Covid in Scotland: Nicola Sturgeon should realise even Winston Churchill's rhetoric couldn’t hide the need for results in this war against the pandemic – Alastair Stewart

In May 1940, Winston Churchill offered the nation “blood, toil, tears and sweat”. It is a profound irony of history that these words are now taken as an exhortation to win.

A poster bearing the slogan 'Keep Calm And Carry On' was created during the Second World War, but never actually used (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
A poster bearing the slogan 'Keep Calm And Carry On' was created during the Second World War, but never actually used (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

It was really the first of several candid appraisals of the dire situation Britain found itself in. In the immediate aftermath of his “on the beaches” speech in June, Churchill reputedly whispered to a colleague: “And we'll fight them with the butt ends of broken beer bottles because that's bloody well all we've got!”

In 80 years, will we find Nicola Sturgeon’s words about the Covid situation – “Let me be frank” – emblazoned on T-shirts? If Twitter lasts for 1,000 years, will men still say this was her finest hour?

Indeed, the First Minister owes more to Churchillian resolve than she might care, or even dare, to admit. Both leaders decided to turn repeated disasters and crippling odds into a call to arms.

But the steam has run out. Sturgeon's speech on Friday repeated her assurance of candour, but it contained no assuring strategy about the latest variant of Covid-19.

The imminent guillotine of new restrictions is pinpricking public morale and confidence to death. Christmas, New Year, birthdays, and winter trips are not organised last minute, and the Scottish government knows it.

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We have reached a tipping point. There is only so much the public will take. Even anecdotally, stalwart followers of “the rules” are now asking when their payday is. They were cautious all year, wanted their Christmas and now – well, now what?

Churchill suffered the same problem. The man who mobilised the English language and sent it into battle could be a grating blowhard when actions did not match words.

In his war memoirs, Churchill called 1942 “a long succession of misfortunes and defeats”, notably with the capture of Singapore by the Japanese and defeat at Tobruk.

Backbench frustration at the war's conduct necessitated a vote of confidence in January. Churchill survived, but a censure against the UK government's conduct of the war was tabled later in July.

Churchill declared to the nation: “We shall not fail now. Let us move forward steadfastly together into the storm and through the storm.”

In his diaries, MP Harold Nicholson wrote the rebuke that “the country is too nervous and irritable to be fobbed off with fine phrases”.

Just as jarring is the perception that this generation is “whining” about losing our Christmas celebrations while the Covid bombs fall.

The popular memory of ubiquitous togetherness and national unity during the Second World War is an interesting measure. Negative attitudes and behaviour existed then just as now: panic, defeatism, ration-cheating, black-marketeering, looting, bucking conscription, absenteeism, and strikes necessitated strict punishments.

We even needed a Ministry of Information (MoI), which was formally established the day after Britain declared war in September 1939. The department was also the inspiration for the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984, the author having worked for the MoI.

The MoI endeavoured to coordinate news, press censorship and public morale while making the “national case to the public at home and abroad in time of war”. It worked to instil patriotic support and tolerance for rationing, blackouts and wartime restrictions, particularly as German bombs fell.

Britain’s propaganda hub gave rise to some of the war's most famous campaigns, including “Britain Can Take It”, “Women of Britain – Come into the Factories”, and “Careless Talk Costs Lives”. The famed “Keep Calm and Carry On” was printed but never used.

Today, our generation is more in the thrall of these campaigns than our forebears.

The Mass Observation (MO) social research project offers a fascinating respite from the myths. Established in 1937, its purpose was to record everyday life in Britain through a panel of around 500 unpaid volunteer observers. They kept diaries and responded to questionnaires in a bid to create an “anthropology of ourselves”.

The project also paid investigators to record conversations anonymously, behaviour on the street, at work and public events, meetings, sporting fixtures and religious events.

The British government commissioned MO's morale work between 1939 and 1941. One of their surveys revealed that more people were “consciously and coherently against the posters” than were for them.

The general sentiment was that they talked down to the public with vague sentiments rather than specific requests.

When Brendan Bracken became Minister of Information, he wanted a more limited role for domestic propaganda. Bracken insisted that the MoI stop “lecturing” the public and publicly questioned its ability to “stimulate British morale”.

If you still feel our generation, faced with the Covid pandemic, is unique in their complaining, then read the accounts of everyday people from the 1940s, which sound remarkably familiar.

Christopher Tomlin, a paper salesman from Lancashire, wrote "BOREDOM!" in reaction to the short-lived attempt by the UK government to shut down cinemas at the start of the war.

Another MO survey recorded the adverse effects on civilian morale of badly damaged shopping areas and the effect of long queues.

When victory was declared in Europe in 1945, others were indifferent as they brought down their blackout curtains. They just hoped it never happened again.

Churchill was an innovator – his memorable addresses are still the benchmark for political broadcasting during a crisis.

The power of radio was a prelude to the dais on which now Sturgeon stands.

Churchill made 33 such radio speeches during the war. But even he found the only way to stave off resignations and public revolt was with victories. One wonders if he was not talking about himself when he said: “Before Alamein, we never had a victory. After Alamein, we never had a defeat.”

In 1945, he was trounced out of office. People had had enough talk.

With enduring gratitude to the kindness and encouragement of Stephen O'Rourke

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