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When will the Left get over WW2?

October 8, 2019 - 11:30am

No sooner had news filtered through that Pizza Express was in trouble when, inevitably, some people suggested nationalising it. Jon Stone of the Independent pointed out that “From 1940 to 1947 the Ministry of Food ran about 2,000 “British Restaurants” selling inexpensive hot meals for the equivalent of about £1 in today’s money.”

Owen Jones ran with the idea, proposing “Publicly owned restaurants offering subsidised quality food – maybe with allocated spaces for, say, nurses and care workers, or people on lower incomes. Everyone deserves a decent meal out with their loved ones or families.”

I can’t really begin to imagine how hellish these places would be: how bad the food, how surly and demoralized the staff, how long the wait for service. Having said that, I’d definitely go to an ironic 1940s café in north London, the sort of place run by ruthless former public schoolboys (“Bastards masquerading as dickheads”, as the Daily Mash called the type).

But, as with lots of ideologies – including many Right-wing ones – I’d prefer the fantasy to the reality of 1940s socialism.

It often seems that the British Left, more than the British Right, has failed to get over the high of the Second World War. It was a period of exceptionally rare social solidarity, a country totally united against an enemy of undoubted evil and facing the perils together, without the sordid moral compromise and division that comes from occupation. The bestselling The Spirit Level, with its melancholy nostalgia for the egalitarianism of 1939-1945, was a good recent example of this nostalgia; but then class differences do tend to disappear when you’re all facing death and slavery.

The Second World War has also, in my view, left Britain more sympathetic to socialism than almost any other country because wartime Britain was probably the most successful authoritarian socialist regime in history. Socialism does work – when the society trying to achieve it has very high levels of solidarity, for which there needs to be an enemy and an existential threat. That’s why authoritarian socialist countries tend to invent an enemy where it doesn’t exist.

It’s not a coincidence that the most sacred institution in Britain, the NHS, emerged from the war; or that the second most, the BBC, hugely grew in psychological importance during the conflict.

Oxytocin is a hugely pleasurable hormone – the feeling of being part of a group, united together in purpose and supporting each other, is what makes us happy, far more so than material goods. In contrast individualistic societies, while making us richer, often leave us miserable and lonely; no wonder people still long for the Spirit of 45.

Ed West’s book Tory Boy is published by Constable


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