Like many people, I’ve grown up with stories of the ‘Dunkirk spirit’. The Second World War was a tough time that produced tougher people. That generation was not flawless, but their titanic efforts saved us all.
But as Covid proves, we’ve been labouring under an inaccurate and disrespectful myth. By assuming universal unity and unwavering support for leaders past, we end up parodying difficult years and daily struggles.
The Scottish and UK governments’ response to Covid-19 has not been met with universal support. Twitter and trending topics make that abundantly clear. The announcement on new restrictions was delivered with robust sensitivity by Nicola Sturgeon and a grumbling, knock-off Churchill by Boris Johnson.
The prime minister, a longtime admirer of his wartime predecessor, has always sought his ‘moment’ to emulate Churchill. In this he has achieved one commonality – Churchill was nearly rejected by the House of Commons in 1942 when the war effort stalled. He survived, but he was far from the invincible warrior we remember today.
Our politicians are tasked with monumental decisions. Not all of these have been correct. Nearly all of them have delivered ghastly curtailments on our liberty in the name of health and security. People are angry, often at each other, their leaders and the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Why do we insist on remembering previous national crises through rose-tinted glasses when today shows the complexity, the mixed feelings, the anger?
The ‘Dunkirk spirit’ and other moments of saccharine Britiness have become politicised. ‘We’ is collectively deployed to support Brexit and shamelessly marshalls ‘our’ history. Eventually, one day, the events of the past year will be deployed for political ends. Are Johnson and Sturgeon destined to be respective ‘titans’ and we, the good-natured public who rallied to them? Is that a lie you want your descendants to cling to, however sweet?
The irony of ironies remains Churchill’s spectacular loss in 1945. Stalin couldn’t believe his eyes when Clement Attlee replaced his ‘frenemy’ at the Potsdam conference. Churchill had run a campaign on his character and record to ‘help him finish the job’. He was sure to win. For the briefest of moments, many forgot we’re in a parliamentary system, not a presidential race, and MPs form governments. Labour won a landslide victory.
Time tends to forget context. The war left countless families heartbroken. The country was bankrupt, the economy in tatters. The electorate wanted a different kind of post-war future to the system that existed before World War II. Churchill was a titan who had managed a crisis, but he was not indestructible.
This is a warning to both our leaders and our society today. The future might feature a heroic narrative, but the electorate today is suffering plenty and have a long memory. As Covid is here for the foreseeable future, it will be interesting to see how the First Minister and Prime Minister utilise their time and performance in office to further their great obsessions of Scottish independence, and Brexit, respectively.
If this seems cold, remember that history is always written. There are heroes and villains of great moments and political capital to spend as spend as a result. In anticipation, we should examine the tropes and cliches in our culture that we’ve indulged. Generations past were immensely brave, but they were also human – to honour them, we should remember the complete truth, not just the rosy bits.
Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and public affairs consultant. More from Alastair at www.agjstewart.com and @agjstewart