On Patriotism and VE Day

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Ed joined me for my daily walk around Edgbaston this evening, the dry and dusty streets carpeted with faded blossom petals and fragrant pine needles as this once in a lifetime spring drifts ever on towards summer. Hundreds of metres of fresh bunting and Union Jack flags had appeared overnight, strung out across front gardens, driveways and cars in celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of Victory in Europe.

VE Day is an annual event which marks the victory in May 1945 of the allies – not just Britain but also, amongst many others, India, the USA, and the exiled governments of France and Poland – over fascism in Europe. VE Day also marks the beginning of the post war period which led to the creation of our much loved National Health Service – overstretched, underfunded, hypocritically praised – and the European Project that the UK ceremoniously walked away from on the last day of January after just under four years of what, at times, approached outright civil war. Not that you’d know it from the street decorations or the national dialogue both today, and in recent weeks. No, VE Day in post-Brexit Britain isn’t about celebrating or honouring European or international collaboration, nor is it a reminder of all we lost, the great suffering my grandparents’ generation endured during WW2, and the social and economic relationships we built that have kept a continent from war ever since. Rather it is, or at least over the course of the past twenty years it has become, just another excuse to celebrate a white Anglo-Saxon ‘us’ standing apart from and above what is perceived to be a hostile, foreign, inferior ‘them’. It is an exercise in nostalgia and nationalism. On this special anniversary, due to the dates aligning, it has also doubled as an unofficial Brexit party. It troubles me greatly.

This year, the early May bank holiday weekend has been shifted by the most right-wing government we’ve had in three decades from its traditional Labour Day linked spot – the first Monday of the month – to coincide with VE Day instead. Much to the dismay of the members of our society who love nothing more than to glorify war, pretend the 1940s were our best days, and celebrate the myth of British exceptionalism within Europe, the planned parades and street parties have had to be cancelled at the eleventh hour because of the pandemic and physical distancing regulations. The ninety-something WW2 veterans who are still alive to commemorate this anniversary are alone in their houses and care home rooms, sheltering from the virus, unsure of when they’ll next be able to venture out into the world they helped safeguard against the fascists and racists of yesteryear. Meanwhile, their historical oppressors’ ideological contemporaries around the world grow ever stronger, and the day has been appropriated by those who outside of lockdown would be joining a ‘festive’ EDL rally ahead of their forties themed street party. Look around, and it feels like we’re moving backwards through time, not forwards. We have learnt nothing from history. We pretend to care, we say “never again”, we celebrate our national heroes, but it is nothing but a hollow performance while we remain misty eyed for our former moment of glory.

The past few days have been uncharacteristically balmy for May, and as a society we have all been spending too many hours of this glorious spring indoors, away from our usual routines as well as our families and our friends. We’re all a bit twitchy, and there is excitement in the air to think that some of the most stringent restrictions – on exercise at least – might soon be lifted. With the tabloid press incorrectly suggesting that we’ll be back to normal from Monday, and with garden centres and construction sites already reopened, the temptation was simply too great – even for those who love to alternate between clapping and banging for NHS heroes every Thursday night and curtain twitching snitching to the police about neighbours’ illicit second walks – to be able to resist calling it quits early and picking up the phone to arrange private VE Day / bank holiday / “I’m bored with lockdown and last night was give a shit about the NHS night” garden parties. As a nation we love public, performative gratitude and community as well as the language of heroics, but direct action in the polling booth – to elect progressive politicians who will build a fairer, more inclusive society and take us beyond the post-war period we revere and seek to emulate so much – or by exercising patience and restraint with lockdown when it comes to a pandemic that puts our healthcare workers, war veterans, vulnerable and elderly at risk is beyond us. Cheap gestures for head pats and thoughts of “what’s in it for me?” win every time over true community and collaboration.

The queue outside the co-op, usually ten to fifteen deep as grocery shopping has become a national favourite pastime in recent weeks, was a modest two, and the joggers around the lake had thinned to a trickle of regulars. As the setting sun cast long shadows across the broad avenues that characterise this part of Birmingham, well lubricated voices, music and barbecue smoke carried over the garden fences of every other sixties’ semi and Georgian mansion lining the sleepy streets. At 9PM, a lull in festivities signalled the beginning of the Queen’s anniversary broadcast, then back to it. Drinking, singing, celebrating heroes and the past. In two weeks time we’ll be seeing virus deaths increase again which will fell even more of those we profess to toast and honour today, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of the second world war in Europe, and each Thursday with the weekly Clap for Heroes event.

Despite my conservative, religious upbringing in a military family, I don’t know how to feel truly British or to be anything other than cynical about these public displays of patriotism and national pride. Try as I have over the years to understand or make peace with it – and what little motivation I have wanes the older I get and the further I move away from that ideology – I cannot and do not feel ‘proud’ of my accident of birth. Patriotism and nationalism are not how I see or understand the world. Tonight, after getting in from our walk, I sat down at the piano and thought about what VE Day should mean and has meant in years gone by before it was hijacked along with November poppies as a Middle England flag waving event endorsed by those who would like to turn back the clock several decades. Ed and I didn’t put up bunting, and I didn’t bake a victoria sponge, but as I played through my recent repertoire – the Chopin nocturne which saved the life of a Jewish pianist during WW2 together with some Max Richter and Philip Glass – I marked the occasion in my own way. I acknowledge how privileged I am and I am also thankful to have grown up in an era and in countries – France, Germany and England – that in my lifetime have been free from war. That said, I remain very worried about the direction in which the nostalgia, nationalism and performative remembrance embedded in and entwined with events like VE day is taking us.

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