To the victors, the spoils?

May 5, 1995

As the nation prepares to mark VE Day, The THES asked a group of historians born after the war to describe the significance of the events of 50 years ago for Britain today.

This victory" (pauses for cheering to subside) "is your victory". Churchill's simple, humble words of triu-mph to the crowds thronging the streets of London on May 8, 1945 never fail to move me.

Not that I was there when he said them, of course. Having been born almost exactly 19 years later, I have to admit that the victory we are about to celebrate was not by any stretch of the imagination my victory.

Nevertheless, whenever I listen to Churchill's VE Day speech - the last track on my wonderful two-volume cassette of highlights from his wartime speeches - tears fill my eyes. And I know I am not alone in this among my contemporaries.

But why, when the event preceded our birth by two decades? The best construction to be put on it is that we feel genuine gratitude to our grandparents, who fought the war and whose sacrifices made it possible for us to grow up in a free society. I fear, however, that my emotional response to Churchill is less rational than that. If I am honest, I have to recognise it as just one of many symptoms of the Acquired Wartime Nostalgia Syndrome with which almost every member of my generation has been infected since childhood.

We were, after all, raised on a diet of films and television programmes which propagated a positive - not to say idyllic - vision of what happened to this country between 1939 and 1945. My favourite film as a school boy was called 633 Squadron, about a squadron of Mosquito pilots. Such films - The Dambusters was another, The Great Escape still another - deftly updated the haircuts and uniforms of the stars who appeared in them to ensure that the glamour of war never quite dated. (Those produced in Hollywood in the 1960s were especially shameless in this regard.) Shot through an even more rose-tinted lens, of course, were the BBC situation comedies set in the war: It Ain't 'Alf 'Ot Mum, 'Allo, 'Allo and, above all, Dad's Army.

Dad's Army was so popular not least because it appealed to British self-deprecation. Here we were at our most absurd, each character personifying some well-loved national foible: Arthur Lowe's pompous, petit-bourgeois, John le Mesurier's effete aristocrat, John Laurie's doom-mongering Scot . . . . Yet, despite the fact that the Home Guard's every mission ended in a debcle, the diverse elements of British society never quite fell apart. And there was always the reassuring certainty - communicated in that wonderful theme song - of victory. "Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler, if you think old England's done . . .?" So that was how we won the war: on the one hand, the glamorous, individualistic (and often American) heroism of Steve McQueen; combined with the silly, senescent (and very British) collectivism of Captain Mainwaring and co.

Alas, I fear it is precisely this image of the war which is likely to be taken out, dusted down and given yet another airing during this month's 50th anniversary celebrations. The newspapers began the process months ago, drip-feeding us with umpteen "human interest" articles about How I Met my Hubbie in the Blitz and How I Lost My Virginity on VE Day. It is only a matter of time before the spam fritters begin to fry and the record shops fill their windows with the Second World War's Greatest Hits: "We'll Meet Again", "In the Mood", "The Dambusters March". . . .

The trouble with all this is obvious enough. Ask any German. "You British are obsessed with the war" - how many times have I heard that in Hamburg, Berlin and Munich? "And you know what?" "What?" "That is why your economy is kaput. You live in the past - whereas we Germans have no alternative but to live for now."

I suppose this has become a historical cliche of the postwar era, and one especially dear to Conservative neo-liberals. But that does not make the idea that our wartime victory is the root of our peacetime decline any less true. The thesis - best put in Corelli Barnett's wonderfully polemical The Audit of War - remains persuasive: that complacency induced by victory prevented a thorough modernisation of the British economy and, perhaps more importantly, saddled us with a welfare state which we simply could not afford.

After all, where did Churchill make his tear-jerking victory speech from? Why, from the roof of the Ministry of Health. Fifty years on, with British politics increasingly dominated by the twin budgetary peaks of health and social security (together accounting for 44 per cent of Government expenditure), that pretty neatly symbolises the Barnett thesis.

The new apostles of Tony Blair's "New Labour", of course, take a rather different view; as do many wetter Tories. For them, Britain's postwar problems have much more to do with our failure - having lost an empire - to find an appropriate world role. Instead of committing ourselves wholeheartedly to the project of a European federation, we have dithered on the periphery, indulging ourselves with periodic, unaffordable imperial adventures, from Suez to the Falklands. And instead of learning from the German social market model, we have (at least since 1979) squandered our economic opportunities in a self-defeating attempt to copy the American model of private affluence, public squalor.

These two critiques of Britain's postwar performance have little in common, bar one thing. Both right and left agree that victory in the war has proved a handicap in peacetime.

Of course, the question then arises - at least in some bolder minds - whether in some way it would have been better if we had not won the war? This has been addressed most effectively by John Charmley, whose book, Churchill: the End of Glory, made the case that the war was a costly mistake, which handed eastern Europe to the Russians, the British Empire to sundry nationalists and Britain itself to the Americans. His latest book fires a further broadside against the supposed Anglo-American "Special Relationship".

The problem with Charmley's thesis (and with similar arguments advanced by the likes of Alan Clark) is this: that the idea of peaceful coexistence with Nazi Germany after 1938, on which the thesis depends, is a chimera.

In fact, for all his beguiling offers of Anglo-German understanding, Hitler had come to the conclusion as early as 1936 that Germany had "no interest in coming to an understanding with England".

As he put it in May 1939: "It is necessary to prepare for a showdown. England sees in our development the establishment of a hegemony which would weaken England. Therefore England is our enemy and the showdown with Eng-land is a matter of life and death."

It is with those words in mind - and with the knowledge of the horrors Hitler perpetrated in those countries he did overrun - that we should commemorate this anniversary of victory. Pyrrhic it may sometimes seems to have been. But the alternative to victory in that "showdown" would have been inconceivably dreadful defeat. Play your Churchill tapes with gratitude, not nostalgia.

Niall Ferguson, age 31, is fellow and tutor in modern history at Jesus College, Oxford.

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