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3 April 2020

Why the coronavirus crisis should not be compared to the Second World War

Military analogies are fuelling myths and fantasies about the UK’s wartime experience.   

By David Edgerton

Could we please stop talking about the Second World War? Please? The Covid-19 pandemic is not like the Second World War, ventilators are not Spitfires, we don’t need a wartime coalition. And, no, the Second World War doesn’t show that a hard Brexit is possible either; fantasy war stories have infected our political discourse for far too long. It is time to grow up, and to think of better analogies, if any are needed at all. 

In fact, it is a sad reflection on our times that anyone could mistake some ruffled posturing from the Prime Minister as anything to do with the Second World War, or indeed that forcing people to stay home, a collapse in economic activity and the closing down of much transport makes people think of the war at all.

For the war generally saw increases in economic output, in the movement of people and goods, and the bringing of people together in new forms, in barracks, in factories, on ships. Workers were being taken on, not least through conscription to the armed forces. People were asked to travel across the country. They were crammed onto ships. They also travelled on trains (except for the very beginning of the war) more than before the war; the war saw a peak in train travel, unsurpassed until recently.

The economics of war were those of mass purchasing and investment by the state. The government controlled prices to stop them from rising and sought, through taxation, to dampen demand since people had money, but everyday goods were in short supply. States battled inflation, not depression. The most that dealing with war and dealing with pestilence have in common is that they both involve strengthening state power and spending, and both require collective action.

What is curious, however, is the British tendency to see its Second World War experience as a good thing, if not war in general. It is interpreted as a moment of national pulling together, of collective action from below, which united the people in a common purpose. Everyone was in it together, and pulled together. That is far too rosy a view.  

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War was a matter of fighting, and putting aside other considerations. It set up new differences, radical ones. There were those in uniform and those not. Some in uniform were in great danger, most were not. The rations for those in uniform and civilians were different. Workers in armaments had a privileged position compared to workers in less essential occupations. Not everyone was affected by the Blitz, which lasted a few months in London, and in some places only a few days. It tended to kill poor Londoners, not a cross-section of society. And welfare services got worse during the war, not better.  

For the left, the war has acquired a misleading reputation as the moment in which it came into its own. It used to be claimed that Labour (and especially Ernest Bevin and Clement Attlee) successfully ran the Home Front, while Winston Churchill fought the war itself.  But that was not so: Churchill and his key cabinet ministers ran the Home Front as well as the war. They were not separate things. We have to be very careful about the notion that the war was good for socialism.

Other sorts of serious misunderstandings of the real war are at the basis of its invocation today. One crucial one is that this was the moment in which the nation became militarily and economically self-sufficient. It dug in, and dug for victory. But the reality was very different. 

The UK was the heart of an empire which was at war; it had great allies. Yet it also depended on the rest of the world. It did not retreat to a national redoubt, but in fact forged new global connections. Vast amounts of food and fuel came from overseas. And weapons also: even British rifles were manufactured abroad. The British nation was never truly an island, nor indeed was the British Empire. The war was fought as a war of the United Nations against the Axis. It was not a war of nations, let alone one nation, but of peoples, of ideologies. 

The British ideology of the war was not what we take it to be today – a belligerent nationalism, but rather a deeply internationalist, and often imperial one too.  Far from being anti-European, the UK made common cause, obviously, with all non-fascist Europeans.

Finally, there is a fantasy about the war which sees the UK as weak at its beginning, but rising to industrial and social genius during it. The reality is that Churchill took charge of a superpower, a great global empire. He didn’t conjure Spitfires, or ventilators, out of the air: he inherited a powerful military-industrial machine that was already making them, and myriad other weapons in huge numbers (in the case of aeroplanes and warships, on a greater scale than Germany). The British Empire was truly a force to be reckoned with in the world; the UK of today is a minnow, rather pathetically claiming to be a world leader in this or that science. 

We need to remember, too, that by the end of the war the UK was in a much weaker position internationally than in 1939. Through no fault of his own, Churchill presided over an extraordinary rapid relative decline in Britain’s power. 

Like famine and death, war and pestilence are not good things. Nor are they the same thing. It is worth being careful about what one wishes for.

David Edgerton’s most recent book is “The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth-Century History” (Allen Lane). This piece originally appeared on his blog