The kind-hearted, egalitarian country that established the welfare state and built the NHS may seem dormant now – but it will rise again
Hope is hard to find in the grey teatime light of this December, because despite all of the holiday cheer around us, darkness gathers. It has been the hardest, saddest and cruellest of years – a sour vintage which has brought to everyone’s doorstep heartache, financial worries and political unease.
Austerity seems eternal, and for many it is as if they are living within a new circle added to Dante’s inferno for the 21st century. Callous and barbarous wars in Yemen and Syria test our faith in humanity, while the unstoppable refugee crisis it produced makes us want to weep in despair for the decrepitude of our civilisation.
Hope is as absent from society today as cash is to a pauper’s wallet because a noxious populism fuelled by hate now smoulders. Everywhere we turn it feels like optimism has been eclipsed by a world we don’t want to recognise as our own. Despair is in the breath of our words because we are frightened.
But as my life has been long, I have seen Britain up against the setting sun of history before. I witnessed our country on its knees from the Great Depression; with its back to the wall and under threat of invasion by the Nazis. Over my nine decades of life, I’ve known despair but never hopelessness.
My hope for a better tomorrow for everyone in our country doesn’t come from our military victories against fascism. It doesn’t come from Churchill’s defiance or the words of present-day politicians. No: the source of hope that has carried me through decades of existence comes from the collective will of my generation in 1945 to beat our swords into ploughshares and harvest a just society through the erection of the welfare state.
My hope has always come from the humanity, kindness and intelligence that inhabits the majority of people who reside on our shores. It may seem dormant now, but it will rise again because those sparks of decency that built the NHS, gave affordable housing to each and every one of us, and provided free education to all, are in each Briton alive today – because you are the children and the grandchildren of my generation. If we did it before, then we can do it again.
The 1945 general election was called after our long and brutal war with Germany. It would decide whether our country would cling to its feudal past or accept a bold egalitarian future. I was 22, a member of the allied occupation force and stationed in Hamburg. And it was there that I cast my ballot for the first time – and it’s been a love affair with democracy ever since.
On the day I voted in that occupied city, which looked more worse for wear than Aleppo does now, sorrow could be found on every street corner because of a dead tyrant’s madness. While I queued to vote, I remember how conscious I was of both what I had endured as a boy and teenager during the Great Depression and what I’d witnessed during the war. I felt by making my mark and voting for a welfare state, I was declaring to my country, my peers and those that did not live to see that election day, that my destiny mattered regardless of my humble station in life. The hope that has kept me going all these years came from that election, when ordinary people said their lives mattered just as much as any elite class.