On the eve of VE Day in May, as a Britain engaged in an actual battle with Covid-19 prepared for a largely virtual commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazism, the death was reported of Flight Lieutenant Terry Clark, a 101-year-old RAF veteran. Clark was one of only two known survivors to have fought in the Battle of Britain 80 years ago. His death brings one of the most compelling chapters of the British national story, and above all of our resourcefulness in adversity, to within a heartbeat of passing from experience to history. In a nursing home near Dublin Group Captain John “Paddy” Hemingway DFC, a Hurricane pilot who was shot down twice that summer, lives quietly and serenely: he celebrated his 101st birthday on 17 July. Group Captain Hemingway is The Last of The Few. He is myth made reality. When his time comes, only myth will be left.
“Myth” has become a pejorative term. Historians deploy the word for the sake of contrast when professing to be about to tell us the truth, because myth is now a synonym for falsehood. Myths are put to dishonourable uses. The less free a society, the more it relies on myth as a means not just of sustaining morale, but of imposing control: look at North Korea or, perhaps closer to home, China’s justification of its treatment of Hong Kong, or Russia’s harnessing of nationalist myths to maintain Vladimir Putin’s power. But “myth” once signified an instructive and usually inspiring story with some grounding in fact, clouded only by the antiquity of the fact.
The story was not necessarily false, but the events happened so long ago that there was little reliable evidence of them. Or, they had been considerably embellished by the narrative, as opposed to the documentary, version of history. In English culture, Dick Whittington and Robin Hood are well-established myths: but the former has solid historical foundations in the late 14th century, the latter flimsier ones from 200 years earlier. And we can never know for sure whether King Alfred, more than a millennium ago, burned the cakes.
Having come to The Last of The Few means we have reached a crucial moment in the British national story; for after Group Captain Hemingway dies, something fundamental will change. A reliable myth will begin its journey – perhaps a long one, Robin Hood-like, lasting centuries – to the unreliable: it will become a story of which only academic historians can make a stab at presenting something resembling the truth, while the narrative tradition of history does its worst for everybody else.
This has long since happened to aspects of the Great War, which have joined other components of the British story from Waterloo and Trafalgar back to King Harold at Hastings via Elizabeth I at Tilbury, for use, misuse or adaptation as people see fit. The Battle of Britain story that has sustained and fortified Britons at times of crisis or national self-doubt for eight decades will not disappear; but with no living representative it will lose its immediacy and, before too long, its relevance. Eventually, its credibility will be challenged. And people will search for new stories, new tales of exceptionalism closer to their own experience, to make them feel good about their identity, the values they espouse and the place they call home.
We know that the Battle of Britain, being so recent, not only happened, but provided the victory on which the subsequent myth has been built. There are too many filmed and written accounts that will remain indisputable even when the day comes that Group Captain Hemingway is not among us to provide living testimony.
The consequences of the Luftwaffe’s defeat at the hands of around 3,000 men – some of whom were little more than schoolboys – were considerable. The power of the wartime myth has been explored recently in two thoughtful essays in these pages – by David Reynolds on Dunkirk and David Edgerton on the unhistorical idea that Britain won the Second World War alone. Edgerton’s point is proved when one considers how the sacrifices of predominantly British, but also Commonwealth, Czech, French, Polish and – recalling Captain Hemingway – Irish pilots provoked Hitler to postpone Operation Sealion, the invasion of Britain.
Myth made reality: Group Captain John Hemingway, the last known survivor of the Battle of Britain. Credit: courtesy of the Battle of Britain Museum, Kent
The failure to break British resolve in the Blitz that followed in the autumn and winter of 1940-41 led to the plan’s abandonment. It is historical fact, and not invention or distortion, that those campaigns of attack and then resistance – first by the Royal Air Force, then by millions of beleaguered civilians – allowed Britain to stay in the game, against the odds, until Hitler over-reached by invading the Soviet Union and turned the Red Army against him, and the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, bringing in the Americans too.
The Few have been part of Britain’s national story since Winston Churchill coined the phrase. They have come to represent what courage and heroism can do when battling against apparently impossible odds. Their role in keeping the Germans and Nazism out of Britain is one of the nation’s unquestionable triumphs, actually and morally, not yet another of those heroic failures with which some in Britain like to flagellate themselves, and with which, indeed, others flagellate us. This is what the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole does in his nakedly anti-English diatribe Heroic Failure (2018), in which he claimed the English drew their sense of superiority from the epic defeats or setbacks of those such as Captain Scott or General Gordon, or from the “miracle” of Dunkirk.
If one can find an Englishman who will admit to a sense of superiority these days he is unlikely to be sufficiently intelligent to be able to articulate his reasoning. In the days when such feelings were more commonplace they were not manufactured perversely out of failure, but out of what previous generations regarded as success: one of the last of which was stopping a Nazi invasion even from being attempted. Many in Ireland, meanwhile, would happily have seen England overrun in 1940, as they would have done at the time of the Easter Rising in 1916 – for reasons that scarcely bring credit on either of our two countries. The nadir of this sentiment was Éamon de Valera expressing his condolences at the death of Hitler to the Nazi envoy to Dublin on 2 May 1945.
History is frequently uncomfortable, which is why it is important to study it. To study it accurately, we must remember that the values we have today did not all pertain in the past. We should rightly be content that under our law people are equal irrespective of gender, race, religion, class or sexual orientation. However, it is important that we do not forget there were times, quite recent times, when this was not so; and also to try to understand why a man of the intelligence and sophistication of Herbert Asquith, for example, could find it impossible that women should vote; or that a man of Churchill’s moral force could dismiss the idea that a nation as well-equipped with natural leaders and with so forceful an identity as India should not govern itself.
The protests unleashed in Britain by the killing of George Floyd in the US forced our attention back to these questions, and the matter of myth. One such myth is that part of our nation’s moral strength is founded in the way it set an example to the world in abolishing the slave trade within its jurisdiction. Like the best myths, it begins with a truth. But we edit out the people who profited from that trade, such as Bristol’s Edward Colston, and the plutocrats of late Georgian England who were paid compensation on abolition; just as we forget the magnates of West Africa who actively participated in the trade too.
The easy part is understanding the full iniquity of the trade. Understanding a society in which some, but by no means all, of those with power considered the trade morally acceptable is infinitely harder. And understanding the political compromises that had to be made to achieve abolition is, because of their sheer distastefulness, harder still.
Throughout the Second World War the heroism of The Few helped boost British morale in fighting an enemy so savage that achieving national unity was relatively straightforward. In succeeding decades the idea, like other Second World War achievements, has been evoked in moments of crisis. During the early weeks of the lockdown, the war was summoned up not least by the Queen, as (with the apparent exception of Dominic Cummings) we all made sacrifices for the common good to fight Covid-19.
The Queen has become the incarnation not so much of Britain, but of a much-respected generation that faced an existential threat and fought it with a unity that crossed boundaries of class, age, gender and race. When the late Dame Vera Lynn, whom the Queen quoted in the first of her two televised addresses during the pandemic, turned 103 in March, she issued a plea for fortitude. Her intervention confirmed the indispensable place of the Second World War experience in the national consciousness in times of stress. Yet the war, too, was won only with the assistance of political compromises, notably by ignoring Stalin’s record of wickedness as a mass murderer of his own people and, from 1943, his part in the massacre of Poles at Katyn in 1940, which the British government knew was not the work of the Nazis. History teems with such ugly truths, and we must not forget them.
We’ll meet again: the Queen’s national broadcast displayed in Piccadilly Circus on 10 April 2020. Credit: Samir Hussein/WireImage
Today, though, national unity is far more elusive, not least because (as we have seen throughout the present crisis) different Britons have a different conception of what the nation is. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each took its own approach to trying to suppress the virus, and to relaxing lockdown. If we were all in it together, we were not all marching in step. At times, there appeared to be almost a competitive spirit between how Boris Johnson was leading the English response and how Nicola Sturgeon was running Scotland’s. In the British Isles there are now at least five different national identities, the fifth, and perhaps these days least, being British.
Therefore, those who seek to mobilise components of the island story now, for whatever reason, must question how effective even the entirely credible parts of that story are; or whether it is fast becoming a delusion that the story, or anything else, can unify the British at all. Indeed, an idea of Britishness, taken for granted even 30 or 40 years ago, is now itself becoming the ultimate myth, and is under threat from nationalist forces, notably in Scotland but also in England.
War, or rather the threat of submission to Hitler, unified Britain in a way that this disease, which has killed less than 0.1 per cent of the population manifestly cannot. Because of the cultural instinctiveness with which we resort to the comfort and support of myths, doing so during the pandemic was inevitable. However, no one seemed to notice or care how profoundly unhistorical it was to compare the impact of the Second World War on the British people with that of Covid-19. The pandemic unseated many people – not least because of government mismanagement – and it was only natural that those feeling anxious, whether about the disease or about the economic effect on them and their families, should look to how people like them have coped with challenges in the past. The last time the Second World War was evoked with such regularity was, paradoxically, about a decade after it ended, when it could no longer be concealed from the British people that the two main defeated enemies – West Germany and Japan – were becoming economic powerhouses in a way victorious Britain was not. That was the cue for the great war films of the 1950s, some rooted in propaganda-driven myth and some in reality – The Dam Busters, The Cruel Sea, Carve Her Name with Pride and Sink the Bismarck! – whose main purpose was to make us feel good about ourselves when national pride was sinking.
Time, however, is running out for the effectiveness of the myths of the war in which The Few helped save Britain from Nazism. The myths of their achievements, the civilian heroism in the Blitz, and the conception of the British nation-state, which Britons have grown up with, may soon be beyond renewal. They are not alone. Vera Lynn has died; the Queen herself, although apparently indestructible, is in her 95th year. Her heir is less popular and respected than she is, and embodies different values and experiences: although the same was true of Edward VII when he succeeded Queen Victoria, and he rapidly made his own predominantly benign legend in a short reign.
The wider royal family is in disrepair. The Queen’s ability to inspire or reassure may not prove transferable, and a search could yet start for a different national focal point among people who would never consider themselves republicans. Whether they will find anything is another matter. The political class has not been so despised since the 18th century, so there seems little point searching there.
Other institutions that have become central to the lives of millions of Britons are either close to expiry or in urgent need of reform, their effectiveness now myths from a distant past. It seems to be only recent generations of immigrants for whom religion plays an important part. The Church of England is a faction-fighting laughing-stock, whose near invisibility at a national level during the pandemic said it all. Its attempts to become “relevant” have only succeeded in making it more irrelevant – where it continues to have any clout it is as a form of social service, not as a faith-based organisation with a mission.
The BBC, wrong-footed by technological change and increasingly unrepresentative of its non-metropolitan audience, has been put on notice by the government that it may not be able to rely on a licence fee indefinitely: the party for its centenary in 2022 may end up being its wake. The daily national newspaper, too, has slipped out of the lives of millions of people, also because of the advance of technology, and is in a fight for survival. The armed forces are underfunded and demoralised. The police invite the suspicion and, through acts of over-officiousness in the recent crisis, the contempt of many who once looked to them for protection.
The nation’s replacement religion, the National Health Service, has attained that position thanks to all the examples of devotion to duty and sacrifice it provided during the crisis. Here, a myth is being forged so new that it is still red-hot: for the government itself admitted that the NHS is unfit for purpose to the extent that it felt the need to order the population of the British Isles to be locked up for weeks to prevent the health service collapsing. Nothing of late has provided such a naked opportunity for politicians to signal their virtue, real or imagined, as to praise health workers; it is a shame that none has the courage to present the electorate with the true cost of running a health service that fulfils the expectations they are encouraged to have of it. The NHS needs wholesale reform and improvement – not least for when another pandemic arrives – but there is no sign of that coming. It is another myth, for the moment rooted in experience, upon which the British people may well yet have reason to ease their reliance.
Old countries such as Britain are especially susceptible to myths, because the centuries have furnished us with so many; and one generation after another has replenished them with new examples of heroism, sacrifice, greatness and inspiration: at different times there was only one man left who fought at Agincourt, or at Trafalgar, or at Waterloo, or on the Somme.
But, if we as a people – or as several peoples feel we can’t live without myths, what are we doing to renew them? What great feats of courage, endurance or genius have the generations since the Second World War accomplished, that could inspire Britons for generations to come? The Falklands War? Our part in ending the Cold War? The near-canonisation of Diana, Princess of Wales? Not even a football World Cup can inspire or unite this nation, given it has four separate teams competing for a place in the finals.
Are there ways of generating myths that do not involve painful sacrifices in dreadful foreign wars? Is myth the only way to sustain our morale as a people, or might we have to learn to motivate and inspire ourselves without them – as, for example, the Germans, with decades of toxic history to look back on, have had to do?
Is modern society, with its variety of cultures and values, its atomisation and resort to identity politics, capable of unity, of having all the peoples of these islands engage in a national project together? A people cannot avoid having a sense of identity any more than an individual can; but even if that sense is fragmented, each individual fragment comes equipped with its own powerful set of myths. No one knows that better than the Irish airman, Group Captain Hemingway, the last surviving pilot of the Battle of Britain, who sees myth and reality from the vantage point of his 101 years, in a way available to no one else on Earth.
Simon Heffer writes for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph. His most recent book is “Staring at God: Britain in the Great War” (Random House)
This article appears in the 12 Aug 2020 issue of the New Statesman, This house must fall