As we look back with quiet pride on VE Day (Victory in Europe), which 75 years ago marked a victory over a global menace, it is a sad tragedy that we are fighting our own battle with another global menace. We should look back with pride. Not in a narrow nationalistic way, for that is what the victory was, a victory over narrow, divisive, exceptionalist, 'ein reich' nationalism as championed by the Nazis. No we should look back with pride for standing firm for our liberal values of individual freedom, fairness, compassion and truth.
A truck of revellers passing through the Strand, London. VE Day Celebrations
in London, 8 May 1945
And we should take pride, and learn from the fact, that our victory was a victory of nations. For Britain did not stand alone, but stood shoulder to shoulder with the Commonwealth, America and the Soviet Union. Nor should we think that we 'rode to the rescue' of Europe, many 'free' French, Polish and Czech men and women fought with our armed services to liberate mainland Europe.
There will no doubt be much talk of those second world war touchstones, the 'Battle of Britain', the 'Dunkirk Spirit' and of course Dame Vera Lynn's "We'll meet again". But we should remind ourselves that nearly 400,000 British service personnel and over 65,000 non-combatants did not meet their loved ones again. Their cost was the highest. And that the 'Dunkirk Spirit' was the response of individual men and women to save the country from the hubris and miscalculation of an over confident Government.
VE Day teaches us another lesson. The Nazis (the alt-right of their day) never achieved more than a third share of the public vote, but by subverting the state, and with the connivance of the media, turned a sophisticated, enlightened and liberal Germany into a pariah state. VE Day teaches that democracy also requires vigilance.
So look back with pride, but pride tinged by sadness. Pride in what we achieved as a country, but also pride in the individual achievement, and pride that recognises the individual cost of the victory of our values.
We should also look forward, remembering that VE Day marked the start of a transformation in our National Life. Even while the war continued in Asia, returning service men and women resoundingly rejected the Conservative Party in favour of an Attlee Government. Attlee was committed to introducing the Liberal economist William Beveridge's report that paved the way for the establishment of the welfare state and the NHS. Rather than dwell on their victory those service personnel were looking to a better future for their families.
Their vision has thrown us a very real lifeline. Today the nation is depending on the NHS to see us through the battle with COVID-19. It is not something that those who voted for Attlee could have foreseen, or indeed would have wished for, but thank goodness they did establish a universal welfare and health system.
And we should honour them by taking their example and looking to the future and asking 'after our own victory against this mortal enemy how will we make society fitter, stronger and better?'. Our battle is different, both in scale and stakes, but it is a battle. When we defeat COVID-19 (and it may be a way off but we will) will it be a return to 'business as usual' or will we take the chance to change things and make them better? Will future generations, in the face of their own challenges, look back to our generation and thank us for giving them the tools to win their own victories?
We stand at a crossroads. Society can change. We should look back with pride to VE Day for it marked both an end and a start. Let us, like the war generation, look forward to the society we want when we have fought our own war, and defeated the scourge of COVID19.