Monday 18 October 2021

It's not just innocent and ignorant nostalgia


Last week, a former Tory leader, Iain Duncan Smith, was widely mocked for asking “what has happened to us as a nation” because people are working from home rather than going to the office as he claimed (even that claim is subject to caveats – many civil service jobs were moved out of London, along with those performing them) that they did throughout the war years. As his many detractors have pointed out, there were no computers or internet, and few people even had telephone lines; working from home would have been impractical even if the government of the day had thought it desirable.

The mocking, though, might be missing an important point about the mindset of IDS and those who think like him. Johnson almost certainly agrees with the point IDS was making, and has said similar things himself. He is invariably trying to imagine himself in the shoes of his great hero, Winston Churchill, from the way he carries himself to the views he expresses, even if he falls a long way short when it comes to serious oratory. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that, had the technology existed to support home working at that time, the wartime PM would still have insisted that everyone turned up for work at the office. He was notoriously unconcerned with the number of civilian deaths in pursuit of his goal of total victory, and would probably have seen protecting the business of Lyons Corner Shops and Tea Rooms (the forerunners of Prêt, whose business is threatened today) to say nothing of the interests of the office landlords, as being a far more important consideration. Besides, bomb-dodging is character-building, and encourages people to think of themselves as being in solidarity with soldiers on the front line.

There’s another aspect of the Blitz years which those who glorify them tend to gloss over. In an eery parallel with the response to Covid, crime, and especially economic crime, was rife. The unscrupulous exploited shortages, and contractors defrauded the government on a grand scale. Conmen had a field day, and gangs ruled over territories with an iron fist. They were less genteel about it than their corporate equivalents today, but they were almost as effective at transferring the wealth of the many into their own pockets. Crises create opportunities for the ruthless, and the more the rest of us behave normally, the greater those opportunities. It’s not that people like IDS are simply being selective about the blitz – only evoking what they regard as the ‘best’ bits – it’s more that they only want ordinary people to remember those aspects which create some sort of warm glow. Glossing over deaths, poverty, hunger, crime – this is, after all, one of the eternal values of his party. His attempt at misdirection through misplaced nostalgia is not as harmless as the mockery might suggest.

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