Although not a poet by trade, Billy Ocean’s pronouncement that ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going’ has been proved more prophetic than parallelistic over the past few weeks. It is true, the going has indeed been tough. I would argue that the tough have also got going.
With the arrival of the coronavirus to our shores, we’ve seen the terms such as ‘Blitz spirit’ thrown around quite liberally. Perhaps sounding more like a CUCA event than traditional public discourse, every broadcast from ministerial briefings to the sofa of Good Morning Britain have been doused in buzzwords of national unity and patriotic progress. If you’ve ever been to the pub with me you’ll know I enjoy verbal flag-waving as much as the next man, but I must admit my initial reaction to the virological jingoism was quiet reticence.
Why is this? The answer is quite simple: most of us are quite literally not doing very much. As much as I wish it did, my contemplative 100 words of dissertation work a day doesn’t constitute ‘Blitz spirit’. Perhaps the inversion of the active and the passive is the latest turn on the wild ride of post-modern Britain, as we virtuously congratulate ourselves for not going to the pub for a few weeks. In an immediate sense, it appeared wrong to elevate myself to the pedestal of key workers and NHS staff for my seemingly rare ability to conduct my usual schedule during a pandemic.
In the past month, however, I’ve come to realise the profound cynicism of this view. This epiphany derives not from ideology, but instead observation. As Plato relates in his Republic, the first glances at truth are painful and distressing.
Although I’ve written somewhat whimsically about the ease of staying at home and following government instructions, I’ve been astounded by how difficult this appears to be for so many people. Every weekend the tabloids show us the countless morons who think it’s acceptable to go to beaches, parks, or host gatherings during a period of lockdown. With over 1,000 fines issued since formal quarantine was announced, I’m left aghast at the stupidity of those who so willingly break the law for the sake of recreation.
This is the first reason, then, that I’ve come to appreciate the term ‘Blitz spirit’. Quite clearly, following simple rules and instructions is a gargantuan task for an unfortunate proportion of the population. Not going to the beach, second homes, or pubs is clearly a monumental sacrifice.
Quite tragically, good friends of mine make up this number. Even worse, many are members of this esteemed Association! Leaving aside those who undertake unnecessary travel out of pure stupidity (240-mile roundtrips for milk), it pains me to say the worst offenders come from the political right.
From them and others I’ve heard various arguments against the lockdown, why going out isn’t a problem and why they should be allowed to do it, etc ad infinitum. These aren’t worth mentioning in any serious detail, and normally consist of some garbled libertarian nonsense about why use of the army presents a threat to democracy, banning Brits from the pub is authoritarian and every ancient charter of English liberty has somehow been torn up by Boris ‘Stalin’ Johnson since late March. If you want more poorly rehashed Peter Hitchens columns, come to Little St Mary’s church hall every second Saturday of term - more details on Facebook.
The real question that needs to be asked, however, is why this lockdown is so ideologically difficult for so many — particularly on the right — across Britain.
In a general sense, it seemingly reflects the sorry state of British society. The fact the term ‘Blitz spirit’ is even being used demonstrates the societal nadir of the present day. Why simply following the law and staying at home are paramount to wartime struggle, I do not know.
In an ideal world, the conscientious respect for the government, fellow citizens and the law would be a natural and acknowledged part of citizenship. In true British form, the political paternalism would produce social cohesion and unity at all levels of society. Your duties to your fellow man would be obvious. Staying at home and saving lives would be a natural mantra by which we would accept sacrifice and overcome present circumstances.
As we know, the realities are tragically different. Even amongst the traditional right we see a peculiar admixture of modern egoism and BTEC American libertarianism. The cries of anguish at making small personal sacrifices for a greater good or — God forbid — accepting and following the guidance of the government has become a cross-like burden. It appears to me the majority of arguments against the lockdown stem not from a deep belief in English freedom but instead a reluctance to give up pub trips and the temporary inability to eat in restaurants.
Gone are the days of true ‘Blitz spirit’. Instead, we are confronted with the worst manifestations of the political right: puerile hostility to government overreach and radical individualism. Britain has grown slothful and idle to the point that minor sacrifices to our daily lives are now signs of authoritarian oppression. I’m sorry to break it to you, Young Conservative #76324 (note the capital C), you're not a libertarian rancher from Nevada, you’re a student from Harrogate.
But who can blame them? Since the Second World War (if not the Industrial Revolution), we've seen the abolition of just about every point of national unification Britain has ever known. Starting with the village and proceeded by the slow dissolution of the counties, the national Church, the family unit and finally the nation state, there has been a wholesale decimation of what it means to be British.
Fortunately, the powers that be allow us to get excited at the World Cup every four years, but this is a pathetic indicator of the depths of cultural alienation to which we’ve sank.
Who, then, is surprised that so few are able to muster the resilience to make sacrifices and follow the law in the interests of national health? As The Kinks told us in 1984, ‘there is no England now’. Most party-political Conservatives should be nodding their heads at this stage; “Of course, if only we had more (select as appropriate) flags/photos of the Queen/military monuments in public places!”
The tragic irony is, however, that the modern Conservative party are perhaps most to blame for the recent and rapid decline of national spirit, unity and culture that is now manifesting itself in the contemptuous response to the government lockdown by a select few.
Very much a mantra of those unfortunate Young Conservatives that haunt the darkest parts of Twitter, Baroness Thatcher’s 1987 assertion that ‘there is no such thing as society’ is a perfect demonstration of this. Although taken out of context, the Conservative Party’s wholesale adoption of a neoliberal trajectory from 1975 onwards has cut deep social divisions in the national fabric.
In many respects, this is the final nail in the coffin of paternalistic Britain. The shift towards atomisation that began with Thatcher, was compounded by Blair and solidified under Cameron has created an altar of free markets and soft libertarianism on which historic Britain has been sacrificed.
It’s natural, then, that individual disdain at pubs being shut and restaurants closed often comes before any sense of national duty or civic obedience. Like petulant children, a tragic number of those brought up under Blair now succumb to the philosophy of ‘What do you mean I can’t have what I want when I want it?’.
This reminds me of Karl Barth’s discussion of Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo. I agree with little of Barth’s politics, but his treatment of nihilism is very apt; in many respects it reflects the battle we face for Britain’s soul.
Towards the end of the Ecce Homo, Nietzsche writes that ‘I have chosen the word immoralist as my banner, my badge of honour; I am proud to have this word as a mark of distinction from humanity’. He is confronting the last true enemy of Zarathustra or Dionysius, the Christian ethics which champion the ‘morality of slaves, of failures, of those who go under, of the colourless, the mistaken, the worthless, the under-world, the ghetto, the variegated mass of abjects and rejects’, as Barth puts it. Nietzsche was focused on ascent, the notion of moving beyond and surpassing the mortal plane towards that ‘azure isolation’ of nihilism.
In response, Barth points to the assertion that ‘I am as Thou art’; my existence is inherently bound with yours. The egoistic ascent of nihilism is, as Barth puts it, inhuman. To be myself is to share something with you also.
Today too, I would argue, we must watch the radical individualism that has overtaken us. In wholehearted, unquestioning embrace of neoliberal principles that subsume everything and everyone beneath the cult of the individual, we too risk that ‘azure isolation’.
To see ‘Blitz spirit’, then, assume the form of basic social responsibility is very worrying. If nothing else, it shows us how far we have fallen from the notion of monumental sacrifice and civic responsibility exemplified in the first half of the twentieth century.
In an unthinking embrace of consumer capitalist trends, all else begins to fall away.
I can only express disgust, then, when I see radical neoliberals deride the millions of Britons clapping for our NHS and key workers every Thursday. It is your politics that have expedited the destruction of our culture, religion and identity, so don’t be surprised when one of the few rallying points we have left is treated like a secular deity.
Perhaps this is a better way of looking at ‘Blitz Spirit’, then. It is as tragic as it is necessary. Despite its sorry state, it reflects that fundamental human need for identification and communality that has been rapidly repressed in the past half a century. It is the ‘I and Thou’ Barth spoke of, the humanity in the face of misanthropic ‘azure isolation’.
This is not an ideological issue, and I’m not seeking to stitch it into a grand Left vs Right tapestry of paleoconservative revolution. Instead, it is a call to come to our senses, to look critically at the state of Britain and what it means to call yourself conservative.
To be British doesn't seem to mean an awful lot nowadays, but if nothing else: stay home, save lives, do your duty.