I WONDER whether any of the silly people who praised Britain’s ‘wartime spirit’ during the first ‘lockdown’ have personally known a survivor of the Second World War. For me it is a source of constant gratitude that as a child I had a close relationship with my great-grandmother, who grew up amongst the sailors and prostitutes of inter-war Portsmouth.
Dorothy Blaker spent enough of her youth dodging German bombs on her way home from the pub where she worked, and hearing grim reports that friends and acquaintances would not be returning, to carry with her for the rest of her life that special set of characteristics with which so many of her generation seemed to be endowed. To capture the essence of these characteristics inevitably involves generalisation, but it has something to do with quiet perseverance and a distaste for exaggeration, attention-seeking and hysteria.
I say this so we are reminded that, no matter how much we like to think that the present generation have much in common with their close ancestors, Britons of the wartime generation did tend to have a certain independence of mind and spirit. They also tended to care greatly about their privacy, and most valued the sanctity of family life all the more for having seen it survive an existential threat in the form of totalitarianism. What George Orwell had noted about an earlier generation remained true of them: ‘the most hated of all names in an English ear is Nosey Parker’.
This high regard for privacy and contempt for officious panjandrums should not be confused with the ‘libertarian’ attitude which is the product of our own times, which supposes that every man and woman ought to be able to ‘do with their own body whatever they wish’. In practice many advocates of this position turn out to be remarkably unconcerned – even enthusiastic – about the growth of powerful, unaccountable institutions which might demand that they account for themselves at any moment, just as long as the general atmosphere of the times is permissive and the rules which they must live by allow the widest conceivable licence for behaviour. They don’t mind being treated like children who have to do as their parents tell them, as long as those parents are soft metropolitan yuppies and not austere provincial school ma’ams.
The old love of privacy is something else altogether. The Englishman, so the story goes, does not value individual licence for its own sake. On the contrary, he unflinchingly subjugates individual licence below the law. But what is the law? It was supposed to be understood amongst the English that the law referred not to the sum of diktats issued by this minister or that, but rather to our country’s mysterious sovereign institution – the law of the land –which is animated by a spirit of rough justice and equality. The law might turn out to limit an individual’s licence in all kinds of bothersome or frustrating ways. But so long as the law and not the state is sovereign, the individual is guarded against that dreadful thing which a proud and free people hate more than all the paternalistic rules in the world combined: arbitrary power, and worse still, the insufferable little tyrants who enjoy exercising it.
The trouble with the British constitution is that nothing in theory prevents a government with a large enough majority in Parliament from sweeping away centuries of legal traditions in a single sitting, and providing the official legal basis for all kinds of institutions and procedures which fly in the face of the native love of liberty, reason and justice upon which the authority of the law is based. But this fact serves to highlight the supreme importance that these native characteristics play in the whole arrangement. If they are not nurtured in the heart of every man and woman and passed on intact to the next generation, it is plain that nothing stands between liberty and despotism.
Upon members of the wartime generation, we could generally thus rely. They had usually been brought up to know only one master, and that was the Christian God of justice and mercy whose legitimate authority they subconsciously supposed to underpin all real worldly authorities: the family home, the courtroom, Parliament, the law of the land. And just as their faith in these institutions of real authority was unwavering, so their suspicion and mistrust of all other self-proclaimed ‘experts’ and ‘authorities’ was unwavering too.
William Pitt the Younger once warned that ‘necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves’. In my experience, this was something which the wartime generation knew instinctively. Those I knew were all naturally impatient with pontificating officials and hostile towards encroachments into their private affairs, regardless of how important such encroachments were said to be. Having come of age in such testing circumstances as they did, their tendency, when confronted with a supposed threat or challenge, was to downplay and understate, not to exaggerate and panic.
The obvious existence of an extraordinary threat to human life, overwhelming evidence of the effectiveness of the proposed solution, thorough consideration of the health, social and economic costs of this supposed solution – all of these things would be have to be established beyond all reasonable doubt before Britons of that vintage would even consider the possibility of accepting anything like the kind of encroachments into their private lives that the current crop of serfs and hypochondriacs has accepted without so much as a whimper. Even then sceptical journalists and MPs would have demanded rigorous Parliamentary scrutiny to ensure that particular regulations corresponded closely to specific legal powers.
Those of us who knew my great-grandmother recently asked ourselves what we suspect she would have thought of the current ‘pandemic’, and the claim that our response to it has been a demonstration of ‘wartime spirit’. None of us had any doubt: if asked for her thoughts on our collective decision to crash our economy, submit ourselves to the self-proclaimed authority of ‘experts’ and legally dubious government diktats, postpone access to potentially life-saving cancer screening and treatment, publicly shame those who refuse to wear silly, loose-fitting fabric muzzles, and spend a whole year hiding in our homes for fear of catching a virus which presents no threat whatsoever to the vast bulk of people, she’d have said something like: ‘What a load of old rubbish’.
So thanks all the same to the statist toadies and would-be-Stasi-informers who are cheering on the Government as it once again drives its battering ram through innumerable lives and livelihoods, threatening us with the invasion of petty authority into the one last great Christian feast which remains a private and sacred occasion for millions, but you can keep your pronouncements about how unthinking obedience is somehow a case of ‘doing your civic duty’ and ‘playing your part in the national effort’. Instead, I’ll raise a jam-jar of dry Somerset scrumpy and drink to the memory of Dolly Blaker and the vanishing civilisation which produced her.