One of the more optimistic claims made in recent months has been that Britain will undertake a thorough assessment of its handling of Covid-19 once the pandemic is over. Some argue this should take parliamentary form (an all-party parliamentary group for Covid-19 was created last summer), while others are calling for a judge-led public inquiry.
Yet Boris Johnson’s insistence that the government did “everything [it] could” as the country passed 100,000 deaths last night suggests that any honest self-examination is unlikely. As Tom McTague argues, this can partly be explained by psychology: what matters most is how a crisis ends, and – if successful – the country’s vaccine drive may be more memorable than the bulk of its experience. But when it comes to our collective memory of Covid-19 in Britain, there will also be the force of self-delusion at work. British history, perhaps more than any other country on Earth, is constructed around a series of myths.
1940, for instance, exists in the public imagination as a year of exceptional triumph for Britain. The truth is, however, that it saw cataclysmic setbacks. At the time, Winston Churchill privately described Dunkirk as Britain’s “greatest military defeat for many centuries”. Meanwhile, the head of military intelligence told journalists it was their duty to act as “shock-absorbers” for the public given Britain’s hasty and entirely unexpected retreat from France. It soon became clear to the country’s leadership that the truth – Britain would face imminent defeat without US intervention – couldn’t be publicly acknowledged. As one Tory MP wrote in his diary at the time: “If he [president Roosevelt] refuses to come in, it would seem that the war must come to an end, and this great empire will have been defeated and humiliated”. Three MPs even fled the country.
Then came the Battle of Britain, a fight in which ‘aces’ were rare – only 17 pilots downed ten planes or more. The most successful squadron, 303, wasn’t even British, but Polish – something generally ignored by the likes of Nigel Farage in commemorating the event. At the start of 1941, Britain had just £3m in reserves – close to bankruptcy, and only saved by allied governments in exile and by subordinating itself to the US and effectively renouncing its status as global hegemon. Taking into account the massive resources of its empire, from South African gold to the Indian army (which remains the largest volunteer force in history), Britain never – as is so often said – ‘stood alone’.
This isn’t to suggest such measures weren’t worth it to defeat the Nazis – clearly, they were. But it’s important to ask whether similar acts of forgetting through commemoration might come to be repeated over the coming years. After all, immediately following 1945, Britain’s politicians were eager to pretend nothing had fundamentally changed, and that a war started by Europe’s old powers had not been concluded by the might of the US and USSR.
This was often explicitly stated. In 1947, Labour’s Ernest Bevin rejected the notion that Britain had “ceased to be a great power”, adding that “we regard ourselves as one of the powers most vital to the peace of the world”. For Bevin, as for MPs on all sides, the catastrophe of just four years earlier was now conveniently memory-holed, the truth of near-defeat and a new found dependence on the US too much to admit.
Such a response is somewhat explicable. How else do you metabolise the overnight disintegration of the world’s greatest military and economic power for the last two centuries? As the historian David Edgerton observes, this is perhaps why we should view 1940 as the origin-myth of the British nation. While the French have 1789 and the Americans have 1776, the British nation, as opposed to the empire, has the moment it stood alone against the might of the Axis powers. This, however, is a myth – and an increasingly unhelpful one.
This is just one example of how erroneous delusion constitutes the very fabric of Britain’s identity and by extension political culture – but there are countless more.
We are told Britain is the home of democracy, and Westminster is the ‘mother of parliaments’. Yet London isn’t even home to the oldest continuous legislature on the British Isles (the Isle of Man is), while our head of state and second chamber remain unelected. We are told the British empire was undertaken for the benefit of its colonies – or, a diluted version of this claim, that it conferred various advantages, such as railways in India or common law in the ‘white dominions’ (so called because they massacred many of the non-white inhabitants). Gleefully forgotten is that when Britain left India in 1947, it bequeathed not only a partition – and with it a million dead – but an average life expectancy of 27 and a literacy rate of 16%.
The most recent myth, which underpins a great deal of political ‘pragmatism’ (at least in England) is that the premiership of Margaret Thatcher was both necessary and successful. It was neither: Thatcher took charge of a country with low public debt, low unemployment, and decades of rising wages, productivity and living standards. This is before mentioning moves to unprecedented agricultural self-sufficiency in the modern era, and the abundance of North Sea oil. And yet her legacy is that of a deindustrialised country, with high private debt and ever worse regional and household inequality. Britain’s fortunes were not revived by Thatcherism; rather, a zealot squandered the one-off dividend of oil exports while tearing apart the country’s social fabric.
Whether it’s WW2, democracy, empire or Thatcher’s ‘medicine’, almost every thread which weaves together Britain’s political common sense is fabricated from falsehoods. Britain’s incapacity for reckoning honestly with its history means self-criticism when it comes to its handling of Covid-19 appears very unlikely. Instead, we should expect the events of the last year to be just one more notch in a record of national self-delusion. A decade from now, this moment may even be heralded as an unlikely success. Think that’s impossible? It’s happened before.
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.