Today’s blog is something of a long read, but it’s a holiday weekend, so there’s a bit more time to digest it. It comprises a number of extracts from various on-line sources that are pertinent both to the commemoration of VE Day (the end of the war in Europe in 1945), and the challenges that we face currently in seeking to contain and learn to live with the longer-term effects of covid-19. I offer the extracts with no added editorial comment (although their selection is inevitably influenced by my own prejudices and beliefs). I hope that they may give some pause for thought and some hope for a future beyond the current crisis that is more equal, more internationalist, more socially responsible than we have seen over the past decade.
An extract from an article written by Winston Churchill and published in the News of the World in May 1938 (some 16 months BEFORE the outbreak of the Second World War, and at a time when politicians dared hope that the 1914-18 conflict really had been the war to end all wars).
“From all these causes and others that together fill volumes, the conclusion may be drawn with much confidence that the movement towards European solidarity which has now begun will not stop until it has effected tremendous and possibly decisive changes in the whole life, thought and structure of Europe. It does not follow even that this progress will be gradual. It may leap forward in a huge bound of spontaneous conviction. It may even prove to be the surest means of lifting the mind of European nations out of the ruck of old feuds and ghastly revenges. It may afford a rallying ground where socialists and capitalists, where nationalists and pacifists, where idealists and businessmen may stand together. It may be the surest of all the guarantees against the renewal of great wars…
“It is evident that up to a certain point the developments now in actual progress will be wholly beneficial. In so far as the movement European unity expresses itself by the vast increase of wealth which would follow from it, by the ceaseless diminution of armies which would attend it by ever-increasing guarantees against the renewal of war, it bodes no ill to the rest of the world. On the contrary, it can only bring benefits to every nation whose interests are identical with the general interests of mankind.
Conflicts of countries are, we trust, ended. They must not be succeeded by the antagonisms of continents. But surely, after all they have gone through, men will have the wit and virtue to take the good and leave the bad; to the high road which leads to wealth and power, without being drawn down the fatal turning to shame and ruin…
We are bound to further every honest and practical step which the nations of Europe may make to reduce the barriers which divide them and to nourish their common interests and their common welfare. We rejoice at every diminution of the internal tariffs and the martial armaments of Europe. We see nothing but good and hope in a richer, freer, more contented European commonalty. But we have our own dream and our own task.”
The following is an extract from the Guardian’s editorial on this day in 1945 :
“We may not know the answer to the troubles of mankind but at least we know some of the causes. We have learnt, or should have learn, how dangerous is the spirit of nationalism when harnessed to the fact of power. We have seen what can happen to a great nation which surrenders to its leaders the freedom of thought and speech and conscience. We have ourselves felt the terrible power of destruction which man has acquired through science uncontrolled by wisdom. We have learnt… that the brotherhood of man, the unity of nations, and the indivisibility of peace are facts which we can no longer ignore. But knowledge is not enough. Fear, hatred, nationalism and the like are not rational states but emotions which for a long time will continue to govern human behaviour and which will be fed by the chaos and misery in Europe. Hunger and unemployment are not the best schools for reason and tolerance, but they will have many pupils…
“To-day, the people of Europe want above all peace, security, and a decent living. But they also want again that sense of freedom, progress, and enjoyment of life which gave meaning to the nineteenth century… We must prove that just as liberal democracy is a match for dictatorship in war, so in peace it can provide for its people all and more than is offered by Communism and National Socialism. But it will not be easy. If the war has tried our courage and endurance, the peace will test our wisdom and our faith.”
Alan Little’s review of the BBC Archive records of VE Day 1945 includes this reflection :
“Did the public understand, on that day, how profoundly Britain and the wider world had been changed by the war; that there would be no going back to the old normal of the 1930s? This had been total war: the state had assumed sweeping new powers to mobilise the whole country for the war effort. Many of those powers would now survive into peacetime.
“The government took much of the economy into state ownership: the railways, the coal mines, iron and steel. A new welfare state and a National Health Service would bring state provision into every home in the country. For war had created a new public mood that would change the relationship between the state and society for a generation.
“‘To a remarkable degree, this includes people who think they’ll be worse off under this new settlement,’ says historian Dan Todman, author of Britain’s War: A New World, 1942-47. ‘Quite a large proportion of middle-class people who weren’t going to benefit necessarily from it said that they still thought it was a good idea; that it was something that ought to be done for other people. So I think that’s part of that wartime mood: the recognition that the nation-state owes something to everybody, especially the least fortunate members of society.'”
Max Hastings writing in The Times today :
“VE Day prompted many people to drink deep, dance high, embrace strangers, because that was what the occasion appeared to demand… There was also, however, huge apprehension. Young people had known only the experience of war — not merely its violence but also rationing, the gloom of the blackout, family separations, dust, rubble and broken glass. They had lived all their adult lives in a straitjacket of enforced discipline, denial of personal choice. They were required to obey orders…
When these constraints were lifted… what would life be like? What jobs would become available to young men who had received higher education only in killing each other? How would thousands of wives explain their babies to returning, long-absent husbands? How would factories, manufacturing tools of war, learn once more to make toys of peace? Would the old social order with its lofty grandees, formal evening wear and deferential servants, once more reassert itself? These and a thousand other questions crowded the minds of everybody free to think beyond immediate survival...
Today, during a new global convulsion mercifully far less deadly and hopefully much less protracted than the war, many people look back and ask whether VE Day has a resonance. In two respects, it may. The first is the saddest: just as the young did most of the war’s dying, so they will suffer most in the ordeal that lies ahead of us, beneath the spectre of mass unemployment. We in Britain shall pay an especially heavy price for being a service economy that… can no longer make much, not even surgical gowns.
Second,… this experience may emulate the earlier era in becoming an engine for change. Winston Churchill, the patrician hero, failed in one big thing. He refused to identify war aims, beyond those of vanquishing the enemy… Talk of glory, victory, duty were not enough to motivate a citizen soldier. “Now he is asking for what sort of victory? For what sort of a post-war country? For ‘my duty’ to what goal in life?”
Churchill’s inability to grasp this was at one with his distaste for the 1942 Beveridge Report, blueprint for a welfare state, and went far to explain his 1945 election defeat. The British people were determined to have their own version of what Franklin Roosevelt, more than a decade earlier, had called the New Deal.
The present crisis seems destined again to change the face of Britain, unleashing demands for social, political and economic reform unprecedented in our memories. It is impossible to guess how the politics, especially, will play out. But it seems certain that the state and its institutions will necessarily play a far larger role in our affairs. People will not quickly forget the tragedy of the care homes, cruelly excluded from the shield of the NHS.
For more than three decades the rich, and even the relatively rich, have had a fabulous run. I find it hard to imagine, however, that a nation with soaring unemployment and a far-worse-than-empty Treasury, which has made a political choice for self-isolation, will continue to tolerate the absurdly low rates of tax today paid by the wealthiest, or the scandal of non-doms who live here untaxed, or the grotesque rewards granted to chief executives, and other excesses of global corporatism.”