Chester Cornford & Becki Menzies: Brexiteers are trying to conjure the WW2 ‘Blitz spirit’ – but it’s a myth

Ben Wray

Chester Cornford, student at the University of Dundee, and Becki Menzies, blogger at Hum4nWrites, say that Brexiteers are trying to galvanise a ‘Blitz spirit’ behind the idea of a No Deal Brexit, where hardship is embraced and differences are put aside in the interests of national unity, is a myth, with the Blitz if anything exposing the deep divisions of British society during the Second World War

CONTROVERSIALIST Piers Morgan brandishing Ross Greer MSP as a “thick ginger turd” for his comments on Winston Churchill highlights the damaging relation we have with our own history here in the United Kingdom.

Greer, correctly identifying Churchill as a white supremacist, was belittled for speaking an inconvenient historical truth. This appears to a be a recurring theme in the patriotic optimism many wear with pride, and the tired and factually contentious World War Two imagery conjured up by hard-line Brexiteers.

The most deceptive may be the notion that if we got through the Blitz – and come together as a nation because of it – then a no deal Brexit will be the same. The problem with the view that the British people are a hardy bunch, who in a show of solidarity on the Home Front, stiffened their upper lip and came together against a common foe, is, of course, that it’s nonsense. The experience of the Home Front, rather than pulling the nation together, exposed and deepened the divisions that exist across the length and breadth of these islands.

READ MORE: Analysis: 5 of the worst crimes of Winston Churchill

Take rationing, for example. Historians such as Arthur Marwick argued they were “efficient and equitable”. Far from being a leveller of class, they exposed how the wealthy and privileged were able to negate the ill-effects of the Blitz. Off-rationed foods were not price controlled, meaning poorer families were limited to their ration books while those in stronger economic positions could supplement their quote. The rich dined as usual – bar regional shortages – while the poor were to make do with leftovers or face “Hitler’s Humble Pie”. Those in rural areas or those fortunate enough to have a garden could grow their own – the poorest could not afford even that ‘luxury’. It’s true that diets may have improved – the shortage of sugar, flour and meat meant working-class diets shifted to more vegetables and brown bread, as their usual diets were unavailable.

The experience of evacuation is another case in point of the divisions of the time. There was often outrage at the influx of “dirty”, “verminous” children to rural communities – ignoring the fact that these children had been stripped from their families. Rather than providing insight into the difficult circumstances of the urban poor, the condition of these children was used as evidence of moral depravity, and the deservedness of their position. These feelings were echoed at official level. The Provost of Kilmarnock, George Wilson, stated the authorities “could not open the doors of men’s private homes and invade them with hordes of ill disciplined lice-ridden children.” This language is not dissimilar to that used to stoke anti-immigrant sentiment in the UK today.

While the coming together of the urban and rural communities inspired positive responses in some – such as D.S. Simon, who, writing in The Manchester Guardian in 1940, complained against the use of the word “verminous” to describe evacuated children, and railed against the ignorance of “comfortable middle-class people” – it also revealed to urban communities the stark inequalities they faced. For the first time, many were exposed to the privileged power of many of the urban elite. As such, evacuation both exposed and elevated regional and class division.

READ MORE: The Nanjing Massacre Museum shows a side to the history of the second world war the West doesn’t see

This was partnered by a rise in racism and anti-semitism on the streets of Britain. Particularly harsh was the treatment of Italians living in Scotland. In Edinburgh, with Mussolini’s declaration of war on 10 July 1941, crowds of up to 2000 people gathered and damaged and looted Italian homes and businesses. Dr. Wendy Ugolini argues that this was not just hooliganism, which many argued it was at the time, but included neighbours, customers and friends of the Italian community. Well-integrated, respected; with many having British citizenship or being born in Britain – the British Italian community suddenly became an enemy with the break-out of war.

In 1943, a crush at Bethnal Green tube station – then being used as an air-raid shelter – was quickly blamed on British Jews. They were accused of panicking and upsetting the orderly fashion in which people were entering the station. These rumours were completely baseless. While we decried the fascist Nazi ideology on the continent, many Britons were perfectly willing to use the Jewish community as a scapegoat. Further, German Jewish refugees were interned out of Germanophobia, despite fleeing Nazi persecution. Mass observation surveys found countless examples of anti-semitic remarks against Jewish refugees.

Another widely popular image of the Home Front was how the Blitz reunited a once class-ridden society. Afterall, bombs did not differentiate between social status. Whilst aerial bombardment did not target a particular class (even Buckingham Palace took a hit), the types of shelter available were very much based on one’s wealth and status. The underground of the Savoy Hotel in London was turned into a ‘dormitory restaurant’, and the Dorchester Hotel used its Turkish baths as a shelter with signs such as ‘reserved for Lord Halifax’ on the seats. Even if they had the money, those from the lower classes were denied entry as it was only for private members.

Anderson shelters were rolled out cheaply to the public, but only around a quarter of Londoners had a garden. It was the lower classes who frequented the public shelters. And while bombs don’t differentiate between classes, bombers do. Bombings were heavily concentrated in the industrial heartlands and so it was the working classes who suffered disproportionately.  

Of course this will also be true if No Deal Brexit chaos comes to pass, with those who can afford to shelter themselves from the chaos – or buy EU citizenship – able to ride out any economic meltdown in comfort. There’s already evidence in this, with businesses such as Nissan who have stopped their plans for 750 news jobs in the highest voting Leave constituency – Sunderland, located in the de-industrialised North East of England.

To invoke the spirit of the Blitz is to highlight the inequality that still exists in Britain today and how if you’ve got enough money, the outcome of a deal or no deal won’t really affect you. It is to highlight the divisions in Britain – the classism, regional divide and racism – this is all deeply ingrained, and rather than the nation coming together in unity against a common struggle, divisions will persist and deepen. Perhaps the Blitz really is the perfect metaphor.

Picture courtesy of Sarflondondunc