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By Jason Michael
ON MY FIRST VISIT TO ROME as a young student I was struck by the ‘Altar of the Fatherland,’ the pristine and towering white marble monument to Victor Emmanuel II on the Piazza di San Marco – probably the largest war memorial I had ever seen. Having learned about ‘Il Duce’ and Italian fascism at school, the scale of this impressive and dominating monument amused me; to the best of my knowledge Italy had never won a war. The Dad’s Army version of history we were taught in Scotland put a great deal of emphasis on the importance of the idea that ‘we won the war,’ and this is very much the lens through which I was trained to see other nations’ expressions of statehood and patriotism. Little did I know then that this arrogance was a hallmark of Britain’s sense of itself and an insidious effort on the part of the British state to euthanise Scotland’s national self-understanding.
These fetishes are essential to the formation and preservation of the modern nation-state and we see them everywhere. The colour of the post-box, the flag, the symbols of monarchy, the head on stamps and banknotes, the uniforms worn by police officers, the themes acted out on soap operas, and the names and backdrops of popular television entertainment shows – not to mention the rituals and pageantry surrounding national sports teams – all play their part in forming a sense of Britishness in the minds of people in the United Kingdom and encourage us to reproduce this Britishness in our own lives. In every nation-state they serve the same two vital purposes; to forge a sense of national belonging and remind the people of the nation of who is in charge.
At times of crisis these tricks take on an elevated importance. When the state is threatened by foreign invasion or when the internal contradictions of the state threaten to weaken it, the architects and engineers of the state – the dominant class – increase the volume and frequency of these symbols in an attempt to reinject this fictive notion of solidarity and national pride into the dominated class and in so doing protect their position as the ruling establishment.
The United Kingdom, a composite state in which Scotland, Wales, and part of Ireland are dominated by England, has been in decline from 1914 – a process which was only accelerated by the end of the British Empire after the Second World War. Campaigns in Scotland and Wales for independence from English rule and the campaign for Irish reunification have brought it home to the British state that it is on its last legs, and so we have seen a renewed push of these symbols from the British government and from the British media. The pandemic crisis and lockdown have put the breaks on the active politics of these movements in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, and the British government, with complete control of the media, has not squandered the opportunity to exploit the crisis to ramp up the jingoistic pro-British propaganda. In doing this, it has relied on its most potent trope – that of war remembrance and the old soldier – in its propaganda to win the battle for hearts and minds. But this trope is no longer as powerful as it once was, and so, in its desperation to save the state, the version we now see is cheap and degraded.
It is impossible to miss the obvious parallels between COVID-19 and wartime. This is an emergency situation where something over which we have little control is attacking the civilian population, many of our liberties have been restricted, and we have been asked to work together in an act of state-wide solidarity to defeat the danger. Naturally, this has given the British government license to appeal to the ‘spirit of the Blitz;’ evoking the powerful folk memory of a national shared experience of danger and hardship. This will, of course, have a certain effect in fostering the idea that we are all in this together – that Britain is standing up to the threat. However, considering the wider context of Brexit, this has also been used as a call to arms against a new imagined threat from Europe; this time with European Union arrows rather than swastika arrows chasing British arrows out of the continent and Britain ‘standing alone’ against the ‘enemy.’
We have witnessed the same thing happening in how the British government and media have politicised the work of the National Health Service, deliberately adopting the terminology of warfare to describe the women and men working on the ‘frontline’ against the disease and in how the London government has framed the vaccine rollout as a conflict with Europe. Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, even insisted that the bottles containing doses of the vaccine be emblazoned with the British flag. We have not seen British propaganda with this intensity since the Battle of Britain in 1940. But still, this is reasonably benign stuff. It is all very transparent jingoism and flag-waving – a type of propaganda that no longer has the same force that it had when Herbert Asquith’s government was recruiting Pals battalions to fight the Kaiser in Flanders.
But there is a darker, more sinister, side to this kind of nostalgia-propaganda – when it employs real people as instruments of this mythology. Again, to some extent, this is something British propaganda has always done, but in the main this instrumentalisation of people has either been in the abstract – as in the token image of a silhouetted soldier at a comrade’s graveside or the Unknown Soldier – or in its use of historical figures – such as Winston Churchill being voted the ‘greatest Briton of all time.’ Yet, in this crisis we have seen a disturbing shift to the instrumentalisation of actual – living – people by the government for propagandistic purposes. Three examples immediately spring to mind: the apotheosis of ‘frontline workers,’ the image of the hero in Captain Tom Moore, and the spectacle of the ‘romantic’ death of Margaret and Derek Firth.
There is no question of the debt of gratitude we owe the women and men fighting COVID-19 in our hospitals. At great risk, they have been working to the point of exhaustion and burn-out to save lives and stop the progress of this awful disease. So, obviously what will be said here is not a criticism of them or the admirable work they have done and are still doing. But, by placing them on the ‘frontline,’ the language of the government and the media has elevated them to the ranks of soldiers – ‘our heroes’ – in an environment the same government and media has deliberately linked to the hagiography of World War II in their use of this crisis to wage a propaganda war against the European Union. You certainly don’t need me to tell you how deeply problematic this is. To begin with, if we lose this ‘war,’ these veterans will be the scapegoats much like the frontline troops of any defeated army are. The government and the media will hide their failures and absolve themselves of responsibility behind the image of a ‘failing NHS.’
Moreover – and perhaps more serious, this conceptual transformation of healthcare professionals into a mythic army of heroes deprives them of their individuality and humanity. Gods do not require better pay and work conditions, gods are not subject to all the complexities of the human condition, and gods can do no wrong. The image of people all over the UK standing at their front doors clapping hands and banging pots and pans to thank the NHS and ‘our frontline workers’ is thus not much different to any act of public worship – they are performing a symbolic gesture of thanksgiving to a massively diverse group of individuals who have been carefully reduced in the public’s imagination to a symbol; an act of collective myth-making that essentially creates an ontological difference between the doctor or the nurse and the rest of the mere mortal population.
Healthcare professionals are not good people by virtue of their profession. Not too long ago and not at all far away, doctors and nurses were the frontline workers in a genocidal project involving the collaboration of British police in the Channel Islands and government officials in the south of France with Nazi murderers. Good people are good people because they are good people – not because they have decided to have a career in a caring profession. The doctors and nurses right now tackling COVID-19 in our hospitals are doing what they are doing because that is their profession. They are not there because they are saints and wannabe martyrs. We pay our taxes in order that society might pay to train and employ these professionals to perform a particular service to society. When we allow the state to homogenise the members of this profession so as to turn ‘our frontline workers’ into an idol of some idea of a national sprit we allow for them to be treated like idols – representations of people without real human thoughts, emotions, and needs.
It would be much better to fund the health service and pay our healthcare professionals appropriately, but by turning them into an idea and thanking that idea in the abstract we do them a huge disservice. Incidentally, we also do a disservice to all the other essential workers – the non-professionals – who have risked so much to get us through this crisis; the supermarket staff, the postal workers, the council workers who take away our rubbish.
Captain Tom Moore
Let me begin by saying that I like Tom. I love what he did and what he stood for. I was saddened to hear of his death. But I am equally frustrated by the spin in the newspapers and how the British government used him to further its sick agenda. Like many elderly people, all around the world, Mr Moore would have felt the fear of a disease which disproportionately killed older people. Yet, being a good guy, he wanted to do something about it – and he did. The money he raised for the NHS in England helped people, but then … not really. The money he raised allowed the British government to save money on healthcare spending. In the end, the donations he received became little more than a form of double taxation – with kind and generous people giving to pay for what they had already paid for through their taxes. The money raised did not in fact add to the amount of money being spent to fight the disease in our hospitals.
Still, the image of Capt. Tom Moore – an elderly war veteran wearing a black blazer and military medals – was the perfect image for Britain’s COVID-wartime propaganda. He was the man who fought for Britain – albeit in an India as occupied by the British Empire as Poland was by the Third Reich – and he was the old boy who was fighting on. He was the literal poster child of that generation we were always told about, the old men in blazers and berets standing at the cenotaph – the straps of whose sandals we were not worthy to untie, and the British government and media leapt on his image to lend its big COVID-war idea some much needed credibility.
Margaret and Derek Firth
This was the last straw for me, the picture shared by the BBC of a distressed elderly couple in hospital beds reaching out to one another before they both died from coronavirus. Both Mr and Mrs Firth were 91 and had been married to one another for 70 years. The photograph elicits an overpowering feeling of sadness and sympathy, and this scene has been repeated up and down the United Kingdom – and round the whole world – since the start of the crisis over a year ago. But what is the intention of this picture, why was this image of such private pain and intimacy shared by the BBC? It’s simple. The BBC – the British state broadcaster – used this image for the same reason advertisers use images of couples getting amorous to sell cars and images of couples with new-born babies to sell mortgages. The most sacred and intimate moments of the human experience are exploited to gain something; for advertising companies this is money, and for the British government it is to gain cover for the part it has played in worsening this crisis and grossly increasing the number of people who have died.
The final moments of this man and woman’s lives was cynically used to paint a picture of a British government that cares. See how terrible this is? See how sad this is? This could be your mum and dad! See how much we’re doing to help? Utter garbage! This is a political regime that ignored the warnings from China and Iran, that laughed at Italy for taking a siesta as people were dying, that said it would be business as usual, that planned to let the disease spread over the whole population in the hope herd immunity might magically develop without a vaccine, that said there would be some economic benefit from the deaths of elderly and vulnerable people – the British government couldn’t give a damn about Margaret and Derek’s final embrace.
Yet, here we have it. All these images are Britain’s Altare della Patria – the oversized marble monument to a war it never could win. This is the final illusion of the British state, a soft propaganda campaign designed to capitalise on chaos, fear, and suffering to hammer home a last-ditch hope in Britain and Britishness. The workers in the NHS are exhausted for the same reason Tom and Margaret and Derek died – at every stage of the pandemic crisis the British ruling class has cared more about its own wellbeing and the image of the state than it did about the lives of the people on whose backs their state has been built. From start to finish – from the refusal of the London government to take the crisis seriously to the choice to slap a union jack on the vaccine containers – the whole show has been a Potemkin village; an outward show of strength and unity at the cost of a real and compassionate response to a deadly crisis. In its efforts to use the pandemic to save the state, Britain has only gone and guaranteed its own demise. Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead!
British propaganda in the Second World War