(photo© Crown copyright 2015)
So here goes:
I very much enjoyed the VE Day documentary on BBC1 last night that reflected not only on how people across the nation celebrated the actual day itself but also on how Britain moved through the following six years under Clement Atlee’s Labour Government. Using excellent newsreel films together with reflections of some interesting and well-known personalities of today who were either children or young men and women at the time we learned much about what a very happy day it was.
In the following four short paragraphs I will quickly set the scene after which I intend to make a few personal observations in relation to how we as a nation have changed since VE Day on May 8th 1945 and as to whether I believe this has been for the better or worse.
Within two months of VE Day Winston Churchill who had been Prime Minister of the National Government since May 1940 and had led Britain through the tumult that followed over the next five years had been given the ‘order of the boot’ meaning that he was thrown out as Prime Minister most probably on the basis that while the majority of voters knew he had been a superb ‘war leader’ and the absolute man for the time throughout the war he was not to be considered a man for peacetime. So be it and after almost six years of war, personal hardship, constraint and living in what can only be called austerity in the extreme and with so many people having suffered personal tragedy perhaps on reflection we should not be so surprised that the population voted the way they did in July 1945 at what was after all the first General Election to be held since 1935.
As the documentary so well highlighted, austerity that had endured throughout the six years of wartime would continue for several more years yet. There was to be no let-up in food shortages and if anything the situation got far worse. Rationing of food, confectionery, fuels, clothing plus many other commodities and products continued well into the 1950’s. And with so many houses having been lost during the war the shortage of housing and particularly of building materials would remain a very serious issue until the Conservatives were elected back into government in 1951.
With Britain still considered to be a major power in the world the Atlee Government also needed to cope with many foreign issues such as the British mandate in Palestine, independence for India, the beginnings of the ‘cold war’ and the rebuilding of Germany. As a nation Britain was effectively broke at the end of the war and reliant on considerable loans from the US. The arrangements made to agree such funding would both strengthen Britain and weaken it at the same time. Last but by no means last, the situation for the Clement Atlee government was made all the worse by the quite dreadful winter that Britain suffered in 1947.
But it wasn’t all bad news during the Atlee Labour Government. RA Butlers Education Act of 1944 had provided that all children would be entitled to free secondary school education and that the age limit of when children could leave school would be raised to 15. A large programme of school building ensued despite material shortages. Designed to provide more the essentials required so that all people were entitled to the same the Labour Government created a free at the point of delivery National Health Service which at the time cost but a bare fraction of what it does today. And then, one hundred years after the Great Exhibition of 1851, there opened on a 27 acre site of former bombed out railway siding the Festival of Britain, an event that really did launch Britain into a post war era of change.
So much for the past but are we better off than we had been at VE Day. In terms of real wealth and what the vast majority of us have there can be no comparison. We are so much better off. Our houses are full to the brim of equipment and gadgets that while we take these for granted today as bare necessities our fathers and grandfathers did without. I have said many times before that I loathe the word austerity when used in the context of the post financial crash era from 2008 onwards because austerity is the wrong word to use. We may have lived through a recession for a few years and there has undoubtedly been hardship for many during that time but in my view it pales into insignificance compared to how people lived in the immediate post VE Day era.
For all our lack of wealth, in the post VE Day era we accepted that we should take no chances when it came to defence and security of the nation. How very different is the view in Whitehall today as we see our armed forces struggling with capacity shortfall and lack of resilience. Back then we accepted that there remained great threats to peace and stability in the world and on top of our involvement in the newly created United Nations from April 1949 that we should play a very significant role in NATO. No use comparing defence spending today with what was spent back then as it would be an unfair comparison but suffice to say even if we did spend 2% of GDP next year it wouldn’t be nearly enough. We were still looked up to by the rest of the world for the role that we played in international diplomacy and in conflict avoidance. On top of this we still had the remnants of empire to defend. With much of Continental Europe destroyed even though we ourselves had been seriously damaged and weakened during the war we had a strength of purpose and political will that enabled us to lead as opposed to merely follow which is what I believe we do today.
Through the ensuing years we have, primarily due to the fear that has been inbred in all of us in respect of the increased threat of terrorism and also in some of the terrible incidents that we have seen that people do to each other and to children lost our ability to trust each other. Seventy years ago I venture to suggest that people really did talk to each other as they travelled on the London Underground. Today they are almost frightened to even be seen looking at each other. How sad this is and also that religion plays a very much smaller part in our lives today.
We have also become obsessed with the culture of health and safety and of what we can, should or should not do and what is or is not good for us. I thought of this as I watched the VE Day documentary last night and particularly when it showed young children playing on bombsites in London with jagged metal and other obstacles that today would be considered so dangerous that everything would need to be cordoned off with security guards surrounding. Today when disaster strikes or when a building falls down or whatever a whole area gets cordoned off. Back in the war years if and when a bomb struck once the area was deemed safe normality very quickly resumed. In the ‘nanny state’ that we have allowed to be created since the war ended and that we live in today we have it seems been forced to abandon all forms of common sense.
Watching the newsreel film of the VE Day celebrations and seeing policemen and women joining in the fun I was reminded how the police look on the public today and of how we look at them. They do a great job of course but gone is ability to share conversation on equal terms. Living on a main road as I do and knowing that the instruction from the Metropolitan Police to patrol car drivers is that every incident they are sent to should be accompanied by having sirens on so that this can act as a constant reminder to the public of police presence I am reminded of how the level of daily noise that we are forced to suffer has risen.
Another huge change is the change that has occurred in the structure of families. Parents were respected by their offspring back then and there was none of the ‘spoiling the child’ that is so common place today. Much of the discipline and punishment for wrongdoing that was around in my day has gone just as it has also in our schools and day to day lives. Today we are soft and we are paying a high price of lack of respect. The nation abounds in litter thrown out of cars or dropped in the street by people who couldn’t care less – that didn’t occur back in 1945 because we all cared about other people and maybe also the environment we lived in except of course that we had a great love of polluting it back then! We live in a plastic throw-away society today and one that does much damage to the environment.
I would perhaps also argue that before the advent of television and all the other communications and media goodies that occupy our homes, bedrooms and pockets today that families not only conversed far more than they do today but that they were far closer. They read the papers because the newspapers provided them with news. Today news reporting appears secondary to personal comment designed to steer the reader to the left or right of centre. It gets worse because as I watch young and sometimes, even my own generation, playing on computers and mobile phones I am saddened by the lack of conversation that occurs. I am also saddened by the lack of knowledge that people have of their surroundings, of where places are, and of our history. The art of conversation has certainly changed and gone are the old breed of brilliant conversationalists that one had the pleasure of listening too on radio when I was growing up.
The respect shown to King George V1 and Queen Elizabeth when their majesties came out onto the balcony of Buckingham Palace on VE Day following the speech to the nation by Winston Churchill must have been a sight to behold. Thankfully while the relationship between people and monarch who is also our Head of State has no doubt changed the love that we have for our present monarch, Queen Elizabeth and immediate members of her family remains equally strong. It is perhaps the only thing that has not changed and as far as I am concerned, long may that be so.
The vexing subject of wealth, the haves and the have not’s was always there of course but in an age of ease of communication and intense media it is today made all the more apparent. If I said that we are all so much better off than we were I suspect I would easily be shot down in flames. But it is I am afraid true nonetheless. Yes, there is tremendous poverty and homelessness to be found and I suspect there always will. The state can only do so much but my point is that the state today does so much more than it did at the time of VE Day we must recognise this in the argument. Taxation must always be fair of course and I personally dislike the attempt to get out of the unholy deficit and debt mess we have allowed ourselves to get into by making cuts without raising some taxes as well. Immigration plays a big part in the additional burden of poverty that we see around us today. It is a very different poverty to that seen back around VE Day of course and quite frankly I do not know what the answer is.
As I begin to draw this ‘Fly On The Wall, piece to a close let me mention corporate behaviour as well. Today our high streets are full of chain stores and so-called brands. The independents have been squeezed out by greed and high rents. In the process we have lost the tremendous human relationship that existed between buyer and seller, between shop worker and customer. Not that all the independents have gone yet of course but I really do regret the change that has occurred in how we go about our daily business. Pubs have changed too and countless thousands of restaurants are out there touting for your business. Leaving the nasty huge fast food and pub chains behind, these are at least very personal and long may that be so. Oh, and talking of so called austerity and looking at all the full restaurants, let no one tell me there is a shortage of money in this country!
Last but not least and with a General Election occurring this week on the day before we celebrate the seventieth anniversary of VE Day I cannot avoid observing on the quite dreadful manner that media in particular observes politics and that goes a long way to reasoning public apathy on politics as a whole let alone politicians. The cynicism which is so very apparent amongst media today did not exist on VE Day. Then, as I believe that we should still today if democracy is to survive, the population respected politicians and they looked to them for leadership. Giving Winston Churchill the order of the boots really was no big deal and it reflected the time. I am not suggesting that our politicians today are anything like as good as those that existed during wartime and through the decades that followed. They are but a shadow of those that went before and like everyone else I detest the way that they play to the gallery as opposed to the issues. But while I accept that some politicians have themselves been found wanting through expense scandals and the like this past few years I blame media for destroying any opportunity we might have had for rebuilding trust between people and there politicians. This week in terms of percentage of the population I guess that less than half the number of people will bother to vote than did at the 1945 General Election.
In conclusion, while we could today very easily repeat the claim that ‘you never had it so good’ I take the view that, hardships, real austerity and fears for the future apart that it was probably so much better to be around in VE Day than it is now. A very personal view of course from someone who missed it by four years. The bottom line for me is that while most of us appear to have just about everything that we could possibly require and with most owning cars and all the latest gadgets of life in the twenty-teens we have it seems lost one of the most important thing in life, respect for each other.
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