Monday, 8 December 2014

We don't have to let the elite roll back our achievements, but if we don't stop them, they will

“Very well, alone!” exclaims the lone Tommy, standing on a rock amid raging seas and shaking his fist at a stormy sky with warplanes heading towards him. David Low’s cartoon of June 1940 captures the spirit of dogged defiance in Britain at that time, when France had surrendered to Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union was allied to the aggressor, and the United States, while well-inclined towards Britain, was firmly attached to its neutrality.

Britain wasn’t really alone. It had what was then still the Empire behind it, with its vast resources of wealth and manpower. Indeed, even Low himself was a New Zealander. But Britain was alone in resisting Germany in Europe.

Curiously, Britain defying Germany mirrored what had happened in Germany itself 134 years earlier. Then the aggressively expansionist power had been France, under its Emperor Napoleon. A series of devastating victories had crushed all German resistance, ended the Holy Roman Empire and left only one power, Prussia, still standing out despite – or in part because of – having lost a large proportion of its territory and population to the invader.

Rather like Britain in 1940, Prussia wasn’t strictly alone. Britain continued to be a thorn in Napoleon’s side, maintaining dominance at sea and using it to blockade the Continent of Europe (no wonder, with such a tradition, that Britain is a truculent member of the EU today). But Prussia was alone on the Continent to refuse to bow down at last to Napoleon.

It’s been fascinating to listen to Neil MacGregor of the British Museum discussing how Prussia reacted. It did away with ostentation and luxury in dress. Ladies were urged to hand over their gold, and receive in return – iron jewellery, worn with pride as a sign of patriotic spirit.

Iron is a common metal, used in industry and labour generally. It isn’t noble.

The Prussian King also decided to do away with all military decorations, and replace them with the single Iron Cross. As well as being likewise made of that common metal, it had another vital and new characteristic: unlike previous decorations, it wasn’t limited to officers, but could be won by any soldier, irrespective of rank.

The old, egalitarian Iron Cross
Before the Nazis got hold of it
So the response to invasion and defeat was retrenchment, economy and egalitarianism.

That spirit saw Prussia through to a complete turnaround in its fortunes, defeating France with support from Russia, which as in 1941 switched sides after its ostensible ally attacked it, and then from other Germans that came rallying to the Prussian cause. Prussia led the successful campaigns on the Continent, with Britain, winning victories in the Iberian Peninsula, little more than the hero of a sideshow.

Even during the final struggle, after Napoleon escaped from his first exile to return and terrorise Europe again, it was Germans, the bulk of them Prussians, that secured his final defeat: Prussian troops came to the rescue of Wellington who was battling it out with the French army, at the head of a British, Dutch and German force, at Waterloo.

And then? Once the war was over, all the egalitarianism went right out of the window. Why, even the Iron Cross was discontinued, not to be re-introduced until the 1870s. The old reactionary crowned heads of Europe took up their previous positions and began to rule in the traditional way, crushing all liberal, democratic opposition.

Sad, isn’t it? The egalitarian spirit was great when the country needed everyone to join in and kick out the French. But once the job was done, it was dropped, and back went the masses to their old subordination by the self-proclaimed elite.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen to Britain after it stood alone against the Nazis. In 1945, it elected a great reforming Labour government which ensured there were profound changes in the structure of society to protect those most in need of it.

No, in Britain we did things differently. It took 65 years before we found ourselves ruled by people who want to undo all the measures that had been taken in favour of those who made the victory possible. That’s happening now, with a vengeance. And in the wings is another party, UKIP, as intent as the Tories on taking us back to the 1930s, and which is in any case the natural heir of the British Union of Fascists which made so much noise in the country at that time.

I suppose it’s progress of a kind. Reaction that reversed social advances in a few years in Germany took as long in Britain as it takes a newborn to reach pension age.

There’s one other big difference. We elected the government that’s doing the damage to us. And we can still, if we choose, make sure that it can’t finish its job.

That the Prussian people couldn’t do, back in 1815. But we can. In elections in 2015.

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