Britain as a country is obsessed with the Second World War. It lends itself to a narrative of the nation being a strong force for good in the world, sitting awkwardly between centuries of colonial atrocity beforehand and the decline of global power afterwards. Whether it was the Falklands War, the 2008 financial crisis or the prospect of a disastrous Brexit, time and time again governments have invoked this ideal to legitimise their political aims. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is no exception to this theme, as the government attempts to draw upon our misunderstood past to manipulate our present.
If one were to see Boris Johnson’s recent proselytizing on his podium or addressing the nation directly out of context, they could be forgiven for mistaking him as a wartime prime minister. Johnson has a track record as an ardent admirer of Winston Churchill, penning a biography in 2014 in which he refers to Churchill as “the beaver who dammed the flow of events” as well as claiming that “he saved our civilisation”. Much of his image has therefore been built around this mythologised, wartime prime minister that can singlehandedly guide the country through any storm. This has been particularly evident since his ascension to the British premiership, notably promising a “wartime cabinet” to deliver Brexit, a government narrative pervasive throughout its COVID-19 response as it is keen to remind us of its wartime levels of spending.
The self-aggrandising present within the government is in poor taste but may be construed as run of the mill political opportunism. It is in fact part of a much wider campaign of distortion to absolve the government of critical failures in tackling the COVID-19 threat.
The most all-encompassing aspect of this propaganda campaign is the resurgence of the “Blitz Spirit”. Drawing upon what is now seen as the quintessentially British spirit of a stiff upper lip, of keeping calm and carrying on and communal unity, it is as much a false expression of British exceptionalism today as it was in 1940.
That is not to say that there are no examples of Blitz Spirit in both cases. In the war, it manifested in communal bomb shelters, evacuations that saw families of all backgrounds living side by side and a countrywide push to defeat Nazi Germany. In 2020, it is the inspirational efforts of fundraising individuals like Captain Tom Moore, it is artists and entertainers lifting the country’s spirits, it is the selfless efforts of volunteers holding local communities together. There are without question numerous examples of great people doing great things in these difficult times.
The unfortunate reality of both situations is far less inspiring than these examples suggest; a society rife with inequality and injustice is being laid bare and dissected, as good people act in spite of government rather than in line with it.
The Blitz saw a breakdown in society that tore open the wounds of class and racial inequality in Britain, as destitute Britons looked inwards in what historian Michael Donnelly calls “psychological individualism”. Evacuation that allegedly saw mixing between working, middle, and upper-class society fostered mutual resentment, with many displaced urban working-class families living completely independently to their middle and upper-class rural hosts. Britain was brought to the brink not by Germany, but by the inadequacy of its hierarchical society. It was only when fears of class warfare stemming from decimated working-class communities arose that the government took proactive moves in providing tube stations as bomb shelters and emergency housing.
Coronavirus has, in its own way, brought the issues facing 21st century Britain to the forefront. As millions have found themselves unemployed or furloughed, the government has frantically taken large steps in a shallow effort to rectify a decade of cuts. Zero-hours workers that were months ago were “unskilled” and are currently ineligible for much of the state aid have demonstrated that they are the backbone of our economy. A health service already on its knees stares down the barrel of a gun as staff are pushed to the brink and left vulnerable against infection, relying on the charity of the British people rather than the government funding it desperately needs.
It is these workers that have suffered the worst betrayal at the hands of government, being presented not as ordinary people stretched to their limits, but as soldiers on the front line of a war. Deaths stemming from inadequate supplies of PPE and failed theories of pandemic control are not completely avoidable tragedies but are represented as sacrifices for Queen and country. While their efforts are absolutely ones of bravery and deserving commendation, they should not be sacrificial. Workers need a government that stands with them, rather than utilising them as pawns in a cruel political chess.
The government propaganda campaign of the Blitz Spirit has succeeded and endured for 80 years. Churchill managed to cement his own place in history by establishing the definitive historical narrative of WWII, chiding “leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history myself”. Only time will tell if Johnson will emulate his idol in establishing his own narrative of strong leadership in this crisis. But it is up to us to ensure that the truth will prevail, that the dead are remembered, and that the consistent, critical failures of this government are never forgotten.