Given their catastrophic failure to deal with the current pandemic, the British Government is especially keen to make the most of the 75th anniversary of VE Day – the day World War 2 ended. Eamonn McCann takes a look.
Coronavirus or no coronavirus, Britain festooned itself with union flags to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day, the day the war in Europe ended.
“Victory in Europe.” The phrase has acquired a certain piquant irony over the years.
Britain had stood alone back then as the bombs rained down, ran the message. Now we need the same true-Brit spirit to face down a virus intent on our destruction.
Such is the solemnity of the moment that the Queen has addressed the nation twice with steadying words of wisdom. She was following in her father George VI’s footsteps, who had visited the stricken in the East End of London during the blitz to applaud the sturdy folk who’d kept their chins up and carried on.
The anniversary was perfectly symbolised by World War veteran Captain Tom Moore pushing his walker a hundred circuits around his garden to raise funds for the NHS. “An icon of all that is best in us,” enthused the Express.
It would have been thought begrudging to butt in and ask: how come the National Health Service needs charitable donations? There’s never a sponsored perambulation required to raise the price of an aircraft carrier, is there?
Captain Tom was a timely godsend to the Tories, a decent old skin ornamented with medals pitching up to serve the nation in its hour of need once again.
What a splendid fellow, Tory strategists will have murmured. Hit me now I’m holding the war veteran! Hancock, Raab, Patel and the rest outdid one another in fervid admiration as they deployed Captain Tom to stitch up their unravelling reputations.
The “spirit of the blitz” is regularly conjured up in England at times of distress to suggest a nation at peace with itself amidst the throes of war. And, true, vast numbers of working-class people looked out for one another amid the chaos and rubble and gritted their teeth to see it through. But many thousands didn’t make it, and death didn’t scythe evenly through them. The poorer you were the more likely you were to die. Same as ever it was, same as now with coronavirus.
The biggest single civilian death-toll in the first months of the blitz came when thousands of families, panicked by sirens signalling a bomb raid, tried to squeeze into Bethnal Green tube station. A hundred and seventy-three perished in the crush.
A few miles away in less crowded areas – Hampstead, Surbiton, Belgravia, etc. – most families had basements to provide some sort of shelter. More importantly, there were no docks or power-stations or munitions factories in their vicinity – a scarcity of targets for the Luftwaffe to aim at.
Looming over all was the growling presence of Winston Churchill, who had no dislike for war when it served to teach lesser breeds a lesson: “I do not admit… that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race… has come in and taken its place.”
Africans, Asians, Arabs, Australasians, probably Eskimos, none was fitted to rule over themselves while there were Englishmen available to shoulder the burden.
Ghandi was “a naked fakir.” The Jews were to blame for “a world-wide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation.” And so on.
Churchill also had a penchant for poison gas. Speaking of the Kurds’ inexplicable unwillingness to do as the British told them, he was nothing if not forthright: “I am strongly in favour of using gas against uncivilised tribes…It can spread a lively terror.”
And it’s not to be forgotten that, as Secretary of State for War, he sent the Blank and Tans to Ireland.
Boris Johnson has taken stick, although not enough, for calling Muslim women wearing the veil “letter-boxes” and describing black children as “piccaninnies.” Churchill plunged much deeper into the mire of racist malevolence. Read now, his pronouncements on the differential rights of British and other peoples come across as the monstrous ravings of a full-blown racist.
His views on race underpinned his understanding of Britain’s war aims. When it was suggested in 1942 that India might be “granted” independence after the war, he responded: “We will keep what we have…I did not become the King’s first minister to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.”
Certainly not at the behest of an unclothed native.
Churchill may have been gung-ho for war against the Nazis. But Hitler’s racism wasn’t the source of his ire. His war wasn’t waged for fuzzy notions of justice and freedom, but for the greater glory of Empire.
And yet, when World War Two is called to mind, Churchill is ever presented as the embodiment of everything great about Britain. They have even put his face on the five-pound note.
To the extent that we take Churchill as the epitome of Englishness, we do the people of England no favour.
The anniversary celebrations this weekend are delusional, an after-flash of Empire, and are intended to delude.