On the morning of Sunday 11th May 1941 John “Jock” Colville walked out of Downing Street where he had slept in a shelter shaken periodically by the explosion of bombs on Horse Guards Parade. Overnight one of the worst raids of the Blitz had set much of the south bank alight and destroyed the chamber of the House of Commons. The roof of Westminster Hall was lost too, but not the ancient hall itself.
In his diary Colville, aide to Winston Churchill, recorded his conversations with Civil Defence workers with blackened faces and haggard looks.
“I talked to a fireman. He showed me Big Ben, the face of which was pocked and scarred, and told me a bomb had gone right through the Tower. The one thing that given him great pleasure during the night was that Big Ben had struck two’o’clock a few minutes after being hit. It was still giving the proper time.”
It was still giving the proper time.
The story that the British most like to tell each other in an emergency is the one about our stoicism and good humour in the face of national adversity. The national experience in the Second World War, when we stood alone in Europe, with support from the dominions, and kept our sense of humour, certainly warrants the pride we invest in the retelling.
We often overdo the myth of British exceptionalism, of course, and plenty of other countries respond well to emergencies and attacks. But an upside of being a relatively successful country with long enduring institutions is that we tend to be realistic when those institutions and the people who run them are tested or attacked. We, they, respond and rebuild. It has been done many times before. The burnt out Commons was reconstructed and the dictator who sent those planes to London to drop bombs ended up dead in his bunker in Berlin. Then the IRA terrorised Westminster and the INLA killed Airey Neave, one of Margaret Thatcher’s confidants. Westminster was resilient. Britain survived.
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That spirit of resilience was on display again yesterday at Westminster when a terrorist scumbag knocked over pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, before he killed a policeman defending democracy inside the gates of Parliament. Police shot and killed the attacker. Westminster and Whitehall went into lockdown and became the focus of national attention for several anxious hours. The emergency services responded swiftly and with great bravery.
And Parliament? It has been derided a lot in recent years, even more than is normally the case. One hears it said they are all the same those politicians (they are not) and they are only in it for themselves (no they are not, or only some of them are). Next time someone makes an unfair generalisation about the state of our politics, please quietly say the name “Tobias Ellwood MP”. The foreign office minister ran towards danger and was one of those who administered aid to the fallen police officer.
Theresa May in her statement on Wednesday evening expressed very well the sense that these terrorists are only the latest to think – wrongly – that freedom and enjoying a free society somehow makes us weak or soft or an easily defeated foe. Freedom gives us the strength, resilience and capacity to recover.
“The location of this attack was no accident. The terrorists chose to strike at the heart of our capital City, where people of all nationalities, religions and cultures come together to celebrate the values of liberty, democracy and freedom of speech. These streets of Westminster – home to the world’s oldest Parliament – are engrained with a spirit of freedom that echoes in some of the furthest corners of the globe. And the values our Parliament represents – democracy, freedom, human rights, the rule of law – command the admiration and respect of free people everywhere. That is why it is a target for those who reject those values. But let me make it clear today, as I have had cause to do before: any attempt to defeat those values through violence and terror is doomed to failure. Tomorrow morning, Parliament will meet as normal. We will come together as normal. And Londoners – and others from around the world who have come here to visit this great City – will get up and go about their day as normal. They will board their trains, they will leave their hotels, they will walk these streets, they will live their lives. And we will all move forward together. Never giving in to terror. And never allowing the voices of hate and evil to drive us apart.”
She is right. They will not win.