We Are Not in 1945: The Problem With Historical Comparisons

Leon Alleyne-McLaughlin discusses the danger in historical comparisons to the war during the Covid-19 crisis.

Sometime between people getting bored with the 'state-mandated jog' jokes and Keir Starmer's coronation as leader, Labour Twitter seemed to take a moment to look beyond the new normal of the lockdown and begin to consider what comes next after Covid-19. To realise that no matter what, there's no going back to how things were before coronavirus, and to start to think about what the post-epidemic social settlement will look like. And because the Labour Party tends to mainly view history through the lens of elections (and because of a lack of imagination), people have started invoking the 1945 election again.

I get the impulse. The 75th anniversary of VE day is today. If you look at the past 15 years, it's really not difficult to see the parallels.  We're about a dozen years out from an unprecedented economic collapse. Since then, we've seen a resurgence in fascist and populist right-wing politics, as traditional left-wing parties are routinely battered in elections across Europe. Now we're facing a new crisis that has severely disrupted the livelihoods of much of the population (many of who were still worse off than they were before the crisis a decade ago) and led to the government introducing new restrictions that fundamentally change the way most of us live. Said government has handled the crisis appallingly, even spending huge amounts ordering a million antibody tests that don't work on anyone who isn't currently displaying symptoms (an act almost as stupid as invading Norway without any skis). And at the end of it we'll be left facing a force we've been aware of for a while, but now due to our own hubris has the capacity to destroy human civilisation (yes I'm aware I'm stretching the metaphor a bit now). Also, we got absolutely beasted in the last general election (now sitting at around 200 MPs), and have recently replaced a left-wing pacifist leader who was out of step with the public, with a mild-mannered (and quite boring) solicitor from the home counties who went on to represent a London constituency, who managed to win the leadership in large part by A, still having a seat, B, having a reputation as a hard worker, and C, appearing to be a safe pair of hands who was inoffensive to both wings of the Party (I'll stop now).

However, despite the entire last paragraph, I don't think the comparisons to 1945 is actually that accurate, or even particularly helpful. First, consider the wider political context. If I can put my history nerd hat on for a moment, the post-war settlement was dependent on a series of broad trends that built up before, during, and after World War Two, few of which can be seen now. For the Tories, this meant coming to accept that change was necessary, both for the national interest and to maintain the Conservatives' position as the main party of government. However, despite the statist turn, the Conservatives have taken since the crisis began, it's difficult to argue that this represents a concrete change in policy or ideology similar to that which occurred within the Conservatives of the mid to late 1930s. Certainly, there was little to no sign of internal opposition to austerity or privatisation for most of David Cameron's time as PM. Meanwhile, despite the rhetoric of Theresa May, since her departure, the current cabinet seems to contain just as many members whose instincts towards an involved state are agnostic at best, and at worst actively hostile. To put it simply, it's difficult to see any Macmillan or R.A. Butler types who won't try to completely unpick any sort of progressive settlement as soon as the crisis has passed. (Update: This section was written before the defection of comrade Bone)

On the Labour side, the main problem is one of opportunity. While I'm willing to concede that Covid-19 represents a big enough disruption to the country to make it theoretically possible to gain the 200 odd seats needed for a majority in the space of one Parliament, there's a lot that would need to happen for it to become a likely outcome. And again invocations of the language of 1945 don't really fit. For one thing, by 1945 Labour already had 5 years of experience in government. Labour MPs had held senior positions in government, with Attlee acting almost as de facto PM in many areas of domestic policy. From 1943, 1 in 10 young male conscripts took their (colloquial) job title from Ernest Bevin. More to the point, because Labour went into coalition after the fall of France and the failed invasion of Norway, they benefited from the prestige of victory, without being associated with earlier failures. I don't want to litigate the potential benefits of a pandemic coalition in general, but from the perspective of the Labour Party, it's not clear that as the junior partner we wouldn't be left holding the bag for all that's gone wrong, or even that we'd be given enough responsibility to justify abandoning our current state of constructive opposition.

I said earlier that I understand the impulse to reach for 1945 and the Attlee government, and I do. Far apart from any historical parallels that may or may not be there, the idea that the two periods are linked provides hope. It reinforces the idea that as bad as things are they will get better, that the world after COVID will be better than what came before, and that something will be learned for all the suffering. But that's not how history works. Anyone who thinks the arc of history naturally bends towards anything like justice hasn't been paying attention to the past decade. Acting like we're heading towards pre-destined sunlit uplands, distracts us from doing what we need to do to build a better world in the here and now.

And worse than that, it limits our thinking about what we can achieve. When one of the biggest post-COVID health crises we'll face is an unprecedented wave of depression, anxiety and PTSD amongst NHS staff, thinking in terms of the NHS of 1948 is not helping. When the economic depression we're facing is about repairing and adapting to disrupted ways of working and trading and not rebuilding bombed-out factories, why talk about a Marshall Plan for Europe (or as it was previously known the Marshall Plan)? And maybe when the PM doesn't turn up to COBRA for 5 weeks, we can stop pretending he's some Churchillian wit!

The present has enough problems to solve, we must stop trying to fix the past as well.

Leon is the Secretary of the Young Fabians. He can be contacted at [email protected].

He tweets at @leon_alleyne

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