Wartime, the ‘Dunkirk spirit’, the solidarity of the home front. When faced with a challenge, these are perhaps the memories that British politicians have most readily reached for. And the more fragmented or unenthusiastic the population may appear, the more attractive is the idea of harking back to a time of unity and national purpose.
Initially this came most easily to Conservative figures, who saw wartime as fostering heightened patriotism and sense of duty. Celebrating the ‘Falklands factor’ in 1982, Margaret Thatcher looked back to the 1940s and argued that “the demands of war” made the British “competent, courageous and resolute”. This, she added, “is a lesson which we must apply to peace just as we have learnt it in war”.
And yet the left has also had its narrative of the beneficial effects of war, says historian Timothy Cooper of the University of Exeter. The Second World War is seen as a time that “built an ideal of citizenship, of sharing the burden, with greater equality paving the way for the welfare state”.
One of the most striking recent examples is the Green party’s launch of a policy document calling for a ‘New Home Front’ in response to the challenge of climate change. Introducing the document, Green MP Caroline Lucas asserted that during the war, the British people “were willing to make the sacrifices needed to deal with the horror of Nazism and to try to build a fairer society”. A similar effort, she argued, is needed now. Those denying the need for a greener life were compared with those who failed to take the rise of Hitler seriously.
However Dr Cooper, himself a Green party member, is wary of the way in which wartime history is appropriated for such contemporary use. It often depends, he suggests, on
an idealised view of what actually happened during the war. Notions of greater equality fail to recognise that war “did not abolish social distinctions”. Society was never as united as rosier memories suggest – there were sharp industrial conflicts and strike action in key industries. And social gains made after the war were arguably not produced by the war itself, but rather by the power of labour movements and social democratic political parties in the early postwar period.
As for the suggestion that wartime society shaped a more frugal, resource-efficient lifestyle suited to modern green priorities, Cooper suggests the longer-term effects can be exaggerated. Temporary forms of recycling or salvage were abandoned after the war, creating “crises in urban waste disposal” – with landfill emerging as a cheap response.
What this signified was that, as soon as the pressures of war were lifted, attitudes changed.
Tensions emerged between an ‘austerity’ and more consumerist approach. There was no longer the sense of urgency that war had created. And that is perhaps the most important lesson for politicians tempted to invoke the wartime spirit as they try to mobilise consensus around their visions of the future. Insofar as people did have more sense of national purpose during the war, it was because they had a clear aim in mind – victory over Nazi Germany.
They also believed that temporary sacrifice and compromise was worthwhile because things would improve markedly once that aim had been achieved. And part of that improvement, many felt, was precisely the right to follow their own individual political and economic priorities rather than feel bound to national consensus.
Combating climate change, by contrast, has no obvious end point. It is, argues Timothy Cooper, more of a “permanent challenge to society”. This would make it hard for politicians to boost morale by saying, like their wartime counterparts, that “things will be better” after final victory is achieved.
Despite the dubious nature of wartime comparisons used by our leaders, it would be surprising if they were to disappear rapidly. Our media as well as our political language remains drenched in notions of ‘finest hours’ and ‘Blitz spirit’. But that language may often express a yearning for unity, rather than a realistic historical image of a people permanently changed and united by the experience of war.
Chris Bowlby is a presenter on BBC radio, specialising in history
This series is produced with History & Policy. You can find out more about them and read their papers at www.historyandpolicy.org