. What the official version ignores, however, is that the masses struggled and survived on the homefront largely through their own efforts, and often in direct conflict with the authorities.
Back in 1989, on the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Second World War, Toby Banks published an essay in Living Marxism about the myths of the Blitz Spirit (sadly unavailable on the Web), which drew on historical research to detail eye-opening facts and stories: from the reserve policeman trained to fire a rifle in 1939 and told he would have to use it on Londoners ‘if they get out of control when the invasion and the bombings come’, to the Lancashire MP who reported in horror in June 1940 that munitions workers in his constituency were all saying ‘well at any rate, one good thing about Hitler is he robs the rich to help the poor’. Some Londoners also blamed the Jews for their plight.
Once the bombs of the Blitz began falling in 1940, the British authorities were able to create a more national mood of resistance. Yet even here the myth of the united Blitz spirit does not really hold true. The authorities tried to stop Londoners sheltering in Tube stations, subjected those whose homes were bombed to humiliating means tests under the Victorian Poor Law, and exposed them to such horrors as the Tilbury bomb shelter in east London, where four earth buckets served as toilets for a disused warehouse supposed to hold 16,000 people. When the shelter inmates organised a committee to run their own affairs and sent a deputation to protest at conditions they were charged by baton-wielding mounted police.
When I spotted Prince Charles on the TV on Sunday, talking about how he was raised on his grandmother’s tales of Buckingham Palace being bombed, it reminded me of how the old king and queen (his grandparents) were initially booed when they visited the blitzed East End of London. Then the Ministry of Information (the inspiration for Orwell’s Ministry of Truth in 1984) seized upon the minor bomb damage to the palace as what they called an ‘opportunity… of counteracting the bad feeling in the East End’. They organised a press offensive around the bombing to emphasise the theme: ‘King with his people in the frontline together.’
As an MOI memo had suggested at the start of the war, the authorities would adopt a ‘pragmatic definition’ of the truth; lying to the public all the time would be hopeless, but when a sufficient emergency arose they must be ready ‘to tell one big, thumping lie that will then be believed’. Toby Banks concluded in 1989 that the myth of the Blitz spirit had in many ways served as such a big, thumping lie for the duration of the war and half a century afterwards.
The truth about the Few
The Battle of Britain has its own powerful mythology. It is a David v Goliath tale of how the plucky RAF, vastly outnumbered and outgunned by the evil Nazi Luftwaffe, prevailed against all odds. The victory in the Battle of Britain – the empire’s ‘finest hour’, as Churchill proclaimed – is said to have marked a turning point in the fortunes of the Second World War.
Well, yes – and, mostly, no. Little-discussed truths about the battle have more recently been highlighted by clear-eyed historians such as Professor Richard Overy, author of The Battle of Britain: The Myth and the Reality. Overy points out that, contrary to the notion that a mass Nazi invasion of Britain was imminent in 1940, Hitler was always rather reticent about embarking on such a seaborne attack, with his commanders uncertain of the chances of success, while his own priority was preparing to invade the Soviet Union. He also makes the point, well-known but often suppressed out of embarrassment, that in 1940 the British establishment was far from as resolute as the young pilots who supposedly symbolised the national spirit; there was an influential faction in the corridors of power who wanted to do a deal with Hitler rather than ‘fight them in the skies or on the beaches’.
Nor is it strictly true to claim that the Germans had the upper hand in numbers and capability of planes. The RAF was a match for the ‘Goliath’ Luftwaffe in men and machines, plus the Brits had hi-tech advantages such as radar and were fighting in their home airspace. It would arguably have been a shock result if the Germans had prevailed.
The outcome of the Battle of Britain was certainly still important, and the fact that its destiny lay in the hands of a few hundred brave young pilots does show how thin was the line of defence a bankrupt Britain was able to offer in 1940. But Overy concludes that it was only a ‘victory of sorts’, since the Luftwaffe emerged with almost as many planes as it started with, and Britain’s problems in the war were only just beginning until its more powerful allies weighed in. He has also pointed out that the Battle of Britain ‘merged into the Blitz’, against which the victorious RAF offered ‘relatively little defence’ for the people, and suggested that the question worth asking now ‘is not about the well-known spirited activity of the “few”, but the capacity of the “many” to absorb the German attack for almost a year without buckling’.
(One other minor myth of the Battle of Britain was aired again this time around when one commentator suggested that the Few who saved the nation were largely public-school educated – like him, Cameron, and Clegg. It was left to the historians of Private Eye to point out that in fact relatively few of the Few were public-school boys, and that Churchill himself had complained about the failure of Eton, Harrow and other top people’s schools to provide many pilots. The Duke of Wellington’s aristocratic boast that the Battle of Waterloo had been won ‘on the playing fields of Eton’ – ignoring the small matter of the many dead soldiers on the fields of Europe – sounds even more like pie in the sky where the Battle of Britain is concerned.)
War for another world
These partial truths, myths and legends of the Second World War have done a lot to sustain a broadly patriotic political outlook in Britain through the decades since 1940. Yet they no longer have the purchase on public opinion that they enjoyed even 15 years ago. What has been striking this time around is the gap rather than the continuity between then and now. The heroic struggles of the Second World War must seem to many today to have taken place not only in another century but on another planet. This is not merely because they happened a long time ago. Nor can it all be put down to the shortcomings of history education (although I was taken aback to hear on a recent BBC quiz show that only 28 out of 100 people they asked knew that Germany had fought against Britain in the Second World War…).
No, what has changed most starkly is the political atmosphere in modern Britain. Our leaders have lost not just the empire of old but also the firm belief in Britain’s place in the world. They lack the sense of mission and the martial spirit of their predecessors (as well as their sense of national and racial superiority). Thus Cameron and Clegg strike schoolboyish figures alongside an imperial orator such as Churchill. With old-fashioned nationalism no longer the dominant political force in British society, there is no Blitz spirit, or even ‘Falklands factor’, for the current crop of political pygmies to tap into by talking about the Second World War.
Over the past week there have been many clunky attempts, in the media and the Westminster Abbey service, to link the Battle of Britain with contemporary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. All of them simply serve to highlight the absurdity of such comparisons. The politicians who engineered those localised military debacles, and have just sounded the retreat from an obscure Afghan province, appear unlikely to have been able to take on the challenge of a total war. Those who would seriously attempt to put Britain’s Afghan war-without-a-war-aim on a par with the struggle for global influence between the British Empire and Nazi Germany only reveal their own historical ignorance and political desperation.
The current controversy over cuts in Britain’s military spending through the coalition’s Strategic Defence and Security Review illustrates how far Britain has slipped in the great power stakes over the past 70 years. In 1940 the country was on the verge of bankruptcy, yet the national government still had the wherewithal to win the Battle of Britain and poured its remaining resources into fighting a world war to defend its empire. In 2010, with the armed forces already complaining about overstretched resources, the Lib-Con coalition government is preparing to make major cuts to the defence budget, with senior officers complaining about a lack of any coherent strategy for Britain’s defence policy in the ‘strategic’ review. Back then the cry was victory at any cost. Today it is more like cuts for cuts sake.
The appearance of those surviving members of the Few also highlighted another major difference. Where are the heroes of today? There are of course still soldiers and airmen fighting and dying in Afghanistan, and until recently in Iraq. Yet those conflicts have been treated with indifference, if not outright hostility, by much of the public. There is no clear sense of what ‘we’ are supposed to be fighting for. Instead, the perception is that the servicemen are being shot at and blown up ‘for nothing’. Thus while polls show there is widespread public support for the armed forces – as opposed to the wars – which is expressed through campaigns such as Help for Heroes, it takes the form more of sympathy for soldiers as hapless victims than solidarity with them as heroic warriors. Meanwhile, British soldiers face war crimes charges arising from the conflict in Iraq, while many of the young people who are the same age now as the Few were then are condemned as slackers, slobs and yobs.
It often seems that the only heroes our culture can comfortably produce are what Homer, in The Iliad, describes contemptuously as ‘heroes of the dance floor’ – TV celebrities, sportsmen, movie stars, etc. How telling that even the Battle of Britain commemorations could not pass without some celebrity input, with David ‘Del Boy’ Jason and Ewan ‘Trainspotting’ McGregor fronting ‘history’ programmes that mainly involved them whooping at the surviving Spitfires and Hurricanes. McGregor, whose brother is an RAF pilot, was even invited to perform one of the readings before the nation in Westminster Abbey, presumably because somebody thought the grandeur of the historic church required a bit of glamour from a man who advertises aftershave. The insecure British elite can no longer celebrate its own great triumphs without falling back on the ‘x’-factor. (Then again, McGregor did play the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels, and the original of that movie apparently borrowed from the movie Battle of Britain for some of its action sequences, so maybe he was qualified…)
Trying to hide behind the elderly heroes of yesteryear can offer no answers to the crisis of national identity and mission today. Of course we should remember the past and endeavour to learn the lessons of history – though preferably as it was, warts and all, not as some wish it could have been. But the focus needs to be on the present and the future, giving the youth something worth pursuing audaciously. A twenty-first-century society that continued to tell itself our ‘finest hour’, the high point of our history, passed in a war 70 years ago really would risk looking like a country for old men.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.