“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.