As a boy growing up in the Britain of the 1960s, I grew up in the shadow of the Second World War. It was everywhere, or so it seemed. Sunday afternoon TV seems, in blurred memory, as if it was an endless run of war movies, usually featuring chaps with that accent now lost to us, bearing the stiff upper lips we would no longer recognise. We had the profound misfortune to have to watch Look East and, in the absence of any other news than yet another strike at the Perkins diesel engine factory in Peterborough, they constantly filled with a seemingly endless stream of features on wartime airfields, returning Yanks and Lancaster bombers. Both of my parents were children in the war. My father lived near North Weald aerodrome and used to thrill to the sight of the Lancasters or, strange as it might sound, to the fires of London’s Blitz clearly visible from the edge of the Epping Forest. Meanwhile, my mother, a London girl whose mother couldn’t bear to part with her, was in that Blitz. The East End I knew a boy still had its bomb-sites, overgrown and undeveloped. My mum’s family, a legion of my great aunts and uncles (my nan was the oldest of fifteen children) had all lived through the war and liked nothing more than to reminisce about standing up to Hitler, about singing Down at the Old Bull and Bush. or Knees Up Mother Brown in the tube station, or the day Uncle Charlie came home.
To them, the war was the central public event of their lives. Perhaps though, I wish to contend something stronger: it became the central political, perhaps even, cultural-political moment, in twentieth century British history. In one sense, it became our modern foundation myth. What do I mean: foundation myth? It is something most, perhaps even all states or societies have. America and France have their revolutions, America its Mayflower, Ireland its Easter 1916. They are rather more literally, foundation myths. They were, of course, real events, but events which have acquired a significance that goes beyond historical fact, which are held to bear truths about the essential nature of the states, then societies and the polities they are held to somehow embody. How then, can a moment, not really an event, but more accurately a succession of events, and events which came rather late on in the general course of British history, be seen as some kind of foundation myth. To understand that, perhaps we need to begin by retelling the myth itself.
By the early summer of 1940, as France collapsed in front of her eyes, Britain was faced by her darkest hour, and was facing it alone. Plucky little Britain stood alone against the might of Hitler’s Germany, and against overwhelming odds. We all know what saved us: the miracle of Dunkirk, Churchill (‘Blood, sweat and tears’, ‘We shall fight them on the beaches’), the Battle of Britain (‘The few’, ‘Their finest hour’), the Blitz Spirit (‘London can take it’). Britain pulled together in the ‘People’s War’ and, in the end, won their way to the ‘broad, sunlit uplands’ of El Alamein and thereafter.
Much of that might be said to be closer to myth than history. Plucky little Britain still controlled a world empire and also had the backing of its economic powerhouse, the United States. Dunkirk was a defeat, and a bad one, but it did not leave Britain defenceless. Even if Britain had been weakly defended, the Germans had no viable plan to invade: Operation Sea-lion was pretty much a back of the envelope job, as was the air campaign of 1940. In neither case had German planning really addressed the fundamental problem any German invasion would have faced: to wit, the fact that Britain was defended by a Royal Navy which made an invasion well nigh impracticable. The Battle of Britain was a glorious feat of arms, but it could be argued that it was not as central as it has often been portrayed. Britain survived the Blitz, but German cities withstood far worse in the years to come. For every sing-song in Surrey Docks tube station, there was an equal amount of suffering, horror, fear and death; the Blitz was also characterised by unauthorised flight from the cities, a soaring crime rate, resentment of the politicians who put ordinary people in the line of fire and, in time, a war weariness that sapped morale and made Churchill’s clarion calls ring increasingly hollow (something the man himself came to recognise). And the broad sunlit uplands? In the bigger picture El Alamein was a sideshow, and the uplands proved to be Russian and American as Britain’s great power status collapsed along with its empire.
Perhaps, this robust reconsideration of cherished myth has a point. It may, at the same time, miss the bigger picture. When we depict the Britain of 1940 we distort the reality of 1940, but perhaps we illustrate the world 1940 created: that of Britain alone, shorn of its imperial glory and great power status, but covered in a kind of moral glory. The Blitz Spirit may be only part of the truth, but it was part of a truth that looked to the New Jerusalem of 1945 and was owned by a people who bought copies of The Beveridge Report in shed loads. I often joke that Britain didn’t win the Second World War, Russia and America did that. Instead, Britain’s vital contribution was not to lose or, perhaps more realistically, not to give way and seek peace as some wanted at the time and some wish had been sought. Nor was it necessarily a happy victory. Britain had gone to war to defend Poland’s independence. In 1945, Poland was forced to cough up those parts of it that once more remade Stalin’s reconstituted Russian empire; like the rest of what we came to know as Eastern Europe, it would spend the next 45 years under communist oppression. Yet, by fighting on in 1940, Britain made America’s European war possible: no 1940, no D-day. And it was thanks to D-day that Western Europe was liberated, not conquered, that it would flourish in the free world of the EEC, NATO and liberal democracy. In that sense the myth of a British victory in the war served an important historical function beyond our shores: the war won by democracy. And Britain’s status was now reduced, if not all but ruined, perhaps that outcome justified it.
What about at home? I mentioned Beveridge. For the likes of Corelli Barnett, Frederick Hayek or Margaret Thatcher, the post- war consensus so often associated with Beveridge, Keyenes and Labour’s 1945 landslide was a disastrous wrong turn in our history. For those who were part of it, those great aunts and uncles, or my parents, who lived much of their lives in that consensus Britain, I am not so sure. For a working class family in East London, the post-war world gave them the NHS, a helping hand from the cradle to the grave, a secondary school that gave real social mobility and saw their children (of whom I am one) get the chance to go to university; it gave them the very real prosperity of the post-war world, and my parents their council house.
Like snotty teenagers throughout history, I turned up my nose (metaphorically and, I suspect, actually) at my grandparents and parents’ obsessions with Anderson Shelters, Spitfires, V for Victory; with 1945 and all that. I had, in truth, heard the same stories told, retold and told again, like any good myth throughout history. And, reading and studying its history, I delighted in finding the truths rather than the myths; perhaps delighted rather too much.
Looking now, those myths of World War Two may be just that, myths. They may not. They contain within them more than a kernel of truth. It may be a simplified truth, a truth rewritten to hide what we’re very real and uncomfortable realities, a truth rewritten to provide comfort when old men remember. But truth there was and, to that generation who made their lives in the post-war world, those truths mattered. Having said all that, the great aunts and uncles are mostly long dead now. Some of their children, though, are still very much here. For that generation, what we might call the British myth of the Second World War served and still serves a very real purpose: the war was worth it. And the truth is the war was. Not in the simple sense, but in a very real one. Those things that those generations mostly held to be true were, it might be said, to a large extent actually true.
However, does the idea of plucky little Britain or Britain alone serve us now, appealing as it might be to that generation or beyond? The myth served a purpose for a generation that is now passing. Do we help ourselves by clinging on to it now? Britain, surely, is neither alone now nor was it ever. Is it time their descendants looked elsewhere when trying to explain our place in a world now seventy years on? Is it time we let the world of The Dambusters slide gently into history?
But, when I hear that tune…