Will our response to the ‘new peace’ be our finest hour? – David Behrens

There have been many parallels drawn between the privations of the Second World War and the lockdown in which we find ourselves now, but as we approach the 75th anniversary of VE Day, the hardships of the present must be seen in their proper perspective.

Graeme Bandeira's VE Day cartoon.

As the father of a young man of conscription age, I know this as well as any parent.

I haven’t been able to see him for two months, but I know I will again soon. I know too that I need not fear for his safety. In the first half of the 1940s no-one could take either of those for granted.

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That decade was the one that has defined Britain ever since, and one of the few beneficial effects of the present situation has been to reconnect us with it. We had long been on a spiral of selfish indulgence, of obsession with trivialities; now we have been made to take stock.

Col Tom Moore watches a Battle of Britain Memorial Flight flypast

The exploits of Captain – now Colonel – Tom Moore, sadly one of the few remaining warriors from that period, have done much to inspire a renewed respect for a generation who sacrificed their freedom, and often their lives, so that of us who followed would not have to do the same.

They did this not because they were remarkable but because they were ordinary.

The current curtailments have given us a flavour of what they went through, at least on the home front, but no more than that. No-one is dropping bombs on us today. Our access to the grocer’s may be restricted, but there is still plenty of food when we get there.

A nurse wearing PPE looks through a hospital window

How similar, though, will the return to normality be? Britain was broke in 1945. Freedom from oppression had come at a terrible cost, and gave way to years of austerity. “Let us not forget for a moment the toils and efforts that lie ahead,” Churchill warned as the dark clouds of the diplomatic war to come gathered over eastern Europe.

Yet there was a determination to avoid a repeat of what had happened after the First World War, when the returning heroes found no home fit for them. The warriors, said AV Alexander, Churchill’s successor as First Lord of the Admiralty, deserved to have “a new Britain” undivided by inequality.

Today, too, there seems to be a resolve not to return to our past ways. We are once more at a watershed moment. Perhaps that’s why so many of us are trying to find inspiration in nostalgia for a time we never knew.

It was ever thus. In the interwar years, JB Priestley, perhaps the most famous Yorkshireman of his time, wrote in his English Journey of the divide between the two halves of the country that had been allowed to fester and grow. What London had done for its old ally, the industrial North, was akin to “what the black-moustached glossy gentleman in the old melodrama always did to the innocent village maiden”, he said.

It was Priestley, incidentally, who created the most enduring image of Britain standing alone in 1940, in his radio evocation of the evacuation of Dunkirk by “little holiday steamers who made an excursion to hell and came back glorious”.

The foundation of the NHS was the most tangible immediate legacy of victory, and its response to the coronavirus pandemic will give it new life. It will no longer have to go cap in hand to the government of the day.

But what else will the new peace bring? Ministers have said there must be no rush to the seaside when the restrictions are eased, a constraint that will bring dismay to the many on the Yorkshire coast whose livelihoods depend on just that. The harvest will rely on furloughed workers and the newly unemployed pitching in to pick fruit and vegetables, or being made to. And the attainment gap which disfavours the most deprived pupils – those least likely to have had any schooling at home – will widen, according to Ofsted’s chief inspector.

This reverse social mobility and the continued curtailment of free movement is exactly the opposite of what was expected after VE Day.

It will be the way we respond to this, and the speed at which we engineer our recovery, that will define us in the post-pandemic world and maybe, just maybe, prove us worthy of the wartime generation whose sacrifices built the world we are now trying to salvage.

As we salute them on this anniversary week, we might well wonder whether future generations will consider this our own finest hour.

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