Thursday, 22 July 2010

WWII: Fails all round.

History is complicated. It's difficult to use it as a message as whatever you say can be misinterpreted. Even with that in mind David Cameron's comments were misjudged.

"I think it is important in life to speak as it is and the fact is that we are a very effective partner of the US but we are the junior partner," he said.

"We were the junior partner in 1940 when we were fighting the Nazis."

Let's get the real historical mistake out the way first. 1940 was a complicated year. The fall of the Western European Government's, the Battle of Britain, the Invasion of Greece, and the beginnings of the North African theatre (to name just a few events!). But in no way we a "junior partner" in the war at that point. After the Fall of France, it was us, the Dominions, our Empire and the few brave souls in the "Free" forces of Europe left. The USA may have been helping us materially, but it was not in a partnership with us at that point. That didn't come until the end of 1941 and only then because Hitler declared war on the USA (not the other way round!).

The "junior partner" comment rankles. And even if 1940 was a slip, it's still controversial. However it's only controversial because of the image we have built up of our country during the war (more on that in a minute) and because of the strains in the special relationship that have come about in the last decade. Let's be brutally honest with ourselves. We have a lot to be proud of regarding our contribution to the victory in Europe. Without us, I would argue, the war would have perhaps been unwinnable and, certainly, much longer. But by the end of 1944, and definitely in 1945, we were becoming an irrelevancy as the two great superpowers of the later 20th century arose from their slumbers. We, and France, were afforded influence only as a courtesy, and because of the USA's need for allies for the future. Let's not beat around the bush there. We were very much the grateful, junior partner.

So David Cameron's comments were factually incorrect, misjudged but do contain a kernel of honesty about our position with regards to the USA.

I suppose David Miliband thought he could play for some political points after Cameron's gaffe. Alas, he also displayed (probably because of the Twitter character limit) a wanton disregard for historical fact.

1940 was "our finest hour". We stood alone against fascism. How can a British PM get that wrong? Its a slight not a slip.

I think the millions of people who fought on our behalf from many countries around the world, after the fall of France in 1940, would have something to say about the "we stood alone" myth. This myth arose thanks to Churchill's inspiring speeches during that dark time of our history. It also comes from an arrogance that we display towards the former empire which we seem to have so quickly forgotten.

Let's be clear, there were many countries with us in those dark days. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, etc. etc. Their blood was spilt for us, and OUR freedom. To so quickly make ourselves into martyrs is an insult to the memory of those brave people who came to our aid for no other reason than the bonds of Empire (some more willingly than others, we must admit!).

We did not stand alone. Isn't that the more inspiring story? Through familial ties and imperial loyalties we managed to pull through and together, the free democratic dominions,  the United Kingdom and the soon to be free imperial possessions faced down the gravest military threat the world has ever known and kept them from our shores long enough to allow events to turn in our favour.

You know, David Cameron's slip was regrettable. But Miliband's slight against those who gave their lives on our behalf is perhaps the more insulting slip.

Let this be a lesson. Using a conflict, that brought so much pain and misery to millions, to make a political point is probably a mistake.

If you feel benevolent and particularly generous, this writer always appreciates things bought for him from his wishlist

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