Can you imagine what it must have been like waking up 75 years ago today. I expect there were lots of sore heads after what must have been one of the best parties ever. In truth, VE day should have been the 9th May rather than the 8th May. The Allies, led by Churchill, Truman and Stalin had wanted to announce the great event simultaneously but as western journalists became aware of the Nazi surrender they couldn’t help themselves as they rushed for the ‘scoop’. It was only the Russians that kept to the plan and that is the reason that its today that Russia will celebrate the 75th Anniversary Victory Day.
Red Square 9th May 1945
There have been so many comparisons lately between what our generation is going through with the COVID 19 virus compared to what our parents, grandparents or great grandparents went through between 1939-1945. It probably seems a little strange to compare 7 weeks in lockdown with 6 years of war. Hopefully this experience will be the closest thing we come to in my lifetime to what all the emotions they might have felt back then.
But there are comparisons that can be made hopefully without diminishing the tragedy of the second world war or the sacrifices being made every day right now.
This is also a world war. There are people on the frontline willing to put their lives at risk to try to rescue those in peril. People everywhere are wondering when and how this will all end. We are all wondering what the final cost will be in lives lost, our collective mental health and the economy.
The party on 8th May 1945 was a massive national release after the pain and sacrifice of so many years. There was no Facebook or Twitter to organise the events, people just got out and set up tables, bunting, and had a party.
And then, when the party was over, as well as the sore heads, on 9th May people all over the world woke up to a world in ruins. My own town, Swansea, had its centre destroyed by bombing. Across Europe refugees would wonder if they would ever get home and also who and what they would find when they got there.
This is probably where I find my parents’ generation so inspiring, they decided to build a different world to the one they knew before the war. The changes they made then have become part of our national fabric. We accept them as some sort of inalienable right, sadly I believe we have taken for granted for too long.
Even before war’s end changes had already started in Britain. Pre-war Britain was even more divided along lines of class, wealth and privilege than it is today. One of the major stumbling blocks identified was lack of education due to being poor. In 1944 the Education Act ensured free secondary education for all. Apart from the obvious fairness of such an act it was a brilliant plan to create wealth and knowledge post-war. Just imagine how much brain power was to be unleashed over the coming decades through that one act alone.
Churchill uses wartime rhetoric in his battle to remain as Prime Minister 1945
Great change was soon to come. Within weeks of Victory in Europe the UK would go to the polls in a General Election. Winston Churchill believed that his leadership through the war years, with his wonderful use of the English language which so inspired the nation in a time of war would be enough to guarantee another term in office. But the world had changed, and people wanted something different for their futures. Labour acknowledged the greatness of his wartime leadership but said we needed change. ‘Cheer Churchill, Vote Labour’
The new Prime Minister, Clement Attlee was thought by many to be a little ‘boring’, but the electorate believed he was someone who would be on top of the facts, that he could work within a team and he would be a better peace time Prime Minster than Churchill.
Just 3 years later our country’s greatest treasure, The National Health Service was created. Like free education, the NHS seems so much a part of our culture and lives it’s hard to believe there was ever a time it didn’t exist. There had been plans and proposals before the war but after 1945 there was no stopping its creation. How grateful are we today to those visionaries who set up our system that has been so amazing in our lives, cradle to grave and especially in our current world crisis.
Other great ideas were also implemented to try to ensure that we never had another world war and that we would be in a position to fight disease together in the future. The United Nations would be in place by October 1945, the World Health Organisation by 1948. Organisations like these have their critics but to have set them up so quickly after the war with such high ideals to my mind is staggering.
And so, to 9th May 2020. What sort of world will we find when the Coronavirus crisis is over and what part can each of us play in shaping that world? It would be easy to be fatalistic and expect everything to go back to how it was before, but just like 1945 I think we will find a world that in many cases is in ruins. Maybe not the broken walls and bridges of post war Europe but broken in other respects.
What have we learnt during these weeks of lockdown? What can we take with us into the future to shape our new world in a similar way that my parents’ generation did?
It has taken me nearly 6 weeks to slow down. For years I have rushed from meeting to meeting, event to event. If I didn’t do 5 things before breakfast I’d feel guilty. Just a sandwich for lunch, as I chatted to someone on the phone whilst writing an email. These days I’m a little more relaxed and I think I like it.
The world has had a chance to heal itself. Dolphins in the waters around Venice, goats invading Llandudno and the skies clearer than they have been since before the industrial revolution.
At the moment our heroes wear hospital scrubs, we clap them for what they do for others as well as what they have done for us in the past and what they will do for us in the future if we should fall ill.
We have found that while we can chat to our friends on Zoom and FaceTime nothing beats holding and hugging a real person.
Of course, we all still carry the worry and fear for our futures, will we have jobs, can we pay our bills. Surely this is the time to take stock and work out how we want to organise ourselves going forward. How we honour the truly great and brave amongst us and how we share the wealth that we create.
Churchill said on VE day
‘We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing;
but let us not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead.’
We pray for the end of this virus crisis. When it comes we will rejoice but there will be a job to do to rebuild. What sort of world do you want? Now’s the time to make sure we have our say.
As I write this I have heard news that my dear dad has passed away at the age of 96. As a ‘boy’ he sailed on destroyers in the Bay of Biscay and when he came back he lived his whole life helping and thinking of other people. At a time when we commemorate sacrifice, service and peace this column was written with his life in my mind.