Like the dead, few speak ill of Britain’s past during World War Two or our post-war resurrection when we became, for a brief while, a nation for and by the people.
We hold that era – especially the creation of the NHS – in a reverence that is almost religious in its piety for a time that many believe was better and more noble than today. In many ways, our placing this era onto a pedestal prevents us from solving the many catastrophes that pester Britain today: from Brexit to the refugee crisis, or the growing economic divide that threatens our democracy.
We have been conditioned by our politicians, news media and films like Dunkirk or Their Finest to see the history of my generation as momentous and gallant, and those that followed in our wake as feckless and incapable of sacrifice. Anyone who has tried to keep a family alive, happy and emotionally nurtured, during the present time of austerity knows this to be untrue.
My generation’s struggles have been painted in such heroic tones that many now see the fight for a decent society as unobtainable in this epoch of greed, corruption and consumerism. Today, the people of my youth who built the NHS are viewed almost like the ancient residents of Britain who erected Stonehenge. We are like mythical beings whose methods used to construct the NHS are unknowable to modern Britain.
People today stand in awe at the gumption it took for ordinary people in 1945 to not only demand public healthcare but expect their politicians to follow through on their promise by founding the NHS. In the 21st century, the British populace sees the birth of the NHS as a heroic struggle that mere 21st-century mortals are incapable of replicating.
We have become a nation that indulges itself in treacle nostalgia and self-pity because the baby boomers think they lack the strength of my generation to overcome obstacles. Moreover, some pundits and middle-of-the-road politicians are now using the prospect of Brexit as if it were the Visigoths banging on the gates of Rome to end civilisation, in an attempt to destabilise Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. All that will do is return us to the politics that brought Britain to the brink of ruin in the first place.
Turning my generation’s struggles into a myth has tethered us to inept politicians like Theresa May or centrist politicians cut from the neoliberal cloth of New Labour. It allows us to wallow in the mediocrity of political indifference or ignorance, instead of raising us to the heights that are in every human being.
But as someone who lived in that far-off place now called history, I know this generation is more than capable of doing great things – if it remembers that the past is populated with the same type of people as today. No matter the moment in time, we are all capable of weakness, sloth or courage.
In 1948, the year the NHS was born, it was a time like now – fraught with uncertainty. The problems we had 70 years ago, from housing to healthcare, were just as significant as today’s issues. But what made us different and more willing to accept drastic measures wasn’t that we had more courage or resolve; it was that we feared returning to our Great Depression past more than facing the uncertainties of the brave new world Labour was building through socialism.
We knew in those first few years after Hitler’s defeat the consequences of not taking collective action against inequality, and so we supported the Attlee government because it reflected the will of ordinary Britain, even if we resented the hardships it imposed upon us.
They were, however, desperately hard days, because in the summer of 1948 Britain was still humbled by war and smarting from a peace that felt like a rain-soaked bank holiday in Bridlington. We were a nation where happiness was as scarce as red meat. There was a drabness to working class existence that played itself out in bedsits across the nation.
Beans on toast was a staple for our tea, and a cigarette shared between husband and wife while sipping a splash of gin was the limit to our extravagance. The excitement of living in wartime had passed like a tidal wave, and in its wake my working class generation faced the grim grind of life in factories, mills and mines.
In the summer sun of 1948 the NHS was created, and I remember thinking then, at least I won’t die in the workhouse like my sister did in 1926 because my parents were too poor to pay for a doctor to care for her as she succumbed to TB.
I had a sense, as did all my mates, that dawn was breaking out across the whole nation when the NHS opened its doors on 5 July. My generation knew that self-interest is best served in the collective of the common good.
It’s time the people of today knock my generation off the pedestal of history by just comprehending that every crisis abates, all suffering eases and hope is eternal. You can endure most everything if you preserve democracy and defend the NHS, because it’s the foundation of the modern welfare state.
Life is more than a budget holiday in Spain or a new car on tick; it’s about creating legacies that can outlive your natural life.
Harry Leslie Smith is the author of Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future, published by Little Brown
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