An interview with Alan Allport, author of Britain at Bay

30 September 2020

‘Will make you think anew not just about the war, but about the Britain and Britons that fought it’ – Daniel Todman

The Second World War is the defining experience of modern British history, a new Iliad for our own times. But, as Alan Allport reveals in this, the first part of a major new two-volume history, the real story was often very different from the myth that followed it.

Read on for a fascinating conversation between Alan Allport and his editor, Cecily Gayford.

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 britain at bay

Cecily Gayford: We marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of VE day in 2020, and the Second World War is still omnipresent in public discourse; there’s no national touchstone like it. Why does it matter to us so much today? 

Alan Allport: A lot of reasons, I think. Although not many people are still alive who remember the Second World War as adults, there are millions of Britons such as myself – I was born in 1970 – for whom ‘the war’ was central to their national cultural experience growing up. We had parents or grandparents who had wartime memories, we watched endless war-themed films and programmes on television, we read war comics or built models of tanks and aircraft, and so on. Much of that ‘pleasure culture of war’ continues to exist today. Events like the Battle of Britain, the Blitz, and D-Day need no introduction – they are hard-coded into our collective memory (although often subtly misremembered).

The Second World War was, for Britain, the ‘good’ war – good in the sense that we remember ourselves as being the unambiguous heroes, and good in that it had a fortunate outcome – victory at relatively low cost in British lives (very different in that respect from the First World War, which by contrast is remembered as the ‘tragic’, ‘futile’ war). The war was also the last occasion in which Britain played a really decisive independent role in world events. Britain mattered in the Second World War in a way it has never quite mattered since. For those reasons alone it’s easy to see why we keep returning to it whenever a historical analogy is called for.

CG: In Britain at Bay, you make a really compelling argument that the British conception of our national character was shaped by the Second World War – and that the Second World War was, in turn, shaped by the British self-image? Could you expand on that a little?

AA: It struck me when I began to think about writing this book just how much the popular memory of the war in Britain was associated with a particular idea of what the British were like in the 1940s, what our national character was, and how this national character explained both how we got into the war in the first place, why we did rather badly in it for the first couple of years, but also why we ultimately survived and went on to be victorious. It also struck me how similar this idea of Britishness was to Tolkien’s account of the ‘Shire Folk’ hobbits in The Lord of the Rings, probably the single most influential British cultural product of the second half of the Twentieth Century. I don’t think this similarity is purely accidental (whether Tolkien realized it or not) and I think it helps to explain why his novel struck such a chord with British readers. The ‘Shire Folk’ model of Britishness – of Britons being a gentle, parochial, humble people, modest but tough, unmilitary at heart, and natural muddlers-through – is so embedded in our cultural memory that it shapes the narrative of the war still. Yet we have to go beyond it if we want to really understand what happened in the Second World War, because the British weren’t really like Tolkien’s Hobbits at all – not least in the sense that we weren’t especially gentle and were actually rather good at violence! Nor were we much good at muddling through. We were best when we relied on experts who planned thoroughly and knew what they were doing. We were worst when we thought inspired amateurism would see us through. 

CG: You shine fresh light on some very deeply-rooted ideas about the Second World War – such as the impression that Neville Chamberlain was a weak-willed and passive character – is it fair to say that Britain at Bay is a revisionist history?

AA: I think any good history is, to some degree or other, revisionist history because that’s what historians are supposed to do – to revise our understanding of the past. Otherwise we’re just copying-and-pasting what people before us have written. That said, any large synthetic history has to rely on the work of other historians, and so a lot of what I am doing in Britain at Bay is drawing together arguments and ideas that have previously been scattered (sometimes in rather obscure academic books and journals) and presenting them to a larger audience in a way and a language which I hope is accessible. But I do also use many primary sources in the book, and I did come to some independent conclusions about key events and personalities. In the case of Chamberlain, I found reading his letters to his two sisters, which are full of political gossip and explanations of his thought process, a fascinating window into his character and conduct. Chamberlain is not in many ways a very attractive historical personality – I didn’t come away personally liking him very much. But I did come to appreciate the kind of man he was rather better, and it was clear to me that the caricature of him as a naïve, foolish, weak, even cowardly politician was just absolutely wrong. Whatever faults he had – and he had plenty of them – Chamberlain was a vigorous, dogmatic, even ruthless and domineering Prime Minister, someone absolutely convinced of his own destiny and prepared to stoop to almost any level to crush his enemies. What I hope I’ve done in the book is to present a more well-rounded account of him, one which might provoke readers to think about some of the assumptions they make about the 1930s and the origins of the Second World War. 

CG: You’ve published three books on the Second World War: Britain at Bay, but also Browned Off and Bloody-Minded and Demobbed. As a historian, what is it about the Second World War that appeals as a field of study? What drew you to it in the first place?

AA: As I said at the beginning, I am of the generation of Britons who grew up with ‘the war’ as their cultural bread and butter, and so it was very much part of my understanding of the world when I was growing up. That doesn’t mean that I always thought I would study the war for a living, of course. Indeed, for many years I left it behind and thought I would have a completely different kind of career. Even after I became a professional historian it wasn’t immediately obvious to me that the Second World War would be the principal subject I would devote myself to. But when I began casting around for a doctoral topic about 20 years ago, I realized to my own surprise that there were still enormous gaps in the literature on the war. That may surprise some people; after all, the bookshops are heaving with titles about the war. But most of them tend to be rehashes of the same old stories over and over again. When I looked for a book about what happened when millions of servicemen were ‘demobbed’ and returned home at the end of the war, often after years of absence from their wives and families, I was amazed to see that hardly anything had ever been written about it. All my work since then has been driven by the same sense that there was a gap in the literature and that I might have something useful to say to help fill it.

CG: The publication of Britain at Bay has come at a time when – perhaps more than at any point since the Second World War – we are a nation in crisis, ‘at bay’. What resonances are there with that period of our history, and are there any lessons we could learn from it? 

AA: I am instinctively very skeptical about the idea that there are ‘lessons’ which can be drawn from history. Indeed, one of the great recurring disasters of the years since 1945 has been the idea especially beloved by politicians and pundits that ‘history tells us …’ things that make our policy choices simple. In 1956, Anthony Eden was convinced that the lesson of Munich in 1938 was to always confront foreign dictators aggressively. The result was the fiasco of the Suez Crisis. In 2003 similar arguments about Munich were resurrected to defend the invasion of Iraq. The problem with learning lessons from history is that people almost invariably learn the wrong thing! The Second World War was a unique historical event which will never happen again, and in that sense there’re nothing we can ‘learn’ from it about how to resolve our own difficulties.

Having said that, I don’t of course think that studying history is futile – after all, if I did, I might talk myself out of a job. I think that there is great value in thinking about the past even if there are no simple ‘lessons’ to be learned. History is a great consolation, for one thing. It’s useful to be reminded that we are not the first generation to confront what can appear to be insuperable crises. The world looked like a very grim place in 1941, for instance, and the existential challenge that faced the British that year must have appeared overwhelming. Yet as a nation we overcame it, because millions of ordinary people are capable of extraordinary things if they put their minds to it.

I also think that there are some general things we can observe about the national past which can help us to understand how to solve problems even if they don’t simply provide an ‘answer’. In my view, the British experience of war shows that we do best when we work with allies rather than withdrawing into ourselves. We benefit from open-mindedness rather than intolerance. We succeed when we take professional knowledge seriously. We profit from leaders that treat us as adults and do not offer us quick easy fixes or scapegoats. We are strongest when we are compassionate. Those to me are some of the key things we ought to remember about the war, why we fought it in the first place, and why in the end we were, very fortunately for ourselves and for the rest of the world, on the winning side.