Victory in conflict is ultimately the prize of leaders but it is built on national collaboration, self-sacrifice, crisis management and the ruins of lives and countries.
A new world and dividends of peace can emerge but often the legacies of the old act to limit possibilities. The end of conflict is not an Aladdin’s lamp which can be rubbed, even by heroes, to have hopes realised. When the music fades as history and individual memory are moulded into justification for combat, sacred narratives, nostalgia and commemorative rituals, influential forces, some of which may bear responsibility for the conflict, re-emerge. Old boundaries are re-asserted.
Displaying a lack of desire for any shared humanity, controlling powers, informed by uncontested prejudice, greed and selfish ambition, manipulation rather than response and convenient morality, is exercised. The communal existence interwoven in conflict is again divided into segregated and separated clusters. Peace is scooped out as old certainties remain unchallenged and change-averse decision-makers go stale in addressing human need.
A few years after the end of World War One, the mayoress of the Londonderry Corporation received letters from unemployed veterans asking for help to feed their families. Not quite the ‘land fit for heroes’ that many had been persuaded would be a dividend of peace.
Earlier, in violence influenced by the unresolved political situation arising from pre-war lack of compromise, 1916 and unfolding events in Ireland, between 1917 and 1920, 40 people were to lose their lives in sectarian and politically-motivated street-fighting., described by the Times as a mini-Civil War. Some of those involved, now on opposite sides, had fought against a common enemy on the different fronts during World War One.
Belfast witnessed similar violence and a higher number of killings and causalities.
Peace, when it did emerge from an uneasy Agreement between the protagonists, served only as camouflage for deeply entrenched political differences fuelled by doctrinaire thinking. A missed opportunity for transformation could not shield the most volatile factions from shared social and economic inequality in the 1920s and 1930s as the world once again moved towards world war, victory in which we have been commemorating.
In the midst of what many are now describing as war of a different type there is an underlying yet palpable appeal to the ‘indomitable spirit of ‘45’ which, forgetting the legacy of the Blitz, North Africa, Stalingrad, the Pacific, Hiroshima, the Holocaust and too many similar examples, can spill over into romanticised war heroism bordering on escapism
British wartime leader, Winston Churchill cautioned in May 1945, that the nation could allow itself a ‘brief period of celebration.’ The war against Japan was still to be won but other challenges faced the United Kingdom in terms of economy and position in the world. Relieved of addressing these by the electorate, they became the brief of a new government. On taking office it acted to expand the Welfare State thereby ushering in a more equitable society in terms of health, educational opportunity and housing.
Not without its problems, this too is part of the spirit of ’45.
It would appear that in the light of the policies of various governments it has taken our experience of the current global pandemic to remind us of its value. Hollowed out by market led economics de-sensitised to the human impact of de-regulation, globalism and austerity and a disenfranchised percentage, forced to adhere to shallow passivity and coping self-interest, society developed immunity to lengthening waiting lists, welfare cuts, social inequality, marginalisation, foodbanks and injustice.
Wealth creation does not have to put humanity into reverse.
Caring, inclusive and accountable decision-making grounded in the aspirations of all the people and delivered through cost-effective and efficiently run public services, will render this avoidable. Government needs to act to build consensus, not to establish the supremacy of one party and ideology.
It is not to point the finger to suggest that we have been ill-equipped to handle the current pandemic. The NHS that we applaud weekly is clearly not lacking in human calibre but did lack enough intensive care beds, protective equipment for staff and, initially, ventilators. Other sectors of our health and social care infrastructure were similarly lacking. During this crisis, other vital life-saving treatments are being delayed. This situation is a product of decision-making beyond the term of one government and evidences a community distracted by misplaced priorities, discord and the politically spun illusion of a material paradise.
When the current crisis begins to subside and a treatment to eradicate the virus is available, it will feel like victory. It will be foolish in the midst of fleeting celebrations not to pause and ask of ourselves how we let it unfold as it did and what are the social, economic and political changes required to ensure a more effective response should similar challenges arise in the future.
Given time to reflect we will come to see that the Covid-19 crisis is a barometer of our times.