“We are in a war,” Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, told the Commons on Monday.
“We are at war,” Emmanuel Macron, President of France, said in his address on the same day to his compatriots, adding that this requires “our general mobilisation”.
Macron was born in 1977, Hancock in 1978. In a piece for last weekend’s Sunday Telegraph, the Health Secretary declared:
“Our generation has never been tested like this. Our grandparents were, during the Second World War, when our cities were bombed during the Blitz. Despite the pounding every night, the rationing, the loss of life, they pulled together in one gigantic national effort.”
Well yes, there was a gigantic national effort. But there were also strikes during the Second World War in every major industry in Britain, including the mines, munitions factories, aircraft manufacturers and shipyards.
The heroic version of the war is true, but not the whole truth.
There were plenty of occasions when not everyone pulled together. Consider this account by W.F. Deedes, future Conservative MP, Cabinet minister and Editor of The Daily Telegraph, written in 1994 on the 50th anniversary of D-Day, about the embarkation from London Docks of the American-made armoured cars in which his Company of riflemen would fight their way through Normandy.
Deedes was summoned to the Docks, where a problem had arisen:
On arrival at our berth, my eye met a confused scene. All our vehicles were still on the quayside. The ship stood empty. “The dockers,” said Coleridge, “say they can’t handle it.” He urged me to reason with them.
“Trouble is, mate,” the dockers replied in the friendliest terms, “we haven’t got the rate.”
“That’s right, the rate for loading these ‘ere vehicles. Never seen ’em before.”
Coleridge and I pleaded with them for a while. He then urged me to try a speech on the lines of ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen…’
Look, I said to the dockers, some of the men in the Normandy bridgehead are possibly sons, nephews, relatives of yours. They are hanging on by their eyebrows. Surely you want us there to back them up. The dockers nodded enthusiastically. ‘Abso-ruddy-lutely,’ they said. ‘Sooner you get there the better but, you see, we haven’t got the rate.’
After a long spell of this we reached a compromise. The riflemen would be permitted to load our vehicles, and a retired docker would be permitted to advise. Loading took a very long time, and the outcome was predictable. All our cars had been waterproofed, so that they could move through about three feet of sea water. In inexpert hands, they went into the ship’s hold like falling leaves… So it came about that roughly a quarter of my Company’s scout cars sank shortly after taking to the water.”
The crisis had exposed a pre-existing weakness – labour relations in the docks – which there was now no time to put right.
Nor were these weaknesses limited to the home front, or to civilian life. The war highlighted the deficiencies of British commanders in the most embarrassing way.
The rout which led to Dunkirk, the fall of Tobruk and the fall of Singapore are among the many humiliations for British arms which might be cited.
Singapore, captured by the Japanese along with 80,000 British, Indian and Australian troops in February 1942, was supposed to be impregnable, and was well defended against attack from its southern, seaward, side, but owing to errors dating back to 1925 had no defences on its northern, landward side.
Nor would Lieutenant-General Percival, commanding its defence, accept the urgent advice of his subordinate, Brigadier Simson, and his superior, General Wavell, that anti-tank defences must be constructed on the landward side while there was yet time.
Percival said that to construct these defences would be “bad for the morale of troops and civilians”.
What he meant, Norman Dixon suggests in On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, was that Percival would have to admit to himself the peril in which Singapore now lay.
The dogma to which Percival and his predecessors subscribed, and which turned out to be nonsense, was that the Japanese would find it impossible to advance with tanks down the Malay Peninsula, owing to the impenetrable jungle.
The fall of Singapore was described by Churchill in The Hinge of Fate, the fourth volume of his account of the Second World War, as “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”.
That volume covers the events of 1942, and Churchill remarks in his Preface that during that year “we went from almost uninterrupted disaster to almost unbroken success.”
What catastrophes he and his colleagues had to withstand in the first two years of his wartime leadership.
The retrospective glow conferred by victory obscures the truth that in 1940 many Conservative MPs felt a profound loyalty to Neville Chamberlain, and were furious that “the gangsters”, as Lord Halifax called Churchill and his band of outsiders, were now in control.
So gentlemanly a figure as Lord Dunglass described those round Churchill as “scum”. Dunglass had entered the Commons in 1931 as Member for Lanark, had served as Chamberlain’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, and as Sir Alec Douglas-Home would serve as Prime Minister from 1963-64.
Nor was Churchill universally popular with the voters. Here is Harold Nicolson, man of letters and National Labour MP, writing in his diary on 7th February 1944:
“I fear that Winston has become a liability now rather than an asset. This makes me sick with human nature. Once the open sea is reached we forget how we clung to the pilot in the storm. Poor Winston who is so sensitive although so pugnacious will feel all this. In the station lavatory at Blackheath last week I found scrawled up ‘Winston Churchill is a bastard’. I pointed this out to the Wing Commander who was with me. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘the tide has turned. We find it everywhere.’ ‘But how foul,’ I said, ‘How bloody foul!’ ‘Well you see, if I may say so, the men hate politicians.’ Winston a politician! Good God!!!”
The Wing Commander was right. The tide had turned against Churchill and in 1945 the people threw him out.
So we should refrain from implying that some glorious state of unity existed during the war. Churchill’s critics were able to draw up a long charge sheet against him, dating back to Tonypandy and Gallipoli.
But the wartime analogy does fit when it is used to suggest that extraordinary measures, unlike those which would normally be considered acceptable in peacetime, must be used to deal with the pandemic.
Patience and resilience in adversity, rapid technological advance and the ability to learn from experience: these wartime characteristics are certainly needed now.
Boris Johnson said in his opening statement at his press conference on Tuesday with Rishi Sunak that “we must act like any wartime government and do whatever it takes to support our economy”.
That is correct, but in a free country it is also correct that the ministers taking those decisions remain subject to searching criticism and scrutiny, and to vulgar abuse.