The wartime generation changed the world for the better. And so must we
Ihad planned a very different column this week but, as I sat down to write it, I realised that there was really only one thing on my mind. Friday. The 75th Anniversary of VE Day was a much more emotional day for me than I had expected. And it was not because of the comparisons everywhere with the current crisis. No. Somehow with each event or celebration that marked the anniversary, thoughts of my grandparents, their children and what they and others must have gone through filled my head.
For my generation, the Second World War is something that, although it happened before we were born, played a constant, passive role in our upbringing.
It was everywhere in the cinema, on television, in books or, as in my case, in the landscape of the towns we grew up in and the shared memories of family gatherings.
The year I was born, John F Kennedy pronounced in his inauguration address that the torch had passed to a new generation of Americans “born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace”.
Words that were just as true of those who would shape our future on this side of the Atlantic.
I grew up on a staple diet of stories of wartime community, the Blitz and my uncle’s adventures, first in France and then Japan.
But it was history. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it seemed like a far distant past. Yet I realise now it was less than two decades away. Closer then than we are now to the firework displays of the new millennium, or to the birth of the Scottish Parliament.
It was something we had not experienced, but undoubtedly had an impact on my generation’s lives, our attitudes to society, and perhaps even the EU that we do not always recognise, and is not uniform.
Our parents had mostly been children themselves during the war. Many, like my dad, had been evacuated from industrial centres to the countryside.
My mum, on the other hand, had stayed in the family home at the centre of the shipbuilding communities of Glasgow. With two sons away serving in the army, my grandmother did not want to be separated from her youngest children too.
They were typical of families up and down this country and across Europe who had survived something we can only imagine.
I find it almost astonishing now that growing up in what was left of Clydebank, I did not realise that tenement blocks like ours normally stretched, unbroken, the full length of a street, and not just in the disconnected bursts that I knew.
Similarly, that the vast open spaces in the town were not all parks. Some had been the scene of great tragedy and loss of life.
Over the years, I came to realise the real motivation behind my parents’ determination to see the EU succeed, take their daughters to Europe and encourage us to know the history of the war, particularly the Holocaust. I believe it was all part of that generation’s desire to protect their children from what they had endured and ensure a peace that would last.
In both of those aims, they succeeded spectacularly. Wherever we turn, there is an example of that achievement.
It’s a common boast amongst those of my age from a workingclass background that we are the first from our families to go to university. It’s no longer the privilege of the few. The society that emerged from the Second World War, while very different from the beginning of that century, remained trapped in a class system.
Modern Britain still has vast inequalities to address but that social and economic delineation from birth is no longer the rule.
When I walk into parliament, I think about the fact that when my grandmothers were born, women were not entitled to vote. Now their granddaughter is a Member of Parliament and we have had two female prime ministers.
When I started work as a journalist, women were a tiny minority of the workforce in the industry. Now the picture is completely different. We smashed that glass ceiling with reporters, editors and now nobody gives it a second thought that the director of BBC Scotland for the past four years is a woman. Why would they, although there is still much to do?
And I have not mentioned the Welfare State, the NHS and the rapid growth of property ownership.
But perhaps that generation’s greatest achievement is that we could mark the anniversary this past week as the last time that our continent has torn itself apart and claimed millions of lives.
Yes, there have been wars. There were times in that childhood of mine when the spectre of war, in the shape of the Soviet Union, loomed large across Europe. But it didn’t happen. Although each of the wars since has taken a tragic toll, none has grown to precipitate the vast scale of human suffering of those experienced in the first half of the 20th century.
And when my daughter set off on her pre-university rail tour of Europe with her friends, it was 70 years almost to the day that my uncle had been sitting in a camp in the south of England waiting to take part in the Normandy landings.
We have come a long way along the road on which we were set by that generation who celebrated the end of the war in Europe 75 years ago.
The challenge we face now is to not let the advantages gained in that hard-won peace be lost. There are still inequalities and injustices to be fought and people to be protected.
We have seen in these past few months how fragile economic prosperity can be. Kennedy’s torch has now been passed on to yet another generation. In progressing society in the 21st century we have a lot to live up to.
Christine Jardine is Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West