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Our finest forever: Britain’s World War Two nostalgia

Peter Mitchell on the great national myth of World War Two

5 to 6 minute read

A World War Two spitfire flies overhead thanking the NHS staff for their service throughout the pandemic, 2020.

In the spring of 2020, a man I had recently interviewed for an oral history project died of Covid-19. Harry could remember a childhood of desperate poverty and loss in the 1920s and 30s. After the war he had set up a vacuum dealership, become a pillar of the community – Scouts, Rotary Club, church, various charities – and volunteered into his nineties for the NHS. When he died, however, the front-page headline of the regional press read ‘Farewell to our hero Harry: Covid-19 claims life of ex-bomber pilot’.

Articles recounted breathlessly that his great-granddaughter recorded herself singing ‘We’ll Meet Again’ so that he could hear her as he lay in isolation in hospital. As it happens, Harry had never flown a bomber: he spent his war as a driver in the RAF, ferrying officers between bases in the north of Ireland and drinking cups of tea in the NAAFI. It was hard to avoid the sense that his long and exemplary life had been reduced to a cipher of the war – a mendacious one at that – and his death forced into the shape of a final, long-delayed sacrifice to the nation’s last noble cause.

Meanwhile, murals of Captain Tom, the WW2 veteran turned charity campaigner, showed him bowed but defiant, the shadow behind him lengthening to the silhouette of a soldier with helmet and gun. On the gable end of a pub in Wales, a British tommy faced a pulverised battlefield, a Messerschmidt flying overhead. Next to him and in the same wide-legged stance of determination, a nurse faced down a long perspective of hospital beds beneath a sky swarming with giant viruses. The queen, giving a rare televised address for the first lockdown, intoned ‘We’ll meet again’, and invoked her first radio broadcast, to evacuated children in 1940. The 75th anniversary of VE Day became a licensed carnival of bunting, socially-distanced communal parties and – in footage widely circulated and just as widely mocked – grown men running races down suburban streets dressed as Spitfires. The experience of pandemic was mediated, as few things have been, through the mythology of war and the careful cultivation of historical resonances.

Redeclaring the second world war

Like most nostalgias, this one has its own history. Writing after the Iraq war and the Falklands war respectively, scholars Paul Gilroy and Patrick Wright both saw in the strenuous invocation of the anti-Nazi war a longed-for return to an uncomplicated war against evil fought by a nation that had not yet lost its bearings: an ‘ethnic myth’, as Gilroy put it, that even in the height of triumphalism could fulfil an admonitory function. For Wright, it was a war constantly being ‘redeclared – not against Hitler this time, but against the kind of peace which followed it’.

That peace was, of course, the peace in which the empire was frittered away, the sovereign homeland penetrated by various Others (former colonial subjects, European bureaucrats, organised labour, sexual and ethnic minorities) and the imagined unities of the nation, the patriarchal family and the cultural community shattered. Writing in the miserable 2010s, Owen Hatherley saw this nostalgia being recalibrated, in a drizzle of bunting and ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ posters, into austerity retro-chic, a ‘nostalgia for the state of being repressed’ that sublimated the trauma of the 2010s’ mounting crises by appeal to an aestheticised fantasy of national solidarity.

Our licence to be bastards comes draped in bunting and Vera Lynn singalongs

In all cases, the primary thrust of this nostalgia was deployed against others, whoever they might be. As Wright observed in 1985, ‘If Spitfires and Lancasters are in the skies again, they now fly against “socialism” and “the overweening state”.’ In elections throughout the noughties and 2010s, Spitfires flew against immigration and the EU in campaigning materials (notably by the BNP and Britain First) and were a frequent prop for political theatre for virtually all parties. In 2020, one of the few surviving Spitfires was emblazoned with the names of NHS first responders and ‘Thank U NHS’ painted on its undercarriage, and was taken on a nationwide tour of hospital flypasts.

From memory to myth

As WW2 passes finally from living memory and the post-war settlement it inaugurated frays beyond recognition, the ways we remember that war have probably never been more contested, nor its invocations more weird, jarring, kitschified, hysterical and fragmented. The victory over fascism is a moral warrant to do whatever we like whenever we like, a fetish object for certain kinds of whiteness, an origin myth of the welfare state, a disciplining tool against blue-haired vegan youth and a reason we can’t have nice things, all at the same time. Behind this, somewhere, it is also still a collective memory, passed through families and individuals, of sacrifice, trauma, pride, boredom, helplessness and loss. But this interplay of symbols, public performance and folk memory now mediates an increasingly explicit conflict over what that war meant in the most literal terms: fascism, democracy, empire, race, genocide.

World War Two as the great national myth, and the holocaust as the foundational atrocity of the post-war liberal rights-based order, are both in danger of being abstracted from their historical facticity as their last survivors disappear. The risk is that, as frozen objects remote from the ordinary and comprehensible passage of time, their meanings will become carefully circumscribed and their functions purely disciplinary.

Got a problem with the British state, its bordering and racialising practices, the colonial history embedded in its wildly inequitable distributions of power, the massacres, the expeditionary wars, the torture, the famines? Shut it, you would’ve been living under fascism if it hadn’t been for Churchill. We can do whatever we like to you, the intellectuals and trade unions and the remainers, because we beat Hitler with a stiff upper lip and a scrappy underdog defiance; and we can do whatever we like to them, the refugees and the sexual minorities and the racialised poor, because the paradigmatic historical script of dehumanisation and eliminationism provided by Nazi Germany is off limits to comparison.

Meanwhile, there’s a ground war in Europe, across lands devastated by the last one in ways that our official national imaginary of that war tends to be reticent about. The Russian cult of the ‘great patriotic war’ makes a disturbing parallel to our own: a memory of communal trauma and sacrifice that ratified the post-war peace, curdled now into an explicit justification for unrestrained state violence against enemies within and without.

Our nostalgic pathologies are far from unique: wherever liberal democracies are undergoing an authoritarian turn, the politics of melancholic reaction are constructing usable pasts to underwrite present misbehaviour. Our own licence to be bastards comes draped in bunting, Vera Lynn singalongs and Airfix models of Spitfires, and it’s gathering around it a dark and nasty magic.

This article first appeared in issue #240, Summer 2023, Debt. Subscribe today to get your magazine delivered hot off the press!

Peter Mitchell is a writer, historian and the author of Imperial Nostalgia: How the British Conquered Themselves (Manchester University Press, 2021)

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