Exactly 77 years ago today Winston Churchill addressed the House of Commons, in the wake of the evacuation from Dunkirk. His speech – “we shall fight on the beaches” – is one of the most famous he ever delivered. His message of dogged defiance can still make one’s hairs stand on end when heard today.
Parliament was neither taped nor filmed in 1940. The speech we can hear today is one that Churchill put on record after the war, along with many others. Although he recorded some of his Commons speeches on the day they had been delivered, for broadcast by the BBC that evening, this was not one of them.
There is no doubt that Churchill’s words made a huge impact in Parliament, and history assesses that they also encouraged the country at a time of extreme peril. The reality is hard to recapture. My father, who was a Conservative supporter, always asserted that Churchill was clearly drunk when he spoke on the wireless, and envisaged him waking the next morning with a massive hangover, asking “Oh God, did I really say that?”
Having talked to many who lived through the Second World War, I am by no means sure that “the Blitz spirit” was all it was cracked up to be. Most people were scared, and not unreasonably so when Germany was tipping high explosives and incendiaries onto them from a considerable height nearly every night.
But they got on with it. In all the reading I did for my aborted, long-ago PhD on Second World War history, I don’t remember learning of the war effort stopping for a minute’s silence or candlelit vigil every time a bomb went off.
Compare and contrast the position today, where we face a much smaller threat from a bunch of lunatics armed with vehicles, knives and sometimes homemade explosives, and it is deemed appropriate for the country to grind to a halt and emote every time a bomber or knifeman gets through.
In a large field, the dirtiest look I have received this year to date was from the man across the carriage in a London-bound train when I dared to smile because the conductor’s declaration of a minute’s silence for the victims of Manchester was followed within nanoseconds by an automated announcement of the station where we were about to call, along with a list of all the subsequent calling points, information about emergency procedures, and so on and so forth.
Just as well, then, that I did not laugh out loud as my instincts dictated.
Silences, tealights, hashtags and tears will get us nowhere. Nor will changes to Facebook profile pictures and illuminating public buildings in the colours of the Union Jack.
Changing our foreign policy won’t make things better, either. Although I have actively opposed every UK overseas intervention of this century, I don’t believe for a minute that what we are facing in the UK is some sort of revenge for Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya.
These nutcases are perfectly explicit that they hate us not for what we have done, but for who we are. They will not be satisfied until we all sign up to their extreme interpretation of Islam: until Sharia law is universal, alcohol banned, our womenfolk shut up in their homes with bags over their heads, and until the last homosexual has been flung from the top of the nearest tall building.
I think we can all agree that is not going to happen, so the only alternatives are vigilance, resistance – and education.
Because if a conservative Roman Catholic country like Ireland can end up with the gay son of an Indian immigrant as its prime minister in 2017, it surely can’t be beyond our collective wits to persuade those who believe that Allah is calling them to go out and murder eight-year-old girls as “crusaders” that this is pernicious, wicked nonsense.
It won’t be swift, it won’t be easy, but then neither was defeating Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito seven decades ago, and we somehow managed that.
I have no idea why General Election campaigning was suspended, even temporarily, in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks. In July 1945 we staged a General Election while the Second World War was still raging in the Far East: counting was delayed for three weeks to allow ballot boxes to be transported from all round the world, containing the votes of hundreds of thousands of servicemen stationed, and in some cases fighting, overseas.
We should all vote without fear on Thursday, and if I had the choice I would vote for another Churchill to inspire us in the weary days, weeks and years of battle ahead. Unfortunately that choice is not available. Indeed, nearly every election this century has presented me at any rate with a choice of national leaders to which my natural reaction has been to wish for a box marked “none of the above”.
As it happens, I have already voted (by post) for someone I vaguely know who seems to have been doing a half decent job as my constituency MP. The events of London Bridge would not have changed my mind if I still had that decision to make.
Though if I had been thinking of voting for someone whose party leader’s answer to terrorism is to invite the terrorists in for a nice cup of tea and a cosy chat, it just might.