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Why it matters today

Posted by Richard Friday, September 17, 2010

To complete yesterday's piece, before getting back to work, it is worth noting that as of yesterday seventy years ago, the capital city has suffered nine days of continuous bombing. Perhaps 4,000 Londoners were dead, getting on for 10,000 had been injured and over 100,000 were homeless. No one actually knows the true numbers because any semblance of record-keeping had broken down.

In the most heavily affected areas, local authority services had all but ceased to function. Rest centres, set up to deal with bombing victims, were not even scratching the surface. Public shelters were grossly overcrowded, woefully lacking in facilities and insanitary. One shelter, intended for 3,000 people, had four toilets – and it was accommodating 15,000 people.

Public transport was erratic, and in large parts of London had stopped working completely. Abandoned by the government system, families were trekking out to Epping Forest, to the hop fields of Kent and even as far as Oxford, by the tens of thousands, in an attempt to reach safety and relief. Chislehurst Caves in Kent were converted to accommodate nearly 10,000 – by the people themselves.

Yet, coming into the tenth day, the official government policy on using the Underground as bomb shelters was still prohibition. Even as the sirens sounded, women and children were being turned away, while the likes of Lord Halifax enjoyed the safety of their luxury shelters in the deep basements of the Dorchester Hotel.

After the tube trains have finished running for the night, it remains policy to lock the stations and mount police guards to keep people out. And the police did as they were told by their bosses.

In a few stations, though, there were people sheltering overnight. This is so unusual that a Guardian columnist actually writes about it in his paper – he is one of the lucky ones. But it is only because the people turned up en masse with crowbars and swept the police aside. They broke into the stations and secured shelter, in defiance of the authorities and their prohibitions. The people decided and, shortly afterwards, the government caved in and lifted the prohibition.

It was the same elsewhere on other issues. Shelter management and organisation was set up not by the government but by volunteers. When the government decided to put its own people in, they were swept aside. Local vicars, WVS volunteers, and many others, started making sense of the rest centres, and gradually order – and humanity – prevailed. And, in each case, the government fell into line.

In other words, the collapse of society was averted – and the safety of the people assured – more or less, not by a beneficent government but by people power. It was their endurance, their good sense, their organisational skills and perseverance that saved the day – not the dead hand of a corrupt, inefficient, lethargic public bureaucracy.

As for the government's war, its legend is a sham. For weeks, the Home Intelligence unit had been telling the government that there was virtually no belief that the supposed invasion was a threat. That the RAF was saving the people from the invasion was not credible.

Furthermore, the invasion was never going to happen and the government knew it. Right up to the last, daily reconnaissance flights over the massed barges showed no signs whatsoever of them being loaded with troops. It was all a gigantic bluff - Hitler's bluff and Churchill's bluff.

The RAF thus never saved us from an invasion. It was hugely popular, but only when it shot down Nazi aeroplanes. That was because Nazi aeroplanes were bombing people – and people were not awfully fond of being bombed. But that was all.

Thus, the idea that on 15 September, now celebrated as "Battle of Britain day", back in 1940 brought any sense of relief is a total fiction. By then, the real war was the war against the people – the relentless bombing that was to go on for 76 days and spread to the rest of the country, killing tens of thousands.

Far from the fighting on the 15th bringing any relief, therefore, conditions were to get worse – much worse, with the RAF as much use as a chocolate fireguard as the Luftwaffe bombed through the nights.

As the people suffered, the government and its Brylcream Boys in their shiny new Spitfires were powerless. So the people held it together and proved that people-power is what makes things work. They lasted out until Hitler had finally had enough and turned east to invade Soviet Russia.

No wonder, therefore, the government prefers its own, carefully crafted myth, where a small, government-directed élite - the "few" - in a top-down war, saved the proles from a mythical invasion during the daylight war. Sooner that than accept the reality that the people saved the day while the government stood by, wringing its hands, while its topmost officials reserved their places in luxury bunkers.

That is why the Battle of Britain still matters now. The carefully crafted official myth perpetuates and sustains the political status quo, a centralist, statist, top-down myth that suits both the left and the right wing of British politics. It is the myth that government is a force for good, that it works and that it has the interests of the people at heart.

So, when you see all those happy pictures of people sheltering in underground stations, and hear all the guff on the BBC about the "Blitz Spirit", just remember the whole thing is a government-inspired myth. As for the BBC, it was so bad at times that more people were listening to the German radio stations for their news than the official broadcasts.

Most of all though, ditch the BBC guff about the "people's war" as if it was something separate and different from the rest. What the invention of the bomber had done was allow belligerent governments to bypass the field armies of their opponents and attack the people of the warring nations in order to force a decision.

By this means, the battleground had become the streets of London, joined by the other towns and cities. That's where the real Battle of Britain was fought and won - not in the skies above. I wasn't a question of the Battle of Britain and then the Blitz. The Blitz was the Battle of Britain, the decisive battle.

The people were not part of the war, therefore - passively enduring the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. They were the war, the front line. The military, the bosses and the politicians - they were spectators. If the people had folded, many of them would have been dead meat.

The real message, therefore, is the one that needs to be taken up and replicated – because it is totally relevant to today's conditions. And that is stark: no one is going to come to our rescue and save us from the messes the government has created – any more than they did in 1940. We are going to have to do it ourselves. When the going gets tough, the only thing that matters is people power.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread