An Australian friend said to me recently that it’s weird how much we in England talk about the Second World War. It struck me not only because we do really like talking, commemorating and making TV programmes about WWII but also because I’d never thought it was strange before. It seems obvious that we would do that, but stopping to think about it, not at all obvious why.
Maybe it’s because we won. But we won the First World War and the Falklands War and Imperialism, while it was a thing, and we’ve happily accepted and moved on from all of those. OK, so maybe it’s because we won and it was just, we defeated an evil regime and the world was better for it. But we did that in the Falklands in the eighties, Bosnia in the early nineties, Kosovo in the late nineties and in Sierra Leone in the early oughts. None of those received even a crumb of the memorialising we continue to heap upon the war that ended over seventy years ago and is still referred to simply as ‘The War’.
The special place we afford ‘The War’ is not to do with geopolitics but rather the effect it had on the people who fought it. WWII is unique in the degree to which its dangers and struggles were felt as much by those who remained at home as the armed forces and merchant seamen serving abroad. Tens of thousands were killed or made homeless by aerial bombing and everyone was engaged together in the war effort, through acts great and small, from working in protected occupations to digging for victory. This great shared endeavour was also an unprecedented social leveller. Rationing applied to rich and poor alike, the bombs fell on Buckingham Palace just as they did on the East End.
The people who went through this traumatic and powerful bonding experience rebuilt our society in a radically different form. Wages grew fastest for the poorest, reducing inequality; healthcare, secondary education and decent housing were all redefined as rights, not privileges. These changes were made possible by an unspoken pact whereby powerful trade unions made moderate wage demands, while the rich consented to tax rates that are absurdly high by modern standards (in 1971 the top rate of income tax was 75%, for investment income it was 90%).
The children of the generation that fought the war did not share the bonds that made this consensus possible and so they tore it apart. Unions flexed their muscles and the rich baulked at giving so large a share of their wealth to the common fund. They still framed these decisions as the common good, as class struggle or rational economic policy, but the size of that commons had shrunk from all of us to only some. Some gained more than others materially from the death of the postwar consensus but there was an equal and universal spiritual loss. Feeling this, and casting about in our longing for a time of togetherness, we found the majestic ruin of one nation, all in it together, during ‘The War’.
There’s a way to rediscover that oneness without horror and bloodshed. It involves a rethinking one of the few places where people from different backgrounds interact with each other on a sustained basis: school. It requires that school changes from a competition between individuals to see who’s top and bottom, to a collaborative enterprise where those individuals’ different rates of progress are not stratified into markers of social status. It requires that building a sense of community be a core aim of schooling not a hoped-for by product and that parents and local people are involved in the work of the school beyond being told if the children there do well or badly. This approach means giving up something too. It means giving up the notion of work as a vehicle for proving we’re a cut above the rest. Maybe the lure of the jungle is too strong for us to for do that; our tendency to binge on Blitz spirit suggests maybe not.