World War Two remains, for a certain kind of Brit, a living and vital presence. The increasingly-distant memory of our Finest Hour still shapes how many regard Britain’s present and future. How else can we even begin to explain Nigel Farage’s appearance to the sound of air raid sirens at one of his Brexit party rallies? Why else should our current Prime Minister have felt obliged to write a biography of Winston Churchill?
It was then no real surprise that during the early weeks of the Covid crisis many hoped for a renewed, if somewhat bogus, ‘spirit of the Blitz’. Then, with the 75th anniversary of VE Day looming, in her address to the nation the Queen drew numerous parallels between the war against Hitler and the one against the deadly virus. Her Majesty even channeled forces’ sweetheart Dame Vera Lynn’s greatest hit by concluding hopefully: ‘We’ll Meet Again’.
And now, chronology if nothing else, dictates Brits are invoking what they believe to be the ‘Dunkirk spirit’. For tomorrow marks the 80th anniversary of the desperate evacuation of 350,000 Allied troops from advancing Nazi tanks by a flotilla of ‘little ships’. But what is that ‘spirit’? Even at the time, Dunkirk was an ambiguous event, considered at once a defeat and a victory: most notably, while Churchill described the evacuation as a ‘miracle of deliverance’ he also believed it represented a ‘colossal military disaster’.
Like most historical events, Dunkirk has no set meaning. And the significance of the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ was debated as recently as the summer of 2017 when Farage tweeted: ‘I urge every youngster to go out and watch #Dunkirk’. The tweet was accompanied by a picture of the man himself standing stony-faced in front of a poster for Christopher Nolan’s recently released movie of that name. Farage’s apparent attempt to appropriate the film to the cause of Brexit provoked Remain writers to fiercely object. They criticised Nolan for sidelining French and British Empire troops in his film and argued that when Britain seemingly Stood Alone in the aftermath of Dunkirk it did so with the help of Polish airmen, Dutch sailors and Irish volunteers, amongst many others. The representation and the reality of Dunkirk, they argued, actually pointed in the very opposite direction to one proposed by Farage and his band of Brexiteers. This surfeit of meaning was confirmed by the fact that, if Nolan saw any parallels between his movie and real life, it was with the migrant crisis.
The ‘Dunkirk spirit’ however once meant something more than simply that moment when – according to the narration in Ealing Studio’s 1958 movie of that name – Britain arguably emerged, ‘Alone but undivided … a nation made whole’. It is a meaning that is much more relevant to our own times as Britain emerges from lockdown and faces an unprecedented post-Covid economic crisis.
According to legend, in the weeks and months that followed the evacuation, Brits turned their shoulders to the wheel of industry as never before. Productivity in munitions rocketed. If the historical record is more ambiguous, post-war government ministers were all too willing to invoke this ‘Dunkirk spirit’ when they had their backs against the wall, hoping to inspire Brits to emulate their wartime selves and work harder.
Indeed, so hackneyed had it become that in 1961 Harold Wilson – then shadow chancellor – sarcastically declared, ‘I myself have always deprecated—perhaps rightly, perhaps wrongly—in crisis after crisis, appeals to the Dunkirk spirit as an answer to our problems’. Wilson’s argument was that of any good socialist. For as he went on, if the country’s difficulties were to be solved, ‘what is required in our economic situation is not a brief period of inspired improvisation, work and sacrifice, such as we had under the leadership of the right hon. Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill), but a very long, hard, prolonged period of reorganisation and rededication. It is the long haul, not the inspired spurt, that we need’.
It will be interesting to see what, if any, invocations of the ‘Dunkirk spirt’ comes from our would-be Churchillian Prime Minister or his Cabinet colleagues during the next few weeks. But beware what significance they and others apply to this ‘spirit’. For within weeks of becoming prime minister in 1964, Wilson was doing that which he had once rightly criticised his Conservative opponents, declaring that: ‘I believe that that spirit of Dunkirk will once again carry us through to success.”
Steven Fielding is the author with Bill Schwarz and Richard Toye of The Churchill Myths (Oxford University Press, August 2020). On Twitter he is @PolProfSteve