Celebrating VV Day (Victory over the Virus)
Darren Blaney compares the events of VE Day 75 years ago, and some of the calls for social change that followed, with similar calls being made now in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic
How did you celebrate VE Day?
In our small cul-de-sac we made the best of things; people held their own mini celebrations in their front gardens, and we all waved and shouted friendly greetings.
What stood out to me was that someone played part of Churchill’s speech from the balcony of the Ministry of Health through their stereo. It is a famous clip, but there is part of the incident that I had never heard about before. The streets below where Churchill stood were packed, crowded with tens of thousands of people. He famously shouted, “this is your victory.” What I never realised was that the crowd shouted back “no, this is your victory.”
We forget how unlikely our survival seemed in the difficult days of early 1940, let alone any hope of possible victory. Churchill somehow gave people resolve, hope, belief. Five years later, the impossible was a reality and the crowds gathered that day knew what a debt they owed to their Prime Minister. One might argue that, but for Churchill, we would not be here today, not in any way that is recognisable as modern Britain anyway.
All the more remarkable therefore that just a few weeks later, this same, thankful nation, unceremoniously voted their hero out of office. Indeed, with one of the cleverest election slogans ever, Labour urged people “Cheer Churchill, Vote Labour”, and that is exactly what people did. But why?
However grateful the British people were to Churchill, they were not prepared to go back to life as it was before. World War 2 had cost too much—too many lost lives, too many destroyed homes, too many devastated cities. On the battlefields of Western Europe and North Africa rich and poor had fought and died side by side together in the cause of survival. The idea that we the nation could go back to the old divides of privileged and underclass was unthinkable. More than that, it was unacceptable. Those that had laid down their lives or had suffered the loss of home and family had not done so in order to allow the gentry to return to their estates while they struggled to put food on their tables. If one generation had sacrificed everything, at the very least it was so that their children might have a better future. People longed for a different world. They longed for a way out of poverty, for education, housing, health care.
Britain was ripe for a new social order. Possibly the only ways to forge meaning from all the senseless death and destruction was to see in it an opportunity. The ashes of devastation presented a once-in-a-lifetime possibility for the country to reinvent itself and emerge phoenix-like from its class riddled past into a new, socially just future.
That is what Labour offered. That is why they were voted in. The debate may indeed rage as to whether that more just society was ever delivered. Yet it remains the case that was why the people voted as they did in 1945—they voted for a different future. They voted for hope.
Seventy-five years later, almost to the day, I am starting to hear the same sort of voices speaking similar things. As we walk through this pandemic, as normal life recedes into a dream-like memory, and we are told that our old ‘normal’ may never return, people are starting to ask what opportunity might lie in the midst of this crisis. Already people are suggesting that it is unthinkable that the NHS should ever be allowed to be underfunded again.
Others are pointing out that in this epidemic, it is the lower paid workers (the nurses, care workers, delivery drivers and supermarket assistants) who are carrying the greatest risk and the greatest workload. If the lower paid carry us through this time, are we happy to continue to live in a society where they stay low paid?
Yet others are talking about the need to embrace walking, cycling, and staggered work times that ease pressure on public transport. Much is also made of this period finally establishing the long talked about ‘working from home’ era. All of this would improve health, decarbonise the environment and move us away from our over-dependence on the car. In a similar vein, other voices proclaim the end of easy air-travel and urge that the economy post-coronavirus will need to be thoroughly green.
Is all this just wishful thinking? Will it all just disappear as soon as the first Wetherspoons reopens? Or will it last until someone points out that the cost of all this social readjustment is higher taxes? Will we be all in favour of raising the wages of the poor, as long as someone else pays for it? Perhaps. Or will the fact that some forms of social restriction are likely to stay in place until well into next year have a longer-term effect on people’s thinking?
A leading Oxford historian who was interviewed on the radio said that in 30 years’ time when students study this period of history, they will talk about BC and AC – Before Coronavirus and After Coronavirus. He believes it will be that significant.
The question I find myself asking is, how can the church be a prophetic voice in this season? How can the people who name Jesus’ Kingdom speak into this cultural and social turmoil and offer a vision of a different society? Or have we become too conformed by the values of the society that we live in to possibly be able to offer it a radical alternative?
Following the Allies first major victory, Churchill famously said “It is not the end, it is not the beginning of the end. It is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” It feels that we are in much the same place now with the coronavirus epidemic. If we have begun to turn a corner, however slow or gradual that may be, what is it we are looking forward to when we do finally emerge on VV Day?
Perhaps our slogan will be, “Cheer the NHS; follow Jesus”.
Darren Blaney is minister of Herne Bay Baptist Church
Images | BluehouseSkis, Markus Spiske and United Nations COVID-19 Response on Unsplash
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