Seventy-Five Years On
by Frederick Dixon
WHEN I STARTED work, most of my male colleagues, if they were beyond their mid-thirties, had been in the forces during the Second World War, and I fondly remember one old boy who had fought in the First! More than one of them had decorations for bravery, and there were a few empty sleeves and artificial legs. At one time I worked for a most generous and pleasant man who had lost one lung and part of the other, to enemy action. Most of my female colleagues had also served, if not in the forces then in the war economy in some form or other.
Yet few of them spoke of it. This was not necessarily because they’d had a bad time; if they did speak of it, it was usually just to recall some wry or amusing incident. I think they felt that the war was just an interruption to normal life, and those who came back just wanted to go back to that life. Everyone had been through it, so why bang on about it?
Gradually our factories, offices and workshops lost their veterans. The last of them would have retired in the nineties, and I wonder how many noted at the time this remarkable generational change? Now all but a handful have died and those who remain find themselves treated – as Captain Tom Moore has discovered – almost as “holy relics rather than real people”. That is a quotation from an essay by Niall Gooch on the (always interesting) Unherd website and it brought home to me a realisation that Remembrance is now noticeably more sentimentalised that it was when most people actually remembered the war.
No doubt most of us saw again the scenes of rejoicing in London on VE-Day, and were struck by the extraordinary lack of “Diversity”. A bitter/sweet remembrance indeed. And I think again about how the men and women that I remember from half a century ago would have viewed our country now, and I have a pretty good idea because almost all of them had views on such matters as race, immigration, sexuality and so forth which would be likely to lose them their jobs, or land them in court, if they expressed them today.
So, for this article I was going to reprise the piece I wrote in 2018 for the centenary of the Armistice, drawing attention to the manner in which post-war governments have delivered a country which would horrify those who fought for her. But Niall Gooch’s essay on Unherd (see the quote above) explains, far more eloquently than I could, just how things have changed; these two paragraphs sum up his thinking:
“This chronological distancing [from the war} has been accompanied by a curious change in the way that we collectively remember the Second World War. It’s hard to describe the change precisely, or say exactly where it has come from. But if I had to try, I’d say that a folk memory of the Second World War as essentially a war fought for patriotic reasons against other countries to defend the British national interest, as part of a wider ongoing national story, has been substantially replaced by one that regards the war as an idealistic conflict fought in defence of universalist moral values, especially those that nowadays form the bedrock of high-status elite thinking – equality, diversity, non-discrimination, anti-nationalism and so on.”
“This retooling of the popular imagination is necessary partly because of sweeping demographic change complicating conceptions of national history and popular memory, but also because what you might call old-fashioned wars, entered into and fought for reasons of national self-interest, are seen as increasingly problematic. To celebrate a hero because he fought or died for King and country, for the land from which he sprung, makes people uneasy; to celebrate him because he fought for ‘freedom’ or ‘against fascism’ is much more acceptable.”
Gooch is clearly a man of the conservative right and there is much in what he says, but we can be thankful that although the elite thinking which he describes has deeply penetrated our national consciousness, it is by no means universal. The victory of Brexit in the 2016 referendum was a crushing defeat for that elite thinking, and the fall of the “red wall” in the recent general election scarcely less so. Traditional ideas and traditional values have shown remarkable signs of life in recent times!
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Source: Western Spring