It being the 75th anniversary of VE Day, here’s a remembrance of the 50th anniversary, extracted from Alwyn Turner’s book A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s…
The fiftieth anniversary of VE Day on 7 May 1995 was one of the most impressive occasions of the decade. Unlike the PR debacle that had engulfed the government’s D-Day ‘celebration’ plans the previous year, this time the tone was judged perfectly.
A service of thanksgiving in St Paul’s Cathedral gathered together more world leaders than any event since the Coronation. A memorial service in the oldest synagogue in the country was attended by the Chief Rabbi, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of Westminster, the first time all three figures had ever gathered at a synagogue service. And Radio 4’s Today gave its ‘Thought for the Day’ slot over to Prince Charles to reflect on the need for remembrance. A two-minute silence was also held across the country.
The sombre side having been catered for, the party began, centring on Hyde Park, where there were spam fritters, the world’s largest hokey-cokey, and a concert of community singing led by Vera Lynn, Harry Secombe and Cliff Richard.
It was all a huge success, with around a quarter of a million people gathering in The Mall to see the Queen Mother and her two daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, appear on the Buckingham Palace balcony, just as the same three women had fifty years earlier (though George VI and Winston Churchill were necessarily absent). In what was not a notably successful decade for royalty, this was the high point, the moment when all the clichés about embodying history, continuity and the British spirit resonated with the nation.
For John Major’s government, reeling from yet another appalling performance at the polls, this time in local elections, there was little positive to be taken from the occasion. ‘The most potent political image was of Blair walking down the Mall acclaimed by the cheering crowds,’ remarked Hywel Williams, and a leader column in the Observer spelt out the potential parallels: ‘a seductive, subterranean folk memory is being activated. Might Blair be about to repeat Attlee’s post-war landslide?’ Private Eye made the same point with a front cover headlined ‘Then as Now’ that pictured revellers in 1945 complete with a speech bubble: ‘Hoorah! We’re all voting Labour.’
Some commentators, including the Independent’s Polly Toynbee, regretted that the VE Day celebrations were all so ‘deliberately backward-looking, in praise of a better past, and fearful of the future’. The very next day, she lectured her readers, had been Europe Day and yet, so obsessed had we become with history, it had passed by without any commemoration at all.*
Such an absurdly sour note – surely the anniversary of the defeat of Nazism was worth throwing a party for – was rare, however, and even many of those who professed themselves cynical were caught up in the emotion of the moment. The comedy critic Ben Thompson went to a VE Day festival on Hackney Downs in East London, where he was surprised to find himself so moved. ‘Looking around at the genial multifariousness of the crowd,’ he wrote, ‘there was no other option than to be temporarily overwhelmed by a profound sense of patriotic pride.’
Nor was Toynbee entirely right about it all being nostalgia. Some features of that long weekend most certainly pointed the way forward, albeit to a corporate future in which even patriotism was available for sponsorship. The only cola for sale at official events in London was the newly launched Virgin Cola, which had secured exclusive rights to slake the revellers’ thirst, while it was impossible to escape brand advertising by everyone from Eurostar to Sainsbury’s. ‘Serving the nation, then and now’ was the latter’s slogan, which wasn’t everyone’s concept of war service. Vera Lynn was among those to notice that such major companies were much less interested in the more muted celebrations for VJ Day on 15 August; the Forgotten Army had been overlooked once again.
And yet there were still doubts on the liberal left about how to celebrate. ‘Is it possible to have kitsch ironic VE Day party – like for the Royal Wedding?’ worried Bridget Jones in her diary. ‘No, you see, you can’t be ironic about dead people…’
* The Europe Day to which Toynbee referred was the European Union’s Europe Day (9 May) which was instituted by the European Commission in 1985, and is in way to be confused with the Europe Day (5 May) instituted by the Council of Europe in 1964. Any such confusion is entirely intentional.