One of the very few fortunate consequences of the coronavirus lockdown is that we shall be spared most of the excesses of flag-waving, military "shallahumps and shallahoops," and evocations of past glories which were planned for the 75th anniversary of VE Day.
I was eight years old, going on nine, on the actual VE day in 1945. I don't remember remember much of it. With my parents and baby sister, we were on holiday in Scarborough, so it must have been Whitsuntide Week. My mother had an aunt who kept a beading house in Scarborough and that was our regular port of call in the Whit holiday. I think we must have been to Scarborough at least once before, because I can remember rolled up barbed wire on the beaches in order to deter invaders. Or maybe it was our first visit and they were still there even though European war was nearly over.
I have vivid memories of the evening. We spent it roaming the streets with another Birstall family and singing "Let him go, let him tarry, let him sink or let him swim," which the Internet tells me is an Irish folk ballad. Presumably it was a popular song of the era. I was not then and am not now "into" popular songs. As a choirboy hymns and psalms, and now anthems and oratorios, are more my thing.
There was a palpable sense of joy and release at what was seen as the culmination of "our finest hour," although it wasn't really a culmination at all as the war continued for several more months in the Far East.
The achievement was considerable, and understandably at the time, exaggerated. The tragedy is that we have continued to exaggerate it ever since.
We never did "stand alone."
Australia,Canada,New Zealand, South Africa, India and many other parts of the then Empire, the Free French, Poland and other Europeans, fought with us from the beginning. We should probably not have survived the Battle of Britain were it not for the very significant contributions of the Polish and Czechoslovakian Air-forces.
Then , of course by far the major part in the defeat of Nazi Germany was borne by the Soviet Union, something that we far too readily forget. The Soviet Union suffered between 8 and 10 million military deaths, compared with 446 000 Yugoslavians, 416 000 USA, and
383 600 UK (not including Commonwealth and Empire deaths). A complete list of all combatants is available here.
So it was a marvellous achievement, and a great relief, and a huge sacrifice for those families which had lost relatives and friends not just in the armed forces and merchant navies, but in the civilian bombings and other what we now call collateral damage.
But it was and is not a solid foundation for British claims of exceptionalism.
Yet, as Jo Grimond, a junior officer in the war who became our inspiring Liberal Leader of the 1960s, writes in his Memoirs, (page 99)
"...we came out of the war being told we had saved the world by a unique act of courage against fearful odds. We naturally became convinced that the world must see that we were natural leaders of the West entitled by our deeds of valour and skill to rest on oars as far as work was concerned and owed a debt, indeed a living, by our neighbours."
We need now, after 75 years, to see what was undoubtedly a very fine hour in perspective, and, perhaps, assess some of the humiliations we have as a nation experienced since.
Which was the deepest:
- the aborted invasion of Suez in 1956;
- the belated recognition that we needed, after all, to join the the EEC, only to be rebuffed, not once but twice, by the French;
- the ejection of Sterling from the ERM in 1992;
- the craven support of the US in their illegal invasion of Iraq;
- the flawed referendum decision to leave the EU;
- the abuse of our democratic constitution by our government in attempting to avoid parliamentary scrutiny of the Brexit process;
- our incompetence in dealing with the coronavirus, leading to our becoming one of the worst affected developed countries?
Whether or not it is our deepest humiliation, there can be no doubt that in tackling the pandemic we have have been far from world leaders, but laggardly clumsy followers.
It is high time we put behind us the pretence that in this that or the other we are "the best in the world and the envy of the world" (except that is for the BBC") and just settled for moderate competence, which involves working as co-operative partners with others.