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History Rewritten

Alec Ross“Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be” Billy Connolly


Earlier this week, in the run of up to tomorrow’s VE Day commemorations, the BBC televised a programme called “Our Finest Hour”. It was by some distance the most blatant piece of propaganda I have ever seen.

With the screen constantly surrounded by a Union Flag, the narrator said: “This is our finest hour since World War Two. We have come together as one nation, one country in a single endeavour as we have rallied round the NHS”. They’d managed to find some footage of Boris Johnson being vaguely statesmanlike, and the inference was obvious – he is the Churchill of Covid.

So: no mention of the UK now having the highest death rate in Europe. No mention of the failure to lockdown as early as possible. No mention of the appalling number of deaths in care homes or the burying of a report stating our unpreparedness for a near inevitable global pandemic. Nothing about the shelving of preparations because Brexit was made the only priority. No mention of the criminally irresponsible decision to leave the EU scheme to bulk purchase ventilators and PPE. In fact, no questions were asked whatsoever, and you were left with the inference that to do so would be to undermine the key workers and an act of treasonous disloyalty to Britannia in her hour of need.

Yesterday, in a similar vein, The Secretary of State for Scotland and my local MP Alister Jack, wrote this:

“In the midst of this unprecedented battle to control coronavirus, in which NHS staff, care teams and a vast army of key workers and volunteers have gone above and beyond for the common good, I believe we can feel a greater empathy than ever with the generations who witnessed VE Day in May, 1945”.

I wish folk would stop calling calling the NHS an “army” on the “frontline”. Covid isn’t a war and there are no sides (Germany are very much our allies here) and if it is to be one then it’s one we’re losing, as today’s dreadful statistics lay bare.

In the Panorama programme last week, there was a strong sense that health workers, while happy to be thanked, were ambivalent about the “clap for the NHS” thing. “By calling us heroes, it makes it ok when we die”. It was one of those quotes that stops you in your tracks. It’s fine to clap for the NHS, but only it we vote for it too. You can’t eat applause.

So while comparisons with wartime are unhelpful and even dangerous, I’m interested in a theme both crises have in common – the rewriting of history.

I think the jingoistic bombast of “Our Finest Hour” is part of that rewriting. Catastrophic failures are already being downplayed as the narrative becomes about good old British pluck and stoicism “defeating” the enemy virus. And that alternative narrative is being written even while the bodies pile up.

This has happened before, of course.

It’s long forgotten, for example, that Britain was woefully underprepared for a global conflict at the start of the last war. It’s estimated that we were at least 300,000 helmets short at the outbreak. We had plenty bayonets but woefully few rifles. Like today, the workers in the frontline were being sent into battle without PPE. They were, literally, taking knives to a gunfight. The history of leadership incompetence has a long and inglorious history. Then, as now, tens of thousands died unnecessarily due to the incompetence of a callous, uncaring government.

So many myths have been nurtured. That Britain “stood alone” against fascism, when in fact we spent most of the time in Africa and elsewhere. The role dozens of Commonwealth countries is almost entirely ignored, and now they get Windrush by way of a thank you. The cavalier attitude to human life displayed in the flattening of German cities is glorified by songs about Bomber Harris. Dunkirk – whose spirit we are apparently all channeling during Covid – was an unmitigated disaster: something that Churchill openly admitted at the time. And those pictures of royalty standing in the rubble of London’s East End speaking to the plucky plebs? They were taken in 1947. It was propaganda. It was bullshit.

I don’t like this selective amnesia and the way sacrifice is distilled into Dame Vera Lynn and homemade ginger beer and keep calm and carry on mugs. I don’t even the like the phrase “Victory in Europe”. Yes, Nazism was defeated but if you’re at war you’ve in a sense already lost. You can’t win a war, any more than you can win a hurricane. You can only mitigate as best you can and then rebuild, together.

And meanwhile, as Alister Jack and his ilk get the bunting out and play their Glenn Miller records, we leave what that great Irish humanitarian David Hume called “the greatest anti-war mechanism ever invented” – the co-operation of EU nations. With one hand, we stick two fingers up to the very continent we helped to save and rebuild. With the other, we repeat the gesture to the healthcare and social contracts that emerged from the rubble. Remember to applaud the workers tonight, though. It’s your patriotic duty.

Covid or no Covid, jingoistic nonsense should have no place in the commemoration of a global catastrophe. The mood should be one of sober reflection and a determination to secure a more peaceful future. Let’s hope we see that tomorrow.

But personally? I hae ma doots.

How we write our history says everything about us. Time Scotland wrote her own. A covid policy divergence from Westminster that in time becomes a permanent one would be a good place to start writing that story.

Keep safe everybody. I’ll meet you further on up the road.

Alec Ross

7 replies »

  1. Well, Alec – Mike and I clap for the NHS because – without them, I’d be dead – burst appendix aged 19 – without them, a lot of people would be dead. We take this as an opportunity to applaud them. I know a person can’t eat applause, but applause or appreciation, can help when you’re feeling under-valued – it just – can.
    We also vote and agitate and pester the Powers That Be, and will continue to do so. For now, we are happy to applaud people who do jobs that I wouldn’t do for any money.
    So, we applaud, even though there are only a couple of folk who can hear us, out here. Of that couple of folk – one neighbour’s wife had wonderful care from the NHS in her last years. He now has wonderful care from the NHS, too. And, his son-in-law works in the local hospital.
    Our other neighbour’s partner, works in a hospital, south – they happened to be in different places when lock-down happened. When we applaud on a Thursday, it gives him a link to her.

    There are many reasons why folk take part in this action. Many of those reasons are entirely sound, good–hearted, human and well meant. I applaud, that.

    ‘Ordinary’ people have always been used as pawns by the Powers That Be – but ‘ordinary’ people keep the world going, when the Powers That Be, cock it up.
    I applaud us, the ‘ordinary’ people – that’s part of what I’m applauding, on a Thursday.

    How you see it, is your business.

    • Proper PPE is a more fitting tribute. Even at this late stage. Front line workers shouldn’t be expected to die doing their job because the government is inept and uncaring.

  2. I love that everyone is an expert.
    Governments plan, take advise and act. There isn’t a mystery. The UK didn’t have the resources to lock down earlier so Herd Immunity was chosen – if Sweden’s example is to be followed it may have worked.
    Hindsight and no personal responsibility makes it easy to be critical.
    A couple of facts that are often missed, The Department of Health for the UK sought assurances from Health Authorities, Trusts and Social Care providers that they had pandemic preparations ready after the last scare. In truth they expected a percentage of every pound provided to be allocated to PPE, removing nurse banking and investing replacement technology.
    The big drains that diverted that funding – having to use agency nurses and claims for medical malpractice and failures in care. In 10 years the spending on these cost centres was really high.
    So lack of preparation or an unintended consequence of a decision not to fight claims, and to use agency nursing rather than close wards?
    VE day is purely propaganda, it changes nothing just as my comment changes nothing, reality is we don’t really learn from the past and can’t prepare for the future.
    Today is about the millions who died needlessly, the millions who were displaced, the millions who survived and built the welfare state and council services because they decided a better standard of living for everyone was the way forward. They opted for collective investment, paid massive tax bills and have been sold short now they are in their 70’s 80s and 90s

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