Anybody born in Britain in the years after the war were taught one vital lesson. Whatever the peril we faced, there would be some Brits who would stand up, sort things out, get us through it. American’s call it “The Greatest Generation” but we don’t really have a term for it. “The Few” is reserved for a very few and “the Blitz Spirit” isn’t the same. Viewing it from the perspective of 2020, faith in this British quality is like some faith in a race of mythic superheroes that will appear at the right moment. They are all King Arthur, always out there waiting for the moment to grab his horse and run somebody through with Excalibur…
It’s all fabulous (in both senses of the word) and nonsense. It’s the kind of thinking that happens after any great success. We reverse engineer the result and find all the Great Reasons we won. It’s Dam Busters thinking and, as I think I mentioned when I reviewed Max Hastings’ rather excellent recent book on 617 Squadron, the reality doesn’t match the legend. There was much cleverness involved, of course, as well as undeniable heroism and sacrifice, but also considerable PR and questionable effectiveness. The narrative that the good guys won because we were inherently braver or more determined or that God was somehow on our side is, at best, naïve. World War 2 was won as much by huge strategic failures on the other side; all that business with Hitler’s long supply lines, his fixation on Stalingrad, and often his failure to push on when his opponents were at their weakest. Then, of course, there’s America. Put crudely: the war was won because America decided which side should win.
I began thinking all this when I woke up this morning and read a thread on Twitter by people returning from their holidays. Every single one of them had landed in the UK, walked through airports without a pause, and were snogging, licking, or otherwise breathing over the general population within a few minutes. At no point did a customs official stop them, take their temperatures, or hand out leaflets explaining the quarantine rules. Perhaps we’re waiting for King Arthur to do this for us. We’re waiting for Captain Mainwaring and the old lads of Dad’s Army to take up the baton/nasal swabs. “Stick it right in and wiggle it, Pike!” Because, if the government isn’t going to do this, then who is?
It’s difficult – and I’m sure by now quite boring – not to lay the blame at the feet of the Prime Minister. Say what you like about Tony Blair (and I’m sure many will) but we could do with a little of his perky, always-get-involved, nanny-statism around now. We could do with some of that slightly prim and proper schoolmaaminess that characterised Theresa May’s reign. Hell, we could do with some of John Major’s slightly naff yet charming climbing up onto an orange box to raise our spirits with a cry of “oh look here, chaps”. I’d even take a bit of David Cameron annoying scout leader smarm. As for Thatcher, does anybody who lived through her Era of Maggie The Invincible think she’d be bumming around Scotland and living in a tent when the nation should be preparing for a possible second wave?
The point is: I’d take anything other than the Old Etonian we’ll swat up on this later bluffing that this government exudes. Johnson has always had a reputation for laziness. It’s why many of us thought he’d be an atrocious leader. We knew he’d be absent, but did anybody think he’d be this absent?
His government keep telling us they’re making the right preparations and they have things under control, yet every week comes another announcement of an initiative that should have been sorted months ago. It feels like we’re living through Book 3 of The Lord of the Rings when Minis Tirith is about to fall and with it Gondor, but, no, Aragorn suddenly turns up with the Dead Men of Dunharrow. Perhaps our Lost King has a secret army of ghost clinicians waiting in the mountains of Scotland who will swoop down across the country at the first sign of the second wave and provide us with a totally reliable system of test and trace…
Or perhaps, as has long been rumoured, denied, and then pretty much admitted, the decision has been taken that herd immunity is best because, let’s face it, based on a 0.6% mortality rate and 41,000 people dead, that gives us 6.8 million people already infected. 66 million in the country, of which 60% need to have it in order to immunise the herd, so that’s about 40,000,000. Only another 33 million need to catch it (or 240,000 dead) and we’ll all be home free…
I can see how it might be a compelling argument, and not simply because “the economy, stupid”. It’s also the “fuck it and have another bottle of wine” fatalism that one senses lies behind Johnson’s success. First one into the scrum and last one out of the bar.
I’ve always believed that the character of a person is important and despite all our liberal attitudes towards “private matters”, you can’t simply discount the quite public sex life of the man who wants to be your leader. A man who has had an unknown number of children out of wedlock might not be the best person to look to when the nation has to consider the consequences of our actions. The government’s attitude of “let’s enjoy summer” is the mentality of a man given the chance of a one-night stand and is guided only by the movement of his priapic compass. Let tomorrow take care of itself. We’re having fun now!
5 thoughts on “British Superheroes”
As always I have a sore neck from nodding. It’s just terrifying. I’m untold enough to remember grown uplife under Thatcher but the fact that you’re just positively compared every prime minister of the last 40 years to our current one is very telling. (Although I notice you dont mention Brown. Deliberate?) I couldn’t agree more person life is relevant when we’re talking about the leader of of country. So many of is knew he’d be a terrible leader but none could have known it would matter this much. I take some comfort in the opinion polls beginning to show displeasure with him/them. It shows were not a country of ideological robots just yet. I also have hope that the Tory party is hard wired to win. I don’t think they’ll risk losing this majority next time.
Accidental. Actually, it was really unfair of me not to mention Brown but he just slipped my mind. I think he might even have been my first choice for a crisis like this: more of a technocrat, hard working, not too interested in populism as much as doing what’s right. The very opposite of Johnson. The more I read about Brown, the more I like him. Even moreso than Blair, the politician who genuinely cared about the less well off. He was deeply flawed as a campaigner and I was as critical as anybody about that but, with considerable hindsight, maybe the Prime Minister we didn’t deserve.
Even though Thatcher was a scientist, I think she’d have been more directed towards the economy and probably would have really hated the idea of lockdown. However, I think she’d have been totally engaged with both the science and the economics.
“Hard wired to win” is a phrase I think is more about our society. I just think it will be very hard for a Labour Party to ever win an election, not least because of the often mentioned fracturing of the Left. I’m not sure how bad a Tory government would have to be to lose their natural advantage.
‘Not old’ not ‘untold’! Dunno where that came from
The WW2 most people know (or think they know) is a myth. The US greatest generation benefitted from overwhelming might, in terms of money, manpower and industrial strength, it would have taken an amazing effort on their part to lose the war. The UK too went into the war as as strong country. The worlds second biggest economy, third largest industrial base, controlled 2/5 of the planet, worlds largest navy, unrivalled access to raw materials etc.
The truth is that it was Japan and Germany that were the underdogs in WW2. In Japan’s case they knew that they had no chance of winning a war against the USA and hoped that the attack on Pearl Harbour and the lightning strikes in the pacific would bring the US to the negotiating table. In Germany’s case, they had to win very quickly and it was never really on the cards for them, their success in France surprised them as much as the allies. That they did so well owed more to the strategic and tactical ineptness from the allies than it did the efficiency of their own very fine armed forces.
Of course in the allies case, when you do so badly, you have to explain away your defeats, and so you attribute a level of brilliance and might to your enemy that they never in fact possessed. Rommel for example was a good general yes, but the British generals he faced made him look like a genius that he wasn’t. In many ways Johnson reminds me of the early war ineptness of the allied leaders and politicians, slow to learn from mistakes and every decision taken seems to be wrong, often then compounded by a reversal of position that simply makes things worse.
So true. I’m probably becoming a bit of a broken record when it comes to the myths that preoccupy people but they are everywhere once you start to look.
It’s astonishing the bits of World War 2 where Germany almost had us beat but inexplicably stopped themselves, leading to a narrative of plucky Blighty (which, of course, was partly true but also involved a huge degree of luck). I don’t think the comparision with Boris is bad at all. I’ve often said that is a walking cliche of Englishness; somebody shaped by these narratives so much so that he believes them because they are entirely him. It’s very postmodern, in its way. Churchill was a bundle of mannerisms but they wrapped something solid. Johnson is just the mannerisms, just the symbolism with nothing at their core. Pure pastiche…