LEADING ARTICLE : Unlearning the lessons of 1945

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The building in which this newspaper is edited stands at the bottom knuckle of the thumb shape of the Isle of Dogs, in the heart of the London docks. The curve of the Thames here, familiar from the title sequence of EastEnders, was also the landmark used by German bomb-aimers to confirm that they were over their target. On 10 May 1941 there was a bright moon and little cloud - the bombers, flying in formation with their fighter escorts, found their mark easily. From this building, had it stood then, one would have been able to see fires raging from Essex to Hammersmith. Parliament, Westminster Abbey, the British Museum, the Law Courts and the Tower were all hit. By the next morning, with the city covered by a pall of drifting, brownish smoke, one third of London's streets were blocked and nearly fifteen hundred Londoners were dead.

Four years later, in May 1945, the war in Europe was over. Britain, which in 1940 and 1941 had genuinely stood alone, save for its colonies and former dominions, could congratulate itself for its extraordinary achievements. The fact that the realities of wartime Britain have sometimes been cloaked in roseate myth cannot diminish the scale of what was done. While some panicked during the blitz, most did not; some Britons became spivs and profiteers, but the vast majority simply did their duty.

For the British people the Second World War was also a democratic victory. Never before had an enterprise so completely involved the whole nation, from those in the services to those in the shelters. And never before had the people been so influential - the merest suggestion that morale was falling was enough to make ministers rush to appease public opinion. It was a victory which tested the nation's capacity to improvise. A quarter of a million soldiers were trapped on the beaches in northern France in late June 1940. Steaming through the mine-strewn seas to rescue them went the unprotected fishing boats, the ferries and the Channel steamers. They turned disaster into a national symbol of resistance.

The vote for change

And when it was all coming to an end, instead of clinging to the symbols of past glory, the British people - unsentimental and unafraid - voted for change. The period after the war was used to consolidate the social revolution that had begun in wartime. The welfare state was born.

Modern Britain was forged in the war. Today's notion of Britishness, such as it is, owes a great deal to that common experience of conflict. The qualities of the East End were celebrated by the inhabitants of Edinburgh; the villages of Norfolk and Pembroke became home to air crews from Birmingham and Liverpool. The voice of the BBC, the "careless talk" posters and the popular ballads helped to define a British "personality" that had not really existed before. Above all, the sense of difference was reinforced. Britain was not fascist like the Germans and Italians, it had not been defeated like the French and Poles and it had not been tardy like the Americans.

Most of all, the country had done what was right. In 1945, with the liberation of the death camps, it became clear what kind of enemy had been vanquished. Unlike after 1918, when the Great War could be seen with hindsight as a pointless slaughter, Britain's role in the 1939-45 war could be judged unambiguously good. Just as Abraham Lincoln's war began in 1861 over the issue of secession but ended as a battle for human emancipation, so Britain's war originated in power politics but became a crusade to liberate Europe from tyranny.

Finally, Britain proved its national stability. Before the war, membership of the parties of the revolutionary left and the extreme right had been negligible; so it remained afterwards. The Labour Party was an adequate vehicle for those who favoured a faster pace of social reform; but the Conservatives too had learnt to accommodate the demands of the people. In 1951 the two parties between them shared over 90 per cent of the popular vote.

The habit of compromise

This then was the Britain shaped by war; a Britain to which many of us cling. While the celebration of VE Day is primarily an exercise in remembrance and thanksgiving, it is also an attempt to keep alive the Britain of the Forties, Fifties and Sixties - a Britain that has had its day. The hard truth is that we have been too successful for our own good in holding on to the legacy of the past.

Over time the dynamic aspects of victory - social change and reconstruction - have been supplanted by the residual complacencies of the victor. Our institutions - the BBC, the NHS, the police force, the monarchy, Parliament - being cast as "the envy of the world", found it more difficult to change. The habit of compromise to achieve a quiet life, of "custom and practice", entered our souls. Above all, our attitudes to the world, especially towards Europe, have been afflicted with a self-righteousness that all too easily refers to our wartime self-image.

One consequence of this has been to make change, when it has arrived, more sudden and painful than might otherwise have been necessary. The Thatcher revolution squeezed into eleven harsh years what might have been done over thirty. And even then it was a partial transformation, neglecting to modernise the institutions of power and government. Today John Major uses the image of a united Britain at war to resist demands for Scottish devolution; his benighted backbenchers deploy similar language to resist integration into a "German-dominated Europe".

Fifty years after victory, the majority of Britons have no direct memory of the war. The problems they face are very different from those of 1945. Tackling them will require clearsightedness and a lack of sentimentality. It will require us to learn from other countries, in Europe, Asia and the Americas. It will mean embracing new technologies and new forms of social organisation. It will continue to require blood, sweat and tears to construct a society that is dynamic, free, tolerant and just.

Today we should keep silence for those who died and give thanks for the peace they secured. Then we should move on.