Today is Remembrance Sunday, though as I’m not old enough to remember events such as World War II, it becomes more of a case of weaving together facts and feelings and anecdotal material, as opposed to first-hand reminiscence. Nonetheless, I think I can begin to get an inkling of the issues involved, and even though the above sounds like a purely intellectual process, it does provoke an emotional response in me, a dark and unpleasant one which borders on sheer rage.
Let me explain.
It’s my sincere belief that in order to fight for something as, say, those involved in World War II did, you have to have not only a sense of the sheer wrong-ness of your opponent, but also a sense that you’re fighting to preserve something good and right and proper. In the case of those who fought in WWII, that would be a feeling of fighting for a Britain of village greens, Vera Lynn songs, and other notions like that, which may (if we’re honest) have been slightly better than the reality; absence, the aphorism has it, makes the heart grow fonder, and I’m sure it also allows one to start to overplay the attributes of that which we’re away from.
The realities of life in the 1940s were, I think it’s safe to say, not perfect, even discounting the war aspect of things; food was hardly in today’s plentiful supply, and there was still crime in its various guises. But thinking of home in this way would hardly have motivated soldiers and others to give their all for something that was … well, not as great as it could be, really. So I suspect that the image of Britain that many of them held in their minds as they did what they had to do was a slightly polished on, like nostalgic for something that never was. I’m guessing that this was the case in psychological terms, but I think that the facts are there about the reality of Britain, the Britain they were all fighting for.
There’s a line from a song – I think it’s by Talking Heads – which goes something like ‘All the buildings and all the cars / Were once inside people’s heads’. And this is what I think is most remarkable about the people who fought in WWII – they had an idea of Britain, an idea that was better than the reality, more fair and just and caring, and then, after fighting for that idea, those of them who came home dragged the idea into reality: creating the National Health Service, public utilities and libraries, and making education available to all.
Just as WWII made humankind face its darkest and worst capabilities with places like Auschwitz, so the opposite can be seen in the creation of public services after the war; a recognition of how low our species can fall in certain circumstances and with a certain will, and a deliberate move in the opposite direction, to prevent that ever happening again. Built in England’s green and pleasant land, no less.
And these institutions endured, and a whole generation grew up with free access to education and health care, and other support mechanisms in place to catch them like a safety net. Like all nets, it didn’t catch everyone, but its intention was to do so. And this generation who grew up healthier and well-educated and with greater opportunities than their parents and grand-parents, whose predecessors had laboured and paid and spilled their blood to give them these opportunities? Well, they were so utterly grateful for their good fortune that they decide the right thing to do was to systematically dismantle the institutions their parents had worked to put in place, and to sell the component parts. Oh, and to effectively keep the money for themselves.
Examples are nice and easy to come by; successive governments have privatised utilities as if they were the sole owners and not temporary custodians, the current Prime Minister benefited from free University education but has implemented tuition fees for present-day students, and pensioners (very probably ones who went without as a result of the war) have to march on Parliament in protest at the low level of their pensions.
These are not events that should take place in the country that those who fell in the wars died for, and it is not what those who came home took the trouble to build. It’s a frankly repellent and ugly attitude of ingratitude, and the last thirty or so years have seen successive governments (which means Labour and Tories alike) asset-stripping the efforts and labours of those who went before them.
History suggests a limited amount of thought was given to the economic appropriateness of WWII, and indeed the creation of things like the NHS has been said to have almost bankrupted the UK after the war, but these things were done because they were felt to be right. It’s a terrible thing that the generation that was first to thrive after the war has also been the first one to decide that such moral and ethical considerations, and doing things because they’re right, should persistently take a poor second place to economic considerations.
This week, I understand the Prime Minister laid a wreath. It seems a bit rich to me that he does this on one day of the year, when his actions for the rest of the year suggest it would be more appropriate (to steal an image from Stewart Lee and Richard Herring) if he urinated on the cenotaph whilst blood-stained money rained down all around him.
These people dishonour those who died and those who lived alike; all of these people did so in fighting for a country they imagined, and latterly helped to make reality, and far more could be done to honour their memory than merely laying wreaths or remaining silent for two minutes. These people gave us more than we can ever truly understand, and they deserve far more recognition, and more respect, than for everything they strove for to be chipped away at, sacrificed in the name of economic necessity.
I can only hope that successive generations as systematically and contrarily remove all traces of the present mindset, burying the morally bereft political belief of ‘economics uber alles’ at the same time as they inter the politicians who’ve done so much to insult the memory of those who came before.