God Save … Er, Who

A minor, but enduring point to make about the current Brexit farrago.  The current Parliamentary impasse has revealed a grave weakness in our political system – namely the inability of a constitutional monarchy to resolve a historic deadlock.  As we descend into chaos, the head of state is nowhere to be seen.  It is hard to believe that the heads of state in other countries – especially those with non-executive Presidents – would not have taken decisive action to knock heads together – or insist on a new election. An elected President would have the authority a hereditary monarchy lacks, and a personal mandate to neutralise the idea that there is a unanimous ‘will of the people’ for a tendentious policy.

As it is, we are left with an icon, not an actor.

Standing alone

I’m 73, coming up 74, which means I was born in the dying days of the Second World War. Remember this, when people talk of what “we” did in the 1939-45 conflict: no-one under the age of 90 actually did anything.  There are five people left who flew for the RAF in the Battle of Britain, and they’re all over 100 years old.  I mention this, because references to WW2 have become increasingly common and tendentious in the debate around Brexit.

I was brought up in a world that was marked by ‘the war’.  Up until 10, I lived in Berkshire – Wokingham, then a sleepy market town, now a commuter belt for London, with its own motorway spur and the largest Conservative majority for miles.  In 1945 Dad came home from the RAF.  He wasn’t a combatant: he was a station adjutant – senior administrator officer – for two Coastal Command squadrons, which meant he was based all around the country. Wales, Cornwall, Northern Ireland, Stornoway, anywhere that could ensure quick access to the Atlantic and its convoys.  Remembering the war wasn’t a big part of his life.  I think he was proud of what his colleagues had done – stopping the only democracy in Europe from being starved to death by U-boats full of volunteers – but not excessively so.  He never to my knowledge went to the British Legion club, or took part in November 11th march pasts: the battle dress only came out when he wanted to paint the hall or dig the garden.

When we moved to London in 1955, there were still bomb-sites, and families (like my Auntie Bet) still lived in prefabs. Primary school playgrounds were full of kids zooming round, Spitfire arms outstretched, shouting ‘yadda yadda yadda’ in imitation of machine guns we’d never heard. But on the whole, my impression was that society was moving on.  There was a skiffle group on the street corner, a Ford Anglia in the drive.

Nevertheless, I maintained an interest in the war, and especially the air war.  I can still tell a Handley Page Hampden from a Vickers Wellington, and have a few model aircraft in my study. Just to my right as I type, on the bookshelf, there is a Halifax model, with the same markings as Dad’s squadron. I’ve read most of the good histories of the conflict, and a few of the bad ones.  What I found out was the mess that is war, the mistakes alongside the gallantry, the reliance on allies and the role of luck. In the very area that concerned Dad, thousands of lives and dozens of ships could have been saved by letting the RAF use their long range bombers to escort convoys rather than plaster German civilians at enormous cost in lives and resource.  Another dodgy decision by Churchill, whose errors may not be mentioned.  In fact, as soon as the right decision was taken, the Battle of the Atlantic was effectively won. And as soon as that was won, we could get the troops and equipment from America that were needed to land armies on the European mainland, which was the only way to actually beat the Germans.

But I feel slightly ashamed of my interest in, and knowledge of, the war, because of the uses to which that conflict is put by British politicians and right-wing commentators.  Astonishingly, Theresa May’s tribute to the New Zealand mosque killings had a sentence about how New Zealand had ‘stood by us’ in the past.  As if shooting Muslim worshippers would be less problematic if NZ hadn’t provided Bomber Command crews. The idea of gallant little Britain beating the Nazis – and particularly the ‘standing alone’ meme – seems almost daily fare.  Even if this were true (it isn’t*), what possible relevance does it have to trade policy in the 21st century ?  And, of course, the insult to allies are never far away. The French, who suffered more casualties per day in 1940 than they did in the First World War, are routinely depicted as incompetent cowards: the fact that the British army was decisively defeated in 1940 is rarely covered, except as a brief prelude to coverage of Dunkirk (which was not  a triumph, but a retreat, a national humiliation: contrast the John Mills film of it with the recent Hollywood version.  The Battle of Britain was important because the German army needed air supremacy to cross the Channel; the Straits of Dover were as vital as Spitfires and Hurricanes.  A Tory MP tells us we didn’t get any post-war help from the Marshall Plan, when we got the biggest slice.  My daughter was solemnly told by North-Eastern friends that we had to leave the EU because the French and Germans wouldn’t stand by us in the next war.  70 years of NATO, gone in the whiff of a Daily Express editorial.

The TV is full of it.  In the last month, we’ve had documentaries about the Imperial War Museum, about the struggle against the V-bombs. Dad’s Army and The World At War are replayed endlessly.  We’ve had a documentary about the war films that ‘raised our morale’ in the post-war years, followed by “The Wooden Horse” (gallant British POWs outwit the Krauts again).  The old ladies who delivered military planes are dragged out time and again, wheel-chair bound RAF pilots are inserted in a two-seater Spitfire for one last flight.  Al Murray, a decent enough comedian, drives a jeep to Berlin.  Archaeology enthusiasts waft their metal detectors over old USAAF bases, and enthuse to the waiting cameras about a cap badge or spent bullet. What these programmes have in common is that they tell us nothing we don’t already know. It’s as if they are secular religious services, repeating the holy writ we’ve already heard a thousand times. It’s not all of WW2, or even all of the British experience of WW2.  There is little on the debacle of Singapore or Tobruk, the loss of the Royal Oak or the Prince of Wales, which would counter the triumphant narrative.  The recent publication of Fighting The People’s War shows the incompetence and lack of enthusiasm of many units of the British & Commonwealth armies.  By ignoring the losses and missed opportunities, and looking only at heroism and victory, the WW2 coverage is similar to the Hundred Years’ War documentaries – oodles of Agincourt bowmen, nothing on the battles that cost us all our French possessions.  TV viewers seem unaware we lost the Hundred Years’ War, as we lost the Crusades.

There is much history to learn, but we need more than the triumphalist WW2 narrative that has been covered again and again, to the exclusion of much else.  The economist and commentator Simon Wren-Lewis points out that the real WW2 generation voted against Brexit – it was the slightly less oldies brought up on war films and documentaries that voted to leave so heavily.  That generation actually doesn’t know real war: the Tory MP who refers to his army experience when he means Boy Scout exploits with the TA is typical.  There is virtually nothing on TV concerning – for example – the post-war Labour government and the creation of the welfare state.  For that matter, there is nothing about the Liberal government of 1906, and its use of taxes to get old age pensions past the Tories.  Suez ? Korea ? Economic policy under Thatcher ?  De-industrialization, globalization and robots ?  The growth of the threat to our environment ?  Nope, none of it. What we get is Dan Snow, or Tony Robinson, or Jeremy Vine walking backwards across D-Day beaches, or past Arnhem canals.

And whilst this carries on, the importance of confronting fascism and totalitarianism, the danger of anti-semitism, the role of international collaborations like the EU or NATO are ignored.  The distinguished historian Margaret Macmillan recently lectured and published a book on the uses and abuses of history.  We are seeing the abuses, right enough, all around us.

 

* we weren’t – the Commonwealth, Greece, Yugoslavia, the Czech and Polish airmen – the Canadian navy took over much of the Atlantic convoy work … plus the help & money of the USA.  The Indian army provided many of the troops fighting the Italians in East Africa at the time.  And, of course, the vast majority of the allied combat deaths in WW2 were suffered by Russia.

A Zionist moron writes

A bit late to lob into the anti-semitism debate – especially for someone (me) who left the Labour Party two years ago on this very issue.  Well, not too late as I had a go in February 2014, but I want to add some things that are rarely said but I find particularly irritating: things you dare not say on Twitter (where I am a Zionist moron, according to one correspondent)

(a) the idea that somehow anti-semitism is only of interest to Jews. This is part of identity politics, I guess – see also how when you say you support the NHS you have to say that someone in your family has had life saving treatment, or you’re against ham-fisted immigration policy because your gran came here from Jamaica. The idea that common decency is just a matter of, well, common decency and not self-interest seems so old-fashioned.

(b) “I’m not anti-Semitic, I’m anti-Zionist” as if that is an OK attitude, as if Jews aren’t allowed their own country, as if what the Middle East really needs right now is one less democracy and ten million more refugees. Of course the current Israeli government is an unpleasant bunch of chancers – welcome to the club. It’s not an area where the UK or the US can take any great moral stance. Netanyahu is appalling, but leads an elected government with a free press and independent judiciary. If I had the choice of which police force between Greece and Australia were to arrest and detain me, I think I’d choose Israel.

(c) why no-one sues these bastards.  If you say an MP’s views reflect the fact that they’re funded by Israel, when plainly they aren’t, it’s slanderous and you should be made to pay up.

(d) Why don’t the virtue brigade worry about genuinely appalling regimes (Sudan ?  Saudi Arabia ? Iran ? Turkey ? Hungary ? Russia ?  Any one of many African regimes – we are now getting up to 6m dead in Central Africa) ? Articles on the awfulness of mining cobalt in Central African Republic leave any injustice to Palestinians way, way behind. The idea of calling Israel ‘an apartheid state’ when it accords the same rights to Arab citizens as Jewish (or Christian, etc), rights including voting – is simply name-calling.

(e) if establishing a nation by exchange of populations is wrong, let’s abolish Pakistan and India, Poland and the Ukraine.  If taking over the lands of native people is the problem (historically iffy, I know, but let’s run with it), why not chase much more egregious cases (New Zealand, Australia, USA, anywhere in South America ?).  If there must be the right of return, why not restore all Jewish property in Arab lands ?

None of which you can say in public print, because of the misery of the trolls.  Twenty years ago, I thought antisemitism was dead, and the main issue was race and sex.  Jeez, was I wrong – it springs back up like the vampire at the end of the horror movie. Well, I hope it’s the end.