It’s a bitter irony that a Tory government intent on dismantling and privatising the NHS and making education increasingly expensive should be re-elected on the 7oth anniversary of VE Day.
In World War 2, the country’s victory was the result of a contract between the men and woman who served, fought and died, and those who ruled.
The landslide victory of the Labour government in 1945 was the delivery on that contract. The victory had been predicted for years beforehand by writers such as J B Priestley, who voiced the soldier’s claim that he should receive his just desserts for the sacrifice he gave. He demanded no less than a New World, in which war was no longer necessary and social inequality was reduced forever.
In 1945 Tory party Treasurer Lord Marchwood acknowledged in the Picture Post that “young people and servicemen are Left-minded” but was “certain that Mr Churchill’s appeals will have had the effect he desired.”
But the Tories didn’t understand the selflessness born of war. Hints of how military life had affected young servicemen and women appeared early in the war. On 28th July 1940, J B Priestley wrote of a letter he’d received from the father of an airman, who said of his son and comrades:
“Don’t insult them by thinking they don’t care what sort of a world they’re fighting for. All the evidence contradicts that.”
He went on to quote his son, who had been a salesman before he enlisted:
“I shall never go back to the old business life – that life of what I call the survival of the slickest; I now know a better way. Our lads in the R.A.F. would, and do, willingly give their lives for each other; the whole outlook of the force is one of ‘give’, not one of ‘get’. If tomorrow the war ended and I returned to business, I would need to sneak, cheat and pry in order to get hold of orders which otherwise would have gone to one of my R.A.F. friends if one of them returned to commercial life with a competing firm. Instead of co-operating as we do in war, we would each use all the craft we possessed with which to confound each other. I will never do it.”
VE Day wasn’t a win for Churchill. It wasn’t a win for vested interest or corporations. It was a victory for the ordinary man who came home to build a fairer, more just Britain.
He didn’t want anything exceptional by today’s standards. Only what most of us nowadays take for granted as we grow up.
It included simple things. No more disfigurement or death from easily preventable diseases; no more dying in agony because you couldn’t afford to pay the surgeon; no more being held back because the education system excluded intelligent pupils because they were poor.
It also included provision that those left disabled, blind and limbless thanks to their heroic efforts should be treated with dignity. That’s why Remploy factories were opened – to give those heroes a sense of purpose and a future.
That’s what the returning servicemen got, until this government made the most concerted effort yet to dismantle that covenant with the people, by beginning the privatisation of health services and education. No surprise either, that the current administration closed the Remploy factories.
This weekend, tens of thousands of people will mark the 70-year VE Day commemoration.
Bizarrely, my experience is that – not all – but many of them will be primarily of the right. Fuelled by a mixture of English nationalism and nostalgic Conservatism they will inadvertently mock the extraordinary heroism of the war. Up and down the country, sadly muddled Little England flagwavers will conflate fighting for freedom with Toryism because Churchill was in power at the time of the victory.
It is strange that nowadays war anniversaries are often the natural playground of uniform-renting stockbrokers co-opting the heroism of courageous men and women who made the extraordinary victory possible. As if they laid down their lives to create a world in which the disabled kill themselves after being refused state aid and the poor live on charitable food hand-outs while the wealthy gamble away the country’s money and get off Scott free.
So, whether you are a pacifist or not, remember VE Day. It was a genuine moment of hope in history. It was the moment when the State was taken by the nose and for a while at least made to care for its citizens.
Remember, whatever you do this weekend. Remember how much you owe to those selfless individuals who fought not only for your freedom, but for your education, your health and your welfare.
Remember, too, that 70 years on, vested interests have set themselves the task of rolling back the good work of those heroes, for the sake of a corrupt ideology which makes the rich richer while the poor are oppressed.
If ever there was a time for fair-minded people to regroup, it is now. It is time to think on what has happened – on the day on which much of the good work done 70 years ago is due to be undone.
Remember the wartime spirit of hope and reconstruction. And remember, if you are of the left, you are the heirs of those heroes who fought for future generations to be protected, to be educated, to be treated with fairness and be given the opportunities denied to their parents.
Remember too, the fight must go on. VE Day or no.