Analogies to the Second World War are a recurring theme in modern British history. The seeming orthodoxy in Britain in 2020 is that the nation is at war, on a scale not known since the Second World War. The enemy, this time the coronavirus, is invisible to the naked eye.
The future of Britain is as much at risk now as in the years when Imperial Germany was building dreadnoughts, or Nazism rearming. Indeed the danger is greater today, just because the enemy is invisible […]
The above words, however, were not said in reference to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead they come from an election meeting in Northfield, Birmingham, in 1970 – spoken by Enoch Powell. The infamous Conservative MP assumed the role of oracle, as he had done in his anti-immigration ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech two years prior. Powell perceived enemies lurking within the nation. Unlike ‘when Czechoslovakia was dismembered or Austria annexed or Poland invaded,’ he lamented that there was now ‘no such physical signal.’
Returning to the present day, the Prime Minister (a biographer of Churchill) claimed to lead a ‘wartime government’ committed to doing ‘whatever it takes,’ while the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, may as well have quoted Powell. Hancock described the current situation as a ‘war against an invisible enemy.’ When it fell to the Queen to address the nation, she assured people that ‘we will meet again,’ just as Vera Lynn sang in 1939. The wartime song was converted into an anthem for (attempted) socially distanced street parties during the recent VE Day commemorations. The comparison between the war and the coronavirus was explicit, whether concerned with fighting the virus, sacrifice or national solidarity.
The Second World War matters in Britain: it was a total war which mobilised the country, and the then British Empire, against what was an existential threat. Alongside its allies, the Soviet Union and the United States foremost amongst them, Britain emerged victorious. Stories of personal wartime sacrifice and bravery, whether at home or abroad, have had poignant afterlives within families. The war changed the nation, but narratives of the war (not entirely distinct from the event itself) continue to exert considerable influence on how we express ourselves.
The invocation of Dunkirk, the evacuation of Allied soldiers from Northern France in May 1940, is a case in point. When Sir Paul Nurse, the director of the Francis Crick Institute, called for a ‘Dunkirk spirit’ to provide more diagnostic tests for the coronavirus, the reference was easily understandable for many. It was a call for small organisations to band together in a ‘national endeavour’ against the odds. Yet, the Dunkirk spirit has not always been a plea for a superficially benign self-sufficiency. It was a common theme in the response Powell received in the aftermath of his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. ‘I never saw 1 coloured person at Dunkirk,’ read one letter to Powell in 1968, ‘and they want to come here and run our little Island.’
Dunkirk, a famous retreat, has become ‘Dunkirk’: one of the foundation myths of postcolonial Britain. It can have differing versions and interpretations, like any other myth. In some situations, it is a parable to self-reliance and the ability to make do. A recognition of what Keir Hardie had called ‘the indomitable pluck and energy of the British people.’ In other situations, it is a confirmation that ‘Britain alone’ is a politically possible and desirable outcome.
Recurring references to the Second World War are more than a linguistic crutch. Memories of the war have played a much broader role in defining, and at times distorting, modern British identity. Perhaps understandably so, war provides an ‘outsider’ against which a people can unite. Wartime sacrifice became a means of talking about political belonging in Britain – it proved allegiance to the nation. However, many versions of this story can forget, whether by intention or ignorance, the considerable contribution of the Empire to the war. In this way, people of African and Asian heritage can be excluded from the nation. Nonetheless Britain was never alone; it called upon colonies and dominions that numbered some 500 million people.
In 1970, Powell foresaw another ‘battle of Britain,’ one where ‘race would play a major perhaps a decisive, part.’ For him and the many who supported him, the presence of visible minorities, from the former empire, was a threat to Britain. Powell saw a Black Briton as an impossibility, incapable of loyalty or allegiance to the nation. It would be tempting to write off these views as an artefact of previous decades, but the events of the last few years have shown that these debates are still live. At least part of the Brexit vote turned on a racialised understanding of who the nation was for. As he often does, Nigel Farage spoke without pretension when he told an audience at an EU debate that ‘immigration has left our white working class as an underclass.’ Over half a century may have passed since the ‘Rivers of Blood,’ but the fear of ‘the black man’ having ‘the whip hand over the white man’ remains a disturbingly effective way to win votes.
Powell’s own view on war, described by Camilla Schofield as an assertion of ‘political allegiance – the sacrifice of one’s body and soul to the state,’ has found an echo in the language used to talk about the coronavirus. When Matt Hancock said that NHS workers had ‘made the ultimate sacrifice,’ he portrayed death ‘in the line of duty’ as an expected risk of working in a hospital. Healthcare workers, amongst other key workers, are presented as soldiers making a wartime sacrifice. For those who are not prepared to make this sacrifice to the nation, such as teaching unions who expressed scepticism on returning children to schools, vilification awaits. The front-page of The Daily Mail implored ‘militant unions’ to ‘Let Our Teachers Be Heroes.’ The response to this pandemic is saturated in the language of war and sacrifice to the nation.
Moreover, if Matt Hancock is correct and the current pandemic really is a ‘war against an invisible enemy,’ then what does it mean when people of colour in Britain are more likely to die of the coronavirus? When adjusting for other factors, Public Health England found that ‘death rates from COVID-19 were higher for Black and Asian ethnic groups’ than those of White ethnicity. People of Bangladeshi heritage in Britain had twice the risk of death when compared to those of ‘White British ethnicity.’ People of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Other Asian, Caribbean and Other Black ethnicity had between 10 and 50% higher risk of death when compared to White British. ‘BAME communities,’ stated the Prime Minister recently, ‘have been at the forefront of the struggle against coronavirus,’ and it is these communities ‘that have paid a disproportionate price.’ Have people of colour now made a wartime sacrifice for the nation?
What this provocative question reveals is that war is not a particularly good analogy for many of the problems Britain faces. This vocabulary frequently mischaracterises the task at hand. Immigration is neither war nor invasion. It is not an impact between two distinct entities, doomed to collide and never to integrate. Race and immigration represent a continuing series of interactions and negotiations as we learn to live with and alongside difference. The respect and dignity afforded to the lives of people of colour in Britain should not be conditional upon dying in a war, metaphorical or otherwise. If Black lives are to matter, they must do so unconditionally.
In parallel, both physical and mental illnesses are often articulated through the soundscape of a personal battle. This language can be comforting when our loved ones are facing a life changing or life limiting illness. But, as Susan Sontag argued, these words are not without consequence. When Dominic Raab, deputising for the Prime Minister, claimed that Boris Johnson would ‘pull through’ because he was a ‘fighter,’ Raab was treading a well-worn path. Surviving the coronavirus, however, is not a test of character. Abdul Mabud Chowdhury, a 53 year old doctor in Homerton did not pass away because he lacked character or ‘fight.’
Powell’s supporters invoked a narrative of the Second World War to define the challenges they saw confronting the country – namely how to belong in Britain. This is the war as a test of Britishness, proven through sacrifice on behalf of the nation. We should rightly be sceptical of this analogy. However, in the present day similar efforts to invoke the war should also be handled with caution. After all, the medical profession is fundamentally a pacific profession. The overriding principle is to treat patients and reduce harm in their best interest. Instead of fighting a war, we are in fact living with the coronavirus. That is why many of us are quarantined, while some of us are still working (despite being classed as low-skilled in January). Talking about the coronavirus in terms of heroism and sacrifice devolves responsibility from government to the person. While references to the Second World War may seem fortifying, none of us is immune from the malignant effects of language.
- All quotations from Enoch Powell are from Reflections: Selected Writings and Speeches of Enoch Powell, ed. Rex Collings (Bellew Publishing, London: 1992).
- Camilla Schofield, Enoch Powell and the Making of Postcolonial Britain (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 2013).
- Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707 – 1837 (Yale University Press, New Haven: 2005)
- Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its metaphors (Penguin, London: 1991).
Satya Gunput is a British-Mauritian doctoral student in History at Birkbeck, University of London. His research is funded by the Bonnart Trust and focuses on race and ethnicity in 1970s Britain: specifically how New Commonwealth migrants and their children articulated new ways of belonging in Southall, West London. He is on Twitter as @hisnameissatya