London Blitz Square

Our changing of the guard over the last eighty years

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Please forgive this contribution but the passing of one’s mother is a profound event and writing her eulogy makes one reflect on not just the individual but also how society and our country has changed over a long life. While clearly a eulogy is about an individual, I have drawn on an aspect of it, changing only the address of a real event, out of respect to the family who were killed. The purpose is to contrast the spirit of pre-war and wartime Britain with today with some political and cultural observation on our times. While each family experience is unique I suspect many will understand the broad brush of cultural change that this nation has seen over the last eighty-plus years.

MY MOTHER was born in the south of England into an Evangelical Christian family on the very eve of war, during the hot summer of 1939, in what was shortly to be bomb alley in the county of Essex.

Her father, my grandfather, was the minister of the Wesleyan Reform Church. He continued to preach each Sunday until he was 97. Indeed his modest claim was to have preached over 20,000 sermons over his lifetime and he said ‘without repetition.’

Mother’s early life was of the sound of war. They, living in a small town to the North East of London, were right in the pathway of the nightly bombings from the Axis Powers.

On one occasion my Grandmother heard the drone of the German bombers, a regular sound, and providentially scooped my mother and her brother up under the oak table.

Minutes later a bomb dropped and destroyed No. 2 Beverley Hill, killing the inhabitants. There were only three houses in the road. Mother lived at No.3 and all the windows and much of the ceiling were blown out. My expectant grandmother’s third child was still-born as a result of the blast.

Undaunted my grandmother hung out the shattered window and sung at the top of her voice the great hymn ‘Lead kindly light amidst the encircling gloom.’

After the dust settled makeshift opaque rough glass was placed over the shattered windows, the ceilings were patched in a very ‘Heath Robinson’ manner and the large crater in part of the garden was great fun for the children to play in.

What I think is interesting, and clearly it must be considered in the context of total war, is that response to disaster. It was to pray and sing to the Lord in an indomitable spirit. No matter what the adversity, and to witness your neighbour’s plight and understand the very fragility of life with direct adverse effect, is pretty profound. Did she grumble and ask the state for help? No. She sung in praise.

Contrast that with the likely response today.

A reporter would show up and looking worthy and falsely concerned would seek to apportion blame to elicit a comment.

Should the Government not have invested in a better air warning system and air raid shelter?

Have you been to the local food bank to get some free pasta and ragu sauce?

What about your rights to a ‘decent home?’

Surely the manse is unsafe and you have a right to be re-housed?

And as for the crater in the back garden it simply does not meet health and safety guidance. A fence needs to be placed around it with a sign saying ‘Beware deep crater.’

In fact we need to speak to social services as you are irresponsible allowing your children to play on a bomb site. Your children should be placed in care as they cannot live in such dangerous and insanitary conditions.

I exaggerate a bit of course but the point is real today, after several generations of the gradual erosion of the family and the idea of personal responsibility and accountability to the safety blanket of the state many in our nation have been infantilised. The more the state does the more corrosive it is.

The state will look after you from cradle to the grave. NHS, state education, social care, end of life care, housing benefit, universal income, social credits, the list goes on. Right, rights, rights, but where are the responsibilities, the duties, the obligations?

Of course, in many cases, it may sound reasonable or even compassionate for the state to do this or that but the price is the weakening of the family, undermining community, lowering personal ambition and dulling creativity. Ultimately it is creating a growing dependent group who are not fulfilling their potential.

There was of course no pre-war utopia. It would be intensely naïve to believe that. There was genuine poverty for a proportion of the population but there was also a much stronger feeling of community, trust and self-reliance. If something went wrong you tried to sort it yourself.  This bred stoicism, resilience and loyalty. It created genuine community, much charity and a stronger self.

Today our politicians can’t say no. They don’t do tough love. So despite a roaring jobs market they say oh let’s get a decent headline and keep the left wing think tanks that the media give such oxygen to at bay and increase the universal state payment by twenty quid. Wrong response. That simply dulls the work ethic and creates dependency. That is not the road to personal advancement.

By offering an all embracing cradle-to-grave welfare state the individual rationally changes his or her behaviour. It reduces reliance on the wider family network and encourages, at the margin, family breakdown therefore undermining the next generation’s chances.

Today we have reached the sad situation where the state is over half the entire output of the nation.  More, a staggering £297bn is spent on ‘social protection’ (almost one pound in every six generated) each year. As a proportion of GDP almost no the country on earth spends such a sum yet that is not the message given by government, quango or media. It is never enough.

Britain cannot continue like this. Lockdown has shown how advanced national fear is and acceptance of draconian action. My grandmother, or indeed my mother, would have had none of this. They were fiercely independent, patriotic Christian people deeply sceptical of the man from the ministry offering help.

If we are to remain a free people, both at a national and personal level, we must address not just the size of the state but also its scope. We must realise that the well-intentioned state help comes with a big price. Infantilisation and a crushing of the spirit. Slowly but surely it bleeds responsibility and the ability to act independently. That is not a free society it is a chained one.

In many ways Britain is immeasurably richer than it was in 1939, the year of my mother’s birth.  There is almost no genuine poverty, technology has made the impossible possible and the standard of living for almost all is in a different spectrum.

But with that (and not because of, as the wealth has been technology and productivity driven) has been a loss of freedom and responsibility. With it has come, for far too many, reliance on the state, despite full employment, increasing mental health problems, addictions and troubled lives. The irony is state interference generally encourages these problems, rather than cure them.

As I reflect on my mother’s life I should say that despite all its difficulties Britain of that period was a gentler, kinder, more cohesive and stable place than it is today. It had a strong network of community and local charity. It was resilient and while there were tensions between capital and labour, life was not dominated by politics in every micro sphere as it is today. People were generally free to go about their business as they saw fit. Urgently we need to roll away from the absurd idea that the man from the ministry knows best and rebuild family, community and self-reliance and trust the people not coerce them.

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Photo of Luftwaffe Heinkel 111 bomber over London. Below is the River Thames and Tower Bridge. German photo taken Sept. 7, 1940 during first year of World War II by Everett Collection from Shutterstock.

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