What Captain Tom Taught Boris Johnson About Being British
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Cometh the hour, cometh the hero as everyman. Few politicians have emerged from the Covid crisis with their reputations enhanced — unless you count Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand — but the death of Captain Sir Tom Moore, the 100-year-old Yorkshireman who raised millions of pounds for health charities by walking laps of his garden, touched hearts beyond his home shores.
The flag at No. 10 Downing Street was lowered to half-mast, Queen Elizabeth II paid a personal tribute and the White House sent condolences. The BBC led its evening TV bulletin with Captain Tom’s death, and many foreign newspapers gave him front page treatment. A sentimental, media-confected story? Perhaps — and as a former newspaper editor, I’m a connoisseur – but the uncynical tale of the cheerful World War II veteran is a parable for our times and a lesson in British soft power.
In that strange and frightening period last spring when fatalities from the disease mounted daily by the thousand and the authorities floundered, people needed a glimmer of hope. We were grateful to doctors and nurses and for the many individual acts of kindness that brought comfort during the lockdown. However, we lacked a figurehead, a human symbol of resilience. Captain Tom, with his twinkling eyes, tottering on his trusty walking frame, provided one.
The BBC, playing to its great residual strength as the U.K.’s preferred broadcaster in times of crisis, first put Captain Tom on the national stage. In an interview conducted on his lawn, the centenarian, wearing war medals won fighting in India and Burma, explained how his original aim was to raise 1,000 pounds ($1,370) for charity by completing 100 laps of his garden. It was a thank you to the National Health Service that had helped him recover from a fall. “Remember”, he concluded, “tomorrow is a good day, tomorrow you will maybe find everything much better than today.”
After that optimistic sign off, there was no stopping him. Captain Tom went on to top the U.K. music charts, publish an autobiography and raise a further 33 million pounds for the NHS.
Essentially the appeal was a nostalgic throwback. Across the decades the British have learned slowly not to harp on about standing alone against Hitler in 1940, but 2020’s casualties and curfews felt like the closest a younger generation had ever got to the privations of wartime. In the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson was critically ill in hospital, too, and the government felt rudderless. It was reassuring to see an old man who’d known adversity doing his modest bit to help.
As the D-Day historian Antony Beevor told the BBC this week, Captain Tom “was self-deprecating, optimistic and he just just got on with things without complaint or self-pity. These were very old fashioned British values. That really made a huge difference and it gave people an extraordinary lift.”
Johnson ought to note that line about self-deprecation. The prime minister has enjoyed a good week because, for once, he has restrained himself from bombast and boasting. The recent rollout of the British vaccination program has been uplifting, but it comes alongside a tragically high fatality rate from Covid-19.
The U.K. vaccine success wasn’t being claimed as a defeat for the European Union until Brussels made it so. Johnson left it to the European Commission’s Ursula von der Leyen and France’s Emmanuel Macron to make fools of themselves with intemperate words and actions over the continent’s vaccine shortages.
A sense of humor has always been the prime minister’s secret weapon with the voters. But his bumptiousness doesn’t play so well these days. Empty boasts about “world beating” track-and-trace systems and other unrealized ambitions have reflected badly on Johnson at home and abroad. It’s not how you win friends or impress enemies. As admirers of this country might put it, neither is it very “British.”
Other lessons are there to be learned. It’s fashionable among politicians and think tanks to talk about “inter-generational conflict” as if Gen Z, millennials and privileged boomer pensioners are locked in some struggle for survival across the West.
True, all democratic societies must make tough choices about sharing resources as the birth rate declines. And, yes, young people have chafed at the restrictions imposed on them these past 12 months. They know that catching the disease is seldom fatal for them and symptoms may persist for mere days. That’s only half the story.
Many young people empathize with the deprivations of lockdown for older generations. Millions of pensioners, living alone outside the numerically restricted “bubbles” of human contact decreed by their governments, are denied visits from their families. Tens of thousands have died alone without a relative to accompany them in their final hours of life.
Captain Tom was for younger people the substitute for the grandparent they could no longer visit. That he, too, was a victim of Covid picked up in hospital was another sad irony: His pneumonia medication prevented him from receiving the vaccine.
One encouraging aspect is that contemporary heroes who capture the public imagination come from different ends of the age spectrum. Recently the West has looked to young figures such as Greta Thunberg, a Swedish climate-crisis activist, for inspiration. Her fiercely intense, almost religious, demeanor commands attention. Her precocity — she recently turned 18 — marks her out from the mass of ordinary mortals. Marcus Rashford, a soccer star poverty campaigner, has also achieved much by prodding the U.K. government to feed deprived kids sent home after school closures.
For his part, Captain Tom was a scaled-down hero: an ordinary person who did extraordinary things in his final years. Perhaps he was more stoic, hopeful and altruistic than rest of us, but his virtues were down-to-earth and a reminder that it’s never too late to leave a mark on the world. To leave it, after living through a turbulent century, as an everyman for our time is a formidable epitaph.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.
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