The story told about the war veteran was always strangely partial
More than three years on from the first Covid-19 lockdown, we can begin to take a more critical view of those weird times. The ferociously enforced yet largely pointless restrictions on outdoor recreation; the bizarre Thursday night routine of Clap For Carers; the enormous amounts of time, money and energy devoted to the mostly useless theatre of surface cleaning and “social distancing”. Yet in some respects, none of these were as strange as the emergence of Captain Tom Moore, the fundraising centenarian who caught the nation’s imagination by walking laps of his garden, and who was later knighted before his death in early 2021.
Now, naturally, in the week that we mark the 75th birthday of the NHS, his story is back in the headlines. His daughter has reportedly been ordered to demolish a “spa and pool complex” erected at her home without proper planning permission. Apparently the Captain Tom Foundation’s name was used in the initial application, without permission from the trustees. The Foundation itself has been under investigation by the Charity Commission for a year and has stopped accepting or seeking donations.
As with the peculiar social media afterlife of Harry Leslie Smith, another Second World War veteran who became politically prominent late in life — his son, bizarrely, continues to trash talk Captain Tom on Twitter — there is an unmistakeable whiff of something not being quite right. One could be forgiven for thinking that the British public’s appetite for sentimental stories involving old soldiers has turned into a very nice little earner.
Captain Tom was an ideal hero for our era. For one thing, he was a veteran of the Second World War — that straightforwardly good and noble conflict in which we defeated fascism, and in whose aftermath were sown the seeds of the new British founding myths: the NHS, the Windrush generation, the welfare state. For another, he was raising money for a worthy cause. Crucially, he was also extremely old, meaning that the public presentation of his personality, life story and opinions could be carefully stage-managed. After all, people who were already adults by the time of Second World War, and well into middle age when the permissive society took off in the 1960s, do not always fit well into contemporary social mores.
The Tom Moore story exposes some striking confusions and tensions in modern Britain. This is not simply down to the fact that he acquired saintly status by raising money for Our NHS, an institution which is increasingly venerated in explicitly religious terms that would have seemed bizarre only a decade or two ago.
Consider also that, while we still feel obliged to look back fondly at the generation who defeated Hitler and Imperial Japan (Moore’s active service was in Burma), the country which they knew, and for which they fought, is now profoundly alien to most of us in its manners, morals and culture. So we occupy a curious halfway house. Men like Tom Moore are held up as folk heroes, with their long-ago military service valorised in abstract terms. As a nation, we do not really want to know anything about where exactly he fought, or why, or how he and others like him viewed their service at the time.
The war is understood through the prism of the post-war settlement, with its implicitly anti-traditional and modernising character. Our perception is also coloured by the modern ideological preoccupations that draw their moral authority from the putative “refounding” of the country after 1945: most obviously equality and diversity, suspicion of patriotism and national feeling, and attachment to the state as liberator and moral arbiter.
It might be a step too far to say that the promotion of Captain Tom by the media and politicians was a deliberate or conscious attempt to further embed this new understanding of our recent history. Similar accusations have certainly been levelled at his family members in recent days. Yet, intentionally or not, the new British national story has taken hold.