Above: The Sun cheers the deaths of 323 Argentine conscripts
By Robin Carmody
The thing about the phrase “that bloody war” – as a pejorative for a major war, which reshaped your country’s political norms and assumptions, viewed at medium distance – is that, by definition, it can only ever be used by those who have been in abeyance and who lost out as a result of it. The other side will regard it as “the good war”, their war, the war of which they, rather than the country as a whole, were the highly subjective victors.
Anyone brought up after the 1980s with little historical foreknowledge could be forgiven for thinking that there was always a universal, cross-class consensus that the Second World War was the ultimate “good war”. Not so. The working class, its great domestic victors, always viewed it that way, but landed, aristocratic and anciently-established interests – the demographic which, crucially, was extended further down to attract an only recently socially arrived, petit-bourgeois audience by David English, Nigel Dempster and Lynda Lee-Potter at a time of great perceived internal crisis for their interests, when they knew the upper class could not retake control by itself and needed new footsoldiers who didn’t have the money but did have the ambitions – viewed it for many years afterwards as “that bloody war”, cursed its impact and legacy. All the evidence that we were fighting bona fide fascism as never before in our history failed to sway them (and I’m not immune from a much smaller-scale version of the same thing; while not pretending that there would have been another Holocaust or industrial genocide, I do not dispute that the junta was objectively fascist), and not just because it exposed dark skeletons in their own family closets (and some of that was simply a mournful, melancholy wish to retain the old Anglo-German friendship, on which matter I would have sympathised with them in almost any circumstances but those) but because, even if Britain had only been on the winning side rather than the real winner, their class could not even claim that. The Second World War, its social gains for Britain’s poor neutralised, reversed and abandoned, has long since become a safe, cosy “good war” for the ruling class, but let no-one tell you that it was always such a thing.
The very fact that no-one now – except possibly Peter Hitchens (who only quite recently embraced a revisionist stance on the matter), only he’d regard the language as beneath him – calls the Second World War “that bloody war” does not, in fact, reflect well on the British politics of my lifetime. Had the position of the previous 35 years been maintained, they would have to view it as such, could not pretend that it was – as it never was in its own time – their war.
And so, inevitably, to my own usage of the term. There is, I’ll admit, scarcely a day that goes past when I don’t curse “that bloody war”, the one now 35 years away, close to the time that had lapsed then since 1945, and – as a setting up of a political consensus perceived as beyond question or dispute (this is why I cannot be as concerned about the removal of the broadcasting fig leaves insisted on by the ruling elite of 1990 as others are; it is much deeper issues that concern me) – 1945’s utter nemesis, a revenge for 1945. (I also happen to live somewhere which played a major role in both.) In that respect, at least in terms of language, I am in a similar position to the first young fogeys (not then so named; that had to wait) who raged in the 1970s about what had happened in their lifetime but scarcely, if at all, their direct recollections, and had as they saw it denied them the world they felt they deserved (of these, Auberon Waugh is by far the most defensible, mainly because he mutated after the fact into every bit as strong an opponent of ignorance and greed falsely sold in the name of “Conservatism”). That is the story of our times. Where once it was the squires in the country houses who would curse “that bloody war” of recent history, now it is the socialists, the romantics, the idealists, above all others the Europeans. Where once it was those who worshipped inequality, saw it as God’s will, who used that pejorative, now it is those who believe most passionately in equality. Where once it was the supporters of letting everything fall into place – by definition, a luxury for the already privileged – who used that phrase, now it is the supporters of logic and organisation.
I do not deny that, even if it was a much less severe and extreme version than that one, our “bloody war” of now, like their “bloody war” of then, was fought against fascism. That’s mainly what makes it so painful. But while a clearer and more direct path may begin only when Brian May stood on the roof of Buckingham Palace – in that other year, 20 years on, marked by a reactionary nationalist tide between April and June – the road to Brexit does, ultimately, begin at Goose Green. If you dispute me, consider – however much you may not regard them as “yours” – the SDP and the Tory wets, the two most pro-European factions in British politics, who stood throughout “that bloody war”, overwhelmingly stronger than the actual government immediately beforehand and waiting for a decisive victory had Britain lost. Or, as “we” will now say as assuredly as the squires and feudal lords once said of the 1939-45 war – only “we” know that we are saying it from an entirely different starting point and reasoning, as defensible as theirs was indefensible – if, in losing, it had won.
Consider that the precise equivalent today of saying, as Auberon Waugh did in 1972, that “West Countrymen never shared the general enthusiasm for World War II”, would be to say that Mancunians and Liverpudlians never shared the general enthusiasm for the Falklands War. And think on.