I was only a young boy when Winston Churchill was voted “The Greatest Briton” of all history by an adoring public, and at the time it seemed perfectly natural. Even today, over five decades since his death, he towers over this nation, dominating our collective psychological landscape for one simple ‘reason’: he led us to victory during the Second World War.
Never mind his appalling overseeing of the Gallipoli campaign during the First World War that left 46,000 Allied soldiers dead, his (egregious) brutality and racism whilst conducting colonial affairs that led one peer to claim “Winston only thinks about the colour of their skin” or his support for the forced sterilisation of swathes of the British public. All that mattered to average participant in the vote was the Second World War.
If there is one thing that is fused to the British cultural landscape like burnt rice to the bottom of a saucepan, it is the Second World War. There is no “Don’t Mention The War!” in our vocabulary of common reference points; it’s all Dad’s Army and Keep Calm And Carry On instead. When German exchange students visited my school- we were about 15/16 years old at the time- they were asked if they “had ever heard of a Spitfire” and people shouted “Heil Hitler” at them before running down the corridor in an act of cowardice nearly as embarrassing as the previous deed. The refrain “Two World Wars and One World Cup” is recognisable to us all.
If I haven’t laboured the point enough, I invite you to occasionally look at the comment sections to online newspaper articles. The further right-wing the better. There will be someone talking about the War in some way, clamouring that our forefathers didn’t charge onto the beaches of Normandy only for ‘po-faced liberal civil servants’ to tell us that we can no longer sell Gollywogs or some other highly contentious melange of bollocks and bullshit like that. Frustratingly, I cannot find the article amongst dozens about the terrible flooding in the North of England and Scotland this winter in which a woman decided that their conditions were akin to those during those long 6 years of conflict. Expect more of the same with the upcoming referendum on EU membership (an organisation by which we proud and courageous Britons are inextricably tied to those formerly aggressive Krauts and pathetically yellow-bellied French, of course).
The legacy of the Second World War amongst the British people is remarkable and yet rarely scrutinised. It is both sad and odd that we revel in a conflict that claimed the lives of 55 million people, witnessed the most heinous act of systematic genocide in history and claims the unenviable prize of the only war in which nuclear weapons have been actually used. We, in our sanitised stupor, seem incapable of coming to terms with the fact that, whilst many a brave Londoner did huddle on the platform of Piccadilly Circus, so many others were pulverised or incinerated in their own homes. Nor was everyone gallant and patriotic: criminals thrived in the chaos of the Blitz and the Blackout was a perfect environment for attempted sexual assault. It is safe to say that none but the most bellicose or questionable would want for us to return to a time like that, and, were such a dreadful episode to happen now, then we wouldn’t suddenly all be cheerily donning tin hats and gas mask boxes, ready for another round of being the ‘plucky underdog’.
Nonetheless, so many of us, especially those who never saw a day before 1945, believe that our victory (which definitely had more to do with the US, USSR and the heroic efforts of all occupied nations) marks the political, cultural and moral zenith of our nation’s history. Our ‘Finest Hour’. Aside from the xenophobia and awful politicisation of the sacrifice of so many lives towards often irrelevant and trivial political ends that this opinion has caused, our persistent gaze to those heady days when windows were criss-crossed with sticky tape and place names painted over has helped manufacture a narrative of decline from the moment peace was declared. We don’t celebrate nearly enough the abolition of the death penalty, decriminalisation of homosexuality, the Equal Pay Act or creation of the welfare state, because these events happened as people grew soft, fat and corrupted- not at all like back in 1940 when men were men, everyone spoke English and people took responsibility for their actions. And, as a result, institutions that objectively are of much greater benefit to our national livelihood, such as the NHS, are under threat whilst the rose-tinted memories of slaughter and hardship remain sacrosanct.
No one is saying that we should be ashamed of the Second World War, or that there were not thousands of acts of courage, humanity and kindness as the world was engulfed by terror and bloodshed. However, it is time that we seriously review whether those 6 years are really the watershed moment of the British nation and its people, the moment that we showed the best of who we are as a nation. War should define neither our global outlook nor our notions of identity to the extent that it currently does, especially when it is patent how insular and arrogant the perspectives that it informs often can be. There are plenty of khaki uniforms and decommissioned rifles in museums across the country and, whilst we may regard them with venerable respect and thanksgiving for the dedication of many who once owned them, it is in a museum and not the baggage of our everyday national consciousness that they belong.