This fight against the coronavirus is nothing like what was needed to win the war and we do not face the situation which this country faced in the 1940s….. writes Mihir Bose.
Boris Johnson is no Churchill, however much he would want to be. He started the emergency by continuing to perform like a pantomime music hall artist, a profession he is clearly suited for.
There is one thing we can be certain of in this country. Whenever the country faces a crisis the spirt of the Blitz and how this country defeated the Nazis will be invoked. Last night the Queen did it as well not only mentioning the broadcast she and her sister Margaret made in 1940 but showing a very sweet photograph of the two actually making the broadcast. I must say that while I am not a royalist I like the Queen, I have liked her ever since I saw her when I was a teenager and she was on her first visit to India with the Duke of Edinburgh. Yet all this mention of recreating the war-time spirit misses the point. This fight against the coronavirus is nothing like what was needed to win the war and we do not face the situation which this country faced in the 1940s.
Yes, the war saw a great collective effort but once Hitler made the blunder of invading the Soviet Union and the Japanese of attacking Pearl Harbour, the combined might of America and the Soviet Union would always win the war. After that it was only a question of time. The plain fact is the war was won with the blood of the Russians and the industrial might of the United States. The two great turning points of the war was the Russian annihilation of General Paulus 6th army in Stalingrad, followed a few months later by the American annihilation of the Japanese feet in the Battle of Midway.
Of course, in the tabloid world war history that this country likes to remember these events are never mentioned, and I doubt if many people in this country even know about it. What this county remembers is Dunkirk and even then this country takes such a selected view of history that the talk is of this country of standing alone in 1940 when even in that dark hour this country was backed by the might of the Empire, then the greatest in the world, including a large Indian army many of who soldiers also fought in Dunkirk to save this country from the Nazis. Not that you would know it from watching the film Dunkirk. As so often these Indians have been wiped out of this country’s history.
The differences with what was required to fight the war and to fight the Coronavirus is important because we need to understand that this time round the objectives are very different. The war saw the allied powers, once America and the Soviet Union had joined it, make it clear that the only thing they would accept is unconditional surrender of the Nazis and of Imperial Japan. There would be no armistice like in the First World War followed by a peace conference at Versailles. Total victory was the goal.
However, with this invisible disease total victory can never be achieved. We will have to live with it but with the development of a vaccine, the virus can be contained. Then there is the question of who is worst affected by this enemy. German bombs did not discriminate between the young and old. This virus does and it is very likely that the relaxation of the lockdown will see the younger people less susceptible to the disease let out first. It is clear the young are finding it more difficult to cope with the lockdown than the older members of the community. My own experience of walking round my neighbourhood shows this. While my sample is very small it is obvious that compared to the old the young are struggling to maintain social distancing. Some of them do not even seem to know that you have to keep a two-metre distance when walking or running. Indeed, this morning my wife while visiting our local Tesco supermarket was shocked to discover that the Tesco employee standing at the door trying to regulate how many went inside did not even know social distancing was two metres and claimed it was only a metre.
But in many ways the most serious difference between the second world war and this fight against the coronavirus is the quality of the leadership we have. In the second world war after Churchill had taken over the leadership in 1940 and Labour had joined the coalition government, this country had as good as Cabinet as it has ever had. Boris Johnson is no Churchill, however much he would want to be. He started the emergency by continuing to perform like a pantomime music hall artist, a profession he is clearly suited for.
So, he talked of washing hands to the tune of happy birthday and then of quashing the sombrero when he referred to flattening the rising curve of infection. After that he did try to project a more statesmanlike image but his desire to always look on the sunny side of life meant he held out the hope that the lockdown may be lifted in three weeks when it is clear there was never any chance of that. In contrast his hero Churchill never made bold statements that victory was at hand measuring his words so carefully that even when the tide was turning he spoke of the end of the beginning not the beginning of the end And now that Boris Johnson is in hospital the prospect of Dominic Raab taking over can hardly fill many people with confidence. If Raab has any of the qualities that Clement Attlee showed as a great deputy to Churchill he has kept them carefully hidden.
The second world war cabinet that Churchill led saw great politicians emerge such as Ernest Bevin the trade union leader. Rishi Sunak has certainly added to his reputation but other than that the ministers on parade at the daily press conferences hardly inspire much confidence.
This is all the more necessary for at the end of the day if this virus is to be beaten it is politicians who will have to take the big decisions. Yes, they must rely on scientists, but they are comparable to generals in the war. They advise on strategy but it is the politicians with the courage and the ability to judge situations who must decide which strategy is likely to prove the winner. The media has made much of scientists squabbling. But that is nothing new. Scientists formulate hypothesis and they do not always agree. They will always offer differing hypothesis. Politicians must know what they want and what hypothesis to choose. Just to say we are relying on science as Boris Johnson and his minsters have done is not enough. Churchill during the war often fought with his generals with such passion that Field Marshall Sir Alan Brooke, chief of the general staff found working with him impossible. But this did not prevent a winning strategy being developed including resisting a campaign for a second front in Europe both to the annoyance of Stalin and many people in this country.
In contrast this crisis has already seen how politicians cannot evaluate scientific advice and get into a muddle. Johnson started with the strategy of herd immunity but within days had abandoned it for a lockdown. In contrast during the second world war Churchill and his cabinet never deviated from the strategy of ruling out negotiations with Hitler. This was even in 1940 when the situation was bleak and there was quite a strong so called “peace party”, in essence Nazi sympathisers, who wanted to accept Hitler’s “peace offers”. He also made sure that the main voice in the Cabinet that called for it, Lord Halifax, who could well have become Prime Minister instead of Churchill, was removed as Foreign Secretary and packed off as ambassador to Washington.
Perhaps the biggest problem in winning against the coronavirus is that to really come to terms with it we need a truly global effort. But with America ruled by a man, who in the classic style of a television celebrity, changes his position almost every minute there is no leader like Franklin Roosevelt who during the second world war emerged as a man the world could rally round. Trump could never be a Roosevelt and in any case shows no desire to show any leadership let alone give the lead to the rest of the world. In the absence of that, and with the EU showing no leadership either, this war is a fight against an enemy that knows no national boundaries being fought by national leaders who have their own individual ideas. Of course, the British take comfort from the fact that they always muddle through and hopefully we will, but it will not be easy. And constantly invoking the second world war is distracting and will not help defeat the coronavirus.