Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: it’s impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
‘And gentlemen in England now a-bed, / Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here …’
Shakespeare is surely at his most rousing when Henry V delivers his eve-of-battle speech before Agincourt on St Crispin’s Day 1415.
Conversely, the long-anticipated Freedom Day 2021 dawned on Monday and the gentlemen of England, like the rest of British people, probably pressed the snooze button. After all, apart from those happy few grooving around for sun-up at Stonehenge, thanks to the Government’s refusal to lift social distancing restrictions, it was business as usual for most of us: same mask, different day.
For the past 15 months since the introduction of the first lockdown, the Government has reacted to Covid-19 as if the virus were an existential threat to the United Kingdom. Never mind the 13 Days in October 1962 of the Cuban Missile Crisis, in four days in March 2020 Britain went from “squashing the sombrero” to being told by the Prime Minister “We must act like any war time government and do what it takes to support our economy.” He added: “The enemy can be deadly but it is also beatable.”
The Second World War might be receding from living memory but remains alive as the foundation myth of today’s Britain. ‘The Few’, the Blitz, Dunkirk, ‘fight them on the beaches’, actual fighting on the beaches during the Normandy Landings…Finest Hours are remembered; episodes such as the fall of Singapore less readily recalled.
The unconditional surrender given to Montgomery by what remained of Germany’s high command at Lüneberg Heath on 4th May 1945 provided Britain with a conclusive end to war in Europe. It is unlikely that Churchill would still be so venerated without such a decisive victory.
It was perhaps inevitable that a nation like Britain, forged by conflict over the centuries and always up for a fight, would happily accept its government turning a public health emergency into a re-run of country’s twentieth century total wars.
Although for the past 15 months there have been continued warnings about virus’s impact on the NHS, from Dominic Cummings’ testimony it was the machinery of government, including Number Ten, which seems to have been ‘overwhelmed’ in last Spring. Amid the chaos, panic and confusion, what better reassurance than to invoke than our island heritage (and Churchill’s Our Island Heritage), with its reminders that adversity will always be overcome?
Britain has been battling a deadly enemy; we have a frontline; heroes (including frontline workers, bus drivers and Captain Tom); casualties (128,008 if within 28 days of a positive test; 152,490 with Covid 19 on the death certificate, according to the government’s Coronavirus dashboard for 22nd June) and Vera Lynn (“We will meet again”, pledged the Queen).
In the campaign against corona, we have also been subjected to non-stop propaganda. Instead of gas masks we have mandatory, if useless, face coverings. In an echo of the military unpreparedness of the British Expeditionary Force in 1939, there was the almost criminal absence of readiness by our health bureaucracies to deal with a pandemic.
As troublingly, just as the Coalition Government introduced the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act of May 1940 which demanded everyone ‘place themselves, their services and their property’ at the state’s disposal, for the past 15 months the Johnson government has trashed our civil liberties.
With Britain’s political leaders almost over-balanced by the Covid emergency, it made sense to reach for the comfort blanket of the Second World War. This is especially true for a Prime Minister who hero-worships Churchill. Not only is it a past which is familiar, almost to the point of national obsession, but is comparatively uncontested. (Although be on standby for an Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris statue controversy to be confected sometime soon.) The 1939-45 conflict is increasing perceived as ‘The People’s War’, involving the whole nation in collective effort and sacrifice.
Despite the grandiose global war context frequently invoked, alas the 16-month campaign against Covid-19 is more akin to the messy, inconclusive ‘small wars’ and counter-insurgencies (COIN) in which British forces have been involved since 1945, most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In October 2014, the Union Jack was lowered in Helmand’s Camp Bastian ending British combat operations in Afghanistan. Renewed by the Blair government following the 2004 NATO summit, Operation Herrick was meant to be a reconstruction exercise. As John Reid declared in April 2006, ‘We’re in the south to help and protect the Afghan people to reconstruct their economy and democracy. We would be perfectly happy to leave in three years’ time without firing one shot.’ Before the end of the summer, out-numbered and poorly-equipped British troops were embroiled in a series of Rorke’s Drifts against the Taliban in the hardest fighting since Korea.]
Today, 15 years on, a thousand British Army personnel are in Kabul. Keen to end the ‘forever war’ after 20 years, Joe Biden has announced the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan where the Taliban are re-asserting control.
The mission creep characterising Britain’s most recent misadventure in Afghanistan is mirrored by the Government’s campaign against the virus. Ministers have lurched from protecting the NHS – which is supposed to protect us – to what looks like zero Covid. But just as the international community is going to have to accommodate the Taliban, we are going to have to live with the virus.
With MPs none-too-bothered about holding the Executive to account, they have plenty of time on their hands to reflect on a Covid-Great War campaign comparison: chateau generalship. The collective sacrifice relentlessly demanded of voters is far from shared by their leaders, as the Carbis Bay G7 jollities and the restriction-free VIP access to the Euro 2021 final highlight.
Let’s not forget how voters turned their back on Churchill and Conservatives in 1945. The party’s current MPs should be asking themselves whether aspects of the forever Corona Campaign were a factor in last week’s loss of Chesham and Amersham.