Eighty years ago, from the 7 September 1940 to 11 May 1941, London and several other major British cities were subjected to intense bombing. The bombing was specifically targeted at civilians and it came to be known as The Blitz. In the nearly six years of the war this period of 8 months and 5 days marked the single most sustained and intense experience of conflict that many civilians were forced to endure.
The RAF did its utmost to defend the great centres of population but the burden of casualty and damage fell on ordinary people. Amid the routine and ordinary responsibilities of the daily round was the knowledge that they might not be alive in the morning. For many, it brought out the best in themselves and their communities. That period of co-operation and community resilience gave rise to an affectionate and respectful term – The Blitz Spirit.
Eight decades on and faced with our own test of resilience, how does our response now compare to our predecessors’ then?
Throughout history pandemics, plagues and viruses are familiar visitors. Our own history is potted with bouts of sickness sweeping through our towns and cities. A fast moving sickness spreading indiscriminately through a population and between countries is nothing new in the human experience, even if it is new in our own personal experience. Our ancestors would barely have raised an eyebrow at the existence of such a danger and would have taken such a happening in their stride. They were accustomed to such danger in a way we are not.
Coronavirus is an insidious and unseen force. It divides friends and families, preys on the weak and vulnerable, forces government to take draconian measures, and here at home, for nine months now, it has dominated our lives. It moves silently and stealthily amongst us. Its effects have crushed many hopes and plans, and it has taken a wrecking ball to our economy.
We have had to learn how to live and work differently at speed. Long a prediction for the future, working remotely has now for many become the norm. For others – doctors, cleaners, nurses, members of the Armed Forces, construction workers, bus drivers, research scientists and many others – going to work has meant taking extra precautions and pressing on. We have a new understanding of who an essential worker is. Moments of danger and threat always bring out the best and worst in individuals, communities and countries. We have been privileged to witness many front-line workers responding bravely in the face of real personal danger.
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Unlike those who endured the Blitz, who had no idea when the bombing would stop, we now have a sense of when the virus might be brought at least under some sort of control. It is foolish to try and provide a specific date for the resumption of normal life, but some time around next Easter seems to be the general sense. How fitting it would be if we could open up the country once again at the time of year when we celebrate the greatest of all the Christian festivals. A resumption of our normal routines alongside the resurrection of Our Lord.
Between now and then however there are hard and difficult months still left to endure. With the endgame in sight, but with the huge economic damage mounting, there are signs that nerves are fraying and patience is wearing thin. This is no more so than among Members of Parliament. Assailed as they are by constituents cares and complaints, unable to meet properly, and witnessing at first hand the economic damage being wrought across their constituencies, they sit at the very centre of the cross-over between government and the rest of us.
Most MPs most of the time have little influence over what goes on and a marginal impact on the policies of their own parties, yet they are asked to support lockdowns and restrictions they have not devised but are held responsible for. It is no wonder many are becoming fractious, but MPs need to settle down and put their support behind the government. Common sense suggests that if the government is forced now into weakening its prevention and protective measures then we will see another spike in infection and sickness. That is in no-one’s best interest.
Parliamentary scrutiny and holding government to account is absolutely vital to our democracy. Parliament has worked well during these months when it has suffered restrictions on its ability to gather, but the sight of a disembodied Commons chamber is demoralising. It has been one of the most visible signs of disruption to normal national life. We need the Commons to return in full force as quickly as possible. Members of Parliament need to be among the very first to receive the vaccine so that our elected representatives can focus on how they can help lead the country to a return to normal life. No clearer sign of a return to normality could be made than the Commons chamber gloriously packed to the aisles in full flow.
All through the Blitz and the War Parliament sat. Motions of no-confidence were tabled and much criticism was made in the Commons of Winston Churchill and the coalition government he led. There was nothing wrong then, as there is nothing wrong now, in MPs criticising the government and holding it fully to account for its actions.
What we need to be careful about, however, is that political impatience in the House of Commons does not force the Prime Minister to put aside the best advice of his scientific advisors. We have all worked hard to contain the spread of the virus and will pay a huge economic price for our efforts but we need to do our best to avoid a third spike. The government needs to ensure effective prevention and protective measures are kept in place until the vaccine can be administered and Members of Parliament have a duty to support it in doing so.