We all know that the time before we were born was a golden age when men were manlier, women lovelier, civilisation more civilised, culture more edifying, values more valued and so on. But what if it isn’t actually true?
What if, say, it turned out that Winston Churchill was damn near as slippery and unprincipled a politician as David Cameron? What if the Battle of Britain wasn’t actually won by ‘the Few’ — and wasn’t even primarily a fighter battle anyway? What if, damn it, the famously long hot summer of 1940 was in fact mostly overcast with just a hot bit right at the end in September? What if our radar technology really wasn’t that early or special? What if that famous Low cartoon — ‘Very well then, alone’ — was a joke, given that, even before America joined the party, we had an empire of 500 million on our side?
This is the problem I’m having reading The Many Not The Few, Richard North’s revisionist history of the Battle of Britain. It’s brilliantly bold in its overview and rigorously forensic in its analysis — but it’s also a mite depressing because it does rather drive a coach and horses through one of my favourite national myths: that Britain was saved by dashing young men just like I would have been, probably, if I’d had a pilot’s licence and I hadn’t been sent to Bomber Command, or I hadn’t already been called up to some other branch of the services and ended up having something really crap happen to me like being sunk with the Prince of Wales and eaten by tiger sharks, or arriving in Singapore just in time to be captured and dispatched to the Railway of Death…
Even so, I do urge you to read North’s book, because it’s riveting and devastating. Not being an historian, I can’t vouch for how original his thesis is. But a lot of the stuff he has unearthed was certainly news to me, such as the rash of petty authoritarianism prompted by Duff Cooper’s ludicrous ‘Silent Column’.
Here in Spectator world, I’m sure most of us would consider Cooper to have been a splendid fellow because he had a good first war, his wife was hot, he injected smack, he was raffish and witty and sexually voracious and posh. North, however, is not the kind of person to be impressed by such fripperies. As far as North is concerned — and he may well be right — Cooper was just another member of the idiot Establishment whose job it is to keep the rest of us down.
Cooper’s ‘Silent Column’ campaign, which he launched in his new role as Minister of Information, was a classic case of the law of unintended consequences. The idea, an extension of ‘careless talk costs lives’, was to recruit ‘an imaginary regiment — the silent column’ — composed of men and women resolved ‘to say nothing that can help the enemy’. Cinema adverts and colour posters invited ‘sensible people’ to shame figures such as ‘Miss Leaky Mouth’ and ‘Mr Glumpot’. Criminal sanctions were introduced for those who breached the new social code.
But as North reports, the campaign brought out the worst in the ‘tittle-tattle’ elements of British society and led to a slew of convictions by overzealous magistrates. ‘It’s the Gestapo over here,’ more than one complainant was heard to say. Besides, grumbling was a British tradition — and what was the point of fighting the Germans if we were going to behave like they were already in charge?
At the root of Cooper’s well-intentioned (but utterly wrong-headed) campaign, argues North, was the Establishment’s fear of the lumpen masses. The political class — then as now — simply wasn’t prepared to trust the British people to do the right thing. And what was truly shaming about this was that, by and large, the British people did do the right thing — often paying a terrible price for which they received little credit.
North certainly doesn’t want to underplay the gallantry of the Hurricane and Spitfire pilots. What he does very much want to do is redress the balance. He wants us to consider the similarly great sacrifices made by bomber and coastal commands, by the crews of the minesweepers who kept the Channel clear and by the colliers who stopped Britain from freezing to death in a winter so brutally cold that the sea froze in Morecambe Bay, by the firemen, the ack-ack crews, by the ordinary civilians who carried on going stoically about their business rather than succumbing to despair.
All that stuff about the Battle of Britain being ‘won’ by a handful of fighter pilots was as big a nonsense as the tallies published in the papers each day about the relative losses of the RAF and the Luftwaffe. (North shows that RAF kills were exaggerated by a factor of about five. But it did wonders for morale. Indeed, North drily notes, the scribes who made up these figures probably did more for the war effort than the actual pilots.) In reality, the concept of the Few was a brilliant propaganda myth dreamed up by Churchill in order to bring the Americans on board.
What North has achieved here is admirable. He has set out to reclaim for the people of Britain the credit for a glorious victory which was stolen from them by the political Establishment. ‘To restore that history is to change the way we think about ourselves. We are part of a nation which, in time of peril, rallied and by collective endeavour engineered its own salvation… That makes us a different people from the passive, shadowy inhabitants of a myth — and all the more powerful. What we could do once we can do again.’
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 25, 2012