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Acting like a Wartime Government

‘We must act like [a] wartime government’ explained Boris Johnson in his second daily Covid-19 press conference.

The wartime analogy was woven throughout the Prime Minister’s address. Covid-19 was described as a deadly enemy, there was a direct parallel with the Second World War, and Johnson assured his listeners that ‘we have the resolve and the resources to win this fight’.
 

Acting like a Wartime Government

Air Raid Precautions on the British Home Front c.1941

There is substance to these claims. Alongside sweeping economic measures, the government has announced an emergency bill containing powers that would be unparalleled in times of peace. Commentators – including Dame Vera Lynn, no less – have also called for a new ‘Blitz spirit’.
 
As a historian of the Second World War, I have been thinking about such comparisons since the Covid-19 crisis in the UK escalated late last week. Discussing the topic with students and colleagues, while trying to move teaching online, we agreed that it was difficult to identify precedents and concluded that comparisons often fall down in practice. The scariest thing about the crisis is that it all seems so unknown.
 
Although commonplace, comparisons with the Blitz are fraught with difficulty as they invoke an event that was mythologised as it happened. This is not to say outright that there was no Blitz spirit; rather, that people’s reactions were shaped by a variety of factors. The government, the media, people’s families and friends, pre-war expectations, and personal experiences all shaped the way that bombing was experienced and understood.
 
Despite this, I remain convinced that there are things we can learn from the example of the Second World War.

If we take the comparison at face value, the UK has not yet reached its Blitz. In the past week, we have moved from appeasement, through re-armament, into a period of phoney war, and are now in a situation broadly equivalent to the early summer of 1940. We can see what’s coming and we are not sure yet sure how prepared our defences will be.

It is worth noting that even Winston Churchill’s government faced criticism for a lack of leadership and poor crisis communication. In response, the government sought to provide citizens with a sense of purpose. It encouraged volunteers to join organisations like the Home Guard, expanded a drive for National Savings, and even called on housewives to donate aluminium cookware to make planes. It is here that the analogy starts to fall down. 
 
It is true that the Blitz represented a very real threat, as ordinary people found themselves on the ‘Front Line’. Official figures for 1940-41 estimate that 8,200 tons of bombs were dropped on London alone. Across the UK, 43,000 civilians lost their lives (a figure that was higher than the number of military casualties during the same period). These numbers are significantly smaller than some of the scenarios modelled for the impact of Covid-19 in the UK.
 
As importantly, civilian responses to the Blitz suggest the importance of social unity, imagined or not. Surveys carried out on behalf the government’s Ministry of Information show that reactions to bombing were often shaped by local conditions. Work that I have undertaken with Dr Jessica Hammett on Air Raid Precautions similarly suggess that people’s emotional connection to their local community could determine whether or not they volunteered for Civil Defence. It is more difficult to encourage active citizenship during a period of social distancing. 
 
What can we take from this? For me, at least, the most important lesson is that the Second World War will not hold all the answers. Instead of invoking a Blitz spirit and hoping for active citizenship, we need to define a Coronavirus spirit of our own. There are examples of people doing this for themselves. Boris Johnson’s government – like Winston Churchill’s – would be well-advised to validate and scale these activities while the impetus is there.
 

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Dr Henry Irving

Henry is a Senior Lecturer in Public History and the level lead for the MA Social History.

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