It all depends how you look at it.
As part of its VE Day commemorations, the Royal Mail has issued a first class stamp showing a famous photograph. Captioned “Jubilant Public, 1945”, it depicts two teenage sisters, we now know to be Joan and Bette Kemp, celebrating in a flag waving crowd of cockney characters. The original black-and-white photo has been coloured in, with the red-white-and-blue of Union Jacks to the fore. In one corner, trisected by the perorations, there is a small segment of a darker shaded Stars and Stripes.
The US Ambassador to the Court of St James tweeted out the same picture: “Celebrate #VEDay75! Print out our poster + stick it in your window to remember the Greatest Generation.” Ambassador Buddy Johnson’s free version is monochrome. It is less tightly cropped and shows clearly that the besuited geezer at the centre of the picture is waving the flags of both nations. If anything Old Glory is more prominent.
At a casual level this is how British officialdom encourages us to remember twentieth century history. We won the War (twice). The Americans helped a bit. “Victory Over Europe” as the Daily Mail put it in an online advertisement this month.
This is not how Sir Winston Churchill saw it, of course. His victory speeches all gave prominence to “our glorious allies”. He knew that it was only his doggedness which kept him at the top post-war conference table.
It is not how others see the victory or the sacrifices made. Official estimates are that the Soviet Union lost around 20 million lives in the conflict, roughly divided between armed forces and civilians. As many as eight million Germans were killed. France lost half a million. 6 million Jews and over a million others were murdered in the Holocaust. UK official casualty figures are 383,700 military and 67,200 civilians, the United States are 407,300 and 12,000 respectively.
Not surprisingly May 8 has always been a solemn red letter day in the Soviet/Russian calendar, marked by a military parade in Red Square. The American focus tends to shift towards the costly war in the Pacific, brought to an end on VJ Day, August 15 1945 when Japan surrendered after suffering attack by atomic bombs.
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Every nation is entitled to mythologise its glorious past but it is best done with care. Twenty-five years ago John Major’s government was forced into an embarrassing climbdown over its plans to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of VE Day. The Royal British Legion protested about the frivolity of a proposed knees-up in Hyde Park and “spam fritter” parties around the country.
Problems arise if celebrations of national pride, whether solemn or cheerful, merge into a sense that “The English, The English, the English are best, I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest” as the song by the satirists Flanders and Swann had it.
By bad luck #VEDay75 coincides with the Covid-19 pandemic. Even without Boris Johnson’s fascination with Churchill, it would have been difficult for this nation to resist the idea that this is another lovely war, this time against the virus. Sure enough there was the Prime Minister at the beginning of February defiantly declaring it would be us, alone again naturally, as “the super charged champion of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely from each other…I can tell you in all humility that the UK is ready for that role”.
As we now know the Prime Minister went on to shake hands and mix freely with vectors of the disease and to contract a near-fatal dose of it himself, though not before locking down the UK economy thereby stymying citizens ability “to buy and sell freely”.
Graver still, the spirit of English exceptionalism led us to ignore how other nations, which had been exposed earlier to the disease, were dealing with it. We knew better than South Korea and did not impose full checks quickly. Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Medical Officer, told MPs last week he couldn’t remember when the decision was taken to abandon the test, trace, isolate tactic, which is now being reinstated in the UK. As late as 26th March his Deputy Jenny Harries poured scorn on the World Health Organisation’s constant advice to member states of “test, test. test”. “We need to realise the clue to the WHO is in its title….they are addressing every country including middle and low income countries”, she explained, assuring reporters “There comes a point in a pandemic “where that is not an appropriate intervention.”
Ministers supported their scientific advice until the Health Secretary u-turned setting his so-far shakily achieved 100,000-tests-a-day-for-all goal. Even then the desire of the centralised NHS and Public Health England to stay in command meant that the UK was slow to take up the Dunkirk “little ships” model of assistance from independent laboratories according to Sir Paul Nurse, the Nobel Prize winning head of the Crick Institute.
Now we are doing it again. The race is on for a self-identifying app, so users can know if they have been exposed to possible infection and take appropriate action to contain an outbreak. The choice is between a locally identifying system which is being developed in a rare collaboration between Google and Apple and building a system controlled from the centre by a branch of the NHS called NHSX.
Naturally we have opted to develop our own system, which is currently being tried out on the Isle of Wight. The UK government has taken this decision although they are aware that Germany tried to develop its own centralised system before abandoning it in favour of the Android/IoS app.
There are more civil liberties concerns about the NHSX system than with the Google/Apple App, shared by the MPs on the All Party Human Rights Committee who say it should not be allowed to go ahead in its present form. Ian Levy, the technical head of the National Cyber Security Committee attempted to pre-empt these criticisms in a 4,000 word Ladybird book-style justification of the NHSX system in which he does not find time to mention either of the tech giants by name or to address the difficulty of riding on their software systems. He asserts that the NHSX system will both be absolutely anonymous and better at locating specific outbreaks.
Supporters of the NHSX system hope it will be up and running first but it is only undergoing small pilot trials now and problems are reported at the interfaces between systems. Google and Apple say their app will be ready for use by national governments by the middle of May.
It may be that a working NHSX system would be “better” in pure health-tech terms. But why bother when there is already an international collaboration underway, including the tech giants. The NHS does not have a good record handling or developing big data systems and government promises of impermeable walls between information systems have not always been guarantees in the past, as immigrants and the Windrush generation have found out.
When I raised some points about the UK’s response online, I was astonished when one commentator told me to shut up because “we are 1-0 down at half time.” Combatting Coronavirus is not a football match. It is not a war of blood and iron. It is sadly a matter of lives and deaths. So far the Germans and the South Koreans are doing better than us, to name but two nations. Perhaps we have something to gain by not going it entirely alone.