Otto English explores the trend among Brexiters to summon myths about World War Two

It’s a day of the week, so right-wingers are busy invoking World War Two again.

In a country where virtually no-one goes to church any more, ‘The War’ has become a de-facto religion for many a Brexit-minded Conservative. And several have been busy proselytising their faith.

Over the weekend, Sir Iain Duncan Smith kicked things off with a piece in the Mail on Sunday about snowflake civil servants who want to keep working from home on account of COVID-19 posing a risk to their lives. Their refusal to return to their desks sets a bad example, according to Sir Iain, and they need to jolly-well go over the top and show a bit of mettle pour encourager les autres.

“Working from home is rapidly emerging as a new ‘right’”, the former leader of the Conservative Party explains, which we can expect to have been written at the Associated Newspaper offices in Kensington. And, after a bit of waffle about his own work-from-home experience, he plays the ace and summons up the spirit of World War Two.

“When I think of all the brave civil servants who went to work in the 1940s, determined to do their bit regardless of the threat from falling bombs, I wonder what has happened to us as a nation,” Sir Iain writes. One can almost hear him singing ‘Rule Britannia’ as he types the words.

Ah yes – the good old 1940s, when plucky civil servants made their way into work despite Hitler dropping bombs on their heads. Except they didn’t. For, as with many commercial enterprises at the time, some departments (most notably the Inland Revenue) moved out of London so that they could continue their work uninterrupted.

Oh, and though the first 56 days of the Blitz saw daytime raids, from October 1940 the Luftwaffe switched their attacks to night-time, meaning that most people were at home or in their shelters when the bombs fell – not on their daily commute.

And of course, the internet didn’t exist in the 1940s. If it had, there’s little doubt that many government employees would have worked from home because that would have been the safest and most efficient option. Just as it is today during the pandemic.

But Sir Iain, never exactly renowned for hitting the target, misses another fairly significant point on that front too. Bombs, after all, are not infectious. You can’t catch ‘bombs’ on the underground or sitting next to a sniffling colleague. Bombs cannot be warded off with a jab.

The comparison is lazy, unhelpful, and more than a little insulting. This pandemic has after all – in just under two years – claimed three times as many British civilian lives as all bombing in the six-year-long Second World War. We have lived through a national disaster of our own.

But, there again, where is the merit in nuance when you can make a lazy war analogy?

Hot on Sir Iain’s heels came Times journalist and former David Cameron speechwriter, Clare Foges who in a piece sub-headed “many secretly enjoy the chance to show some Blitz spirit”, argues:

“I reckon a large chunk of the population doesn’t just endure national crises like these but rather enjoys them. Yes, tracking down petrol is irritating and no one relishes the thought of bare supermarket shelves but the truth is that many find the collective experience of a crisis diverting and even fun.”

So, if you’ve been queuing for hours at petrol stations or wandering around empty supermarket aisles, then you’ve been missing the point. Chill out spoilsports – it’s all been enormous fun.

Stand-up comedian Alex Kealy has coined a new word to describe this phenomenon:

luftwaffle (verb): to bang on about the Second World War despite no experience or understanding of it

And if there’s any justice in this world it will soon enter common currency.

Luftwaffle is nostalgia for unlived experiences. It’s the pick-and-mix borrowed memory selection in your imaginary war-time high street Woolworths. Watery eyed reminiscence of a moment when plucky Brits put down their pipes and climbed into the only Spitfire available to fend off the mighty German war machine, while Vera Lyna warbled on the wireless.

It is responsible for the lingering menace of ‘Blitz Spirit’ and its equally meaningless sibling ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ – evoked at every turn by people who were not there. It sustains the national myth that millions of Britons are imbued with a plucky essence inherited from the ‘unique’ wartime generation.

It was perhaps understandable that in the immediate post-war, post-imperial era, Britain clung to the events of World War Two and our central role in them, because – much like a faded rock star producing new material of diminishing returns – that was the band’s last great hit. It reflected well on the people of the time. The nation had faced down Naziism and helped win the war. It was a great (if not entirely honest) narrative and it fed comics, films and even sitcoms for decades following the events.

It’s undoubtedly true, too, that as time passed some of the people who lived through the era became nostalgic for it, or if not ‘it’ then at least their lost youth.

But nobody whose East End childhood home was razed to the ground by German bombs, or who lost loved ones in the process, or – who night after night hid in an Anderson shelter – ever hankered after the good old days of the war. 

You would have to be well into your 80s to remember the events of the 1940s and well into your 90s to remember the Blitz in any meaningful way, but just as Brexit rekindled the fire of borrowed nostalgia, the pandemic has taken the bellows to it.

Luftwaffle imbues our politics, our journalism and many a Brexit-minded Brit’s sense of our place in the world. Like the Coronavirus – it looks set to be around for a long while yet.


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