It doesn’t take much scratching at the surface of the British culture to uncover some kind of reference to the first, or more prominently, the second world war. In many ways it was the last great act of this nation played out on a global scale.
The ingredients were perfect. Europe was conquered by the Nazis, who embody everything that is thought of as evil in the world, and all that stood between England and this unstoppable force was a thin stretch of sea, a relative handful of troops, and a sense of community that refused to be broken by bombing and propaganda.
Obviously the entire war wasn’t won by the British. Our American allies joined ranks after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, and Hitler’s decision to invade Russia, thus splitting his forces (and being beaten by the harsh Russian winter that had already defeated Napoleon’s attempts to extend France’s kingdom), played a massive part in the eventual German surrender. But, for that brief time of 1939-1941 the nation stood alone against the forces of evil and declared ‘they shall not pass’.
Now, 65 years later, it seems the war has left a different kind of scar than those usually administered on the battlefield. It’s said that victims who’ve lost limbs sometimes feel iches where the arm or leg used to be, and I think that Brits have that same feeling, although it’s not a limb that’s missing but rather a sense of importance.
Imagine if you’d spent your childhood being taught that your country was the most powerful on the planet. That at one point in the not too distant past you had built an empire that was greater than any in history (Rome, Greece, Mongol – mere windowboxes in comparison) and which had lasted for over a century. That your tiny country effectively owned the world.
Then you read on, and a pattern emerges. Slowly the empire rebels against their unwanted rulers and piece by piece the markings on maps turn from pink (why did they choose pink to mark the British Empire? That’s just embarrassing! Did they think it made our colonisations look more friendly?) back to the chosen colour of the now free country.
In the end you’re left with a handful of willing commonwealth countries, proud of their association with us, but to whom it is nigh on impossible to emigrate to. All of a sudden England feels like what it is….an island.
Now it would be unpalatable to hark back to the days of empire, mainly because the countries involved were essentially slaves who we’d beaten into submission. But the War, now that’s different. Here we can revel in our strong military history and remind ourselves of the underdog (another strong British trait which we will explore in a later post) winning against the odds.
So we do. Frequently.
It appears in our sports headlines where any football game of importance with the Germans is always surrounded by some kind of war-like rhetoric, usually spouted by those too young to have had any involvement in the horrors themselves. In fact as we’ve managed to fight with almost every country in the world at some point (Argentina, France, Holland, America, Scotland, Ireland etc…) it can find its way into many national settings.
The problem is our stories have all gotten old. Rather than celebrate intellectual achievements in the fields of science, art, and literature which still occur today, we’d rather tub-thump about how we whopped the Krauts all those years ago. Sometimes we must sound like that old drunk in the bar that no-one wants to talk to because all he’ll do is tell you about how he boxed when he was young…and that he was good.
Thankfully there is hope. A new Britain is finally trying to emerge, one of incredible ethnic and ideological diversity that sees the future as an undiscovered land full of possibilities and is freeing itself from the clutches of its parents’ glory days. They’re not interested in owning the world, but rather contributing something to it. That kind of optimism and idealism will be needed to overcome the classic British pragmatism, but I have to say that I feel good about this. Maybe now we can emerge from the shadow of our past and become something new, more colourful, and…better?
I for one will be rolling up my sleeves and preparing for the hard graft ahead. I hope we do well and forge something, as Tolkien said, ‘Worthy of a song’.
Will you join us as we ride out to meet a new and brighter dawn? A new history awaits…