Whilst eulogised in popular memory now, the Dunkirk evacuation was a military failure in the eyes of many contemporaries.WIKIPEDIA: IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM

The 5th of May, 2020, was a day of tragedy. The ONS announced that Britain had recorded the highest official number of Covid-19 deaths of any European country, the Financial Times estimating that 53,800 people had died. This is an indisputable national disaster. Each individual is an irreplaceable gap in families, amongst friends and in the fabric of our country. The public is turning against the government's poor response in general and Johnson’s in particular. People are increasingly, and will continue to be, asking questions. What this could mean for us is revealed by looking at the reaction to another catastrophe, the analysis of which still affects our society.

"Britain suddenly faced the very real prospect of invasion and collapse."

The 4th of June, 1940, saw the last soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk, with this episode now  remembered as a triumph of the so-called ‘People’s War.’ However, to contemporaries without the benefit of hindsight, it was an unparalleled disaster. Britain and France, who had resisted Germany for four years during the First World War, had been defeated in a month. Britain suddenly faced the very real prospect of invasion and collapse. The question society asked then, and the one being asked today, are identical: ‘How on earth did this happen?’

Guilty Men, by ‘Cato’, was one attempt at an answer. It had three authors, all differing in political persuasion, under the classical Roman-inspired pseudonym ‘Cato’: Michael Foot, Peter Howard and Frank Owen. The tract listed several key members of the National Government of the 1930s who backed appeasement as ‘guilty men’ before brutally criticising them for leaving Britain so woefully unprepared for war. The popular clamour for answers after Dunkirk meant, despite being banned from WH Smiths and Wymans, the book sold around 200,000 copies and was a popular success.

"Neville Chamberlain’s reputation was  completely destroyed..."

The attack Guilty Men made on the appeasers is  now a very familiar one, even now over half a century after Dunkirk. Why? Because despite being written in four days and being unreferenced, it has contributed more than virtually any other book to our common wisdom that appeasement was an unforgivable act that actively helped the rise of Nazi Germany and its allies in Europe. Neville Chamberlain’s reputation was destroyed so completely that when the campaign Led by Donkeys wished to humiliate Boris Johnson over his handling of Covid-19, they simply portrayed him as a latter-day Chamberlain, an unforgivable appeaser to a new threat. Guilty Men proved it is possible for one tract to capture the popular imagination and change national opinion through a compelling denunciation of one policy.

The current crisis and its handling by the government begs a similar mechanism of accountability, as those in power fail society as we speak, much like the leaders of the 1930s. A modern version of the pamphlet could have the potential to heavily damage the reputations of figures such as Johnson, Hancock, Sunak, Patel, Raab and Cummings for the current crisis’ handling. These figures are ultimately responsible for government policies.  A modern ‘Cato’ could link Johnson as inextricably with Covid-19 as Guilty Men linked Chamberlain with appeasement in the popular imagination.

"A modern Cato would thus be in a perfect position to not just condemn the current government, but the principal architects of austerity"

Guilty Men itself, by tying appeasement to individuals and not parties, brilliantly rose above partisan loyalties, with accountability taking a broad sweep across the political spectrum. Liberals, such as John Simon, and even Ramsey MacDonald, a former Labour PM, were listed amongst the guilty. A modern ‘Cato’ could isolate the current senior government administration as individuals. Without their party loyalty to fall back on, the woefulness of the government’s response could become a matter of common wisdom.

Guilty Men represented more than an opposition to the Dunkirk crisis though, but an assault on pre-war British politics. As Addison argues in the Road to 1945, Dunkirk became the defining symbol of the failures of the 1930s, the ‘devil’s decade’, which became associated not with the prosperity of the South-East, but the poverty and mass unemployment of ‘Outer Britain.’ This condemnation of the old world and its leaders was Guilty Men’s contribution to a national debate surrounding the society Britain wanted after the Second World War. The adoption of Keynesianism, the welfare state, and arguably Labour’s 1945 election win; these all stemmed from the belief that Britain could never repeat the 1930s and deserved better.


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A modern Cato would thus be in a perfect position to not just condemn the current government, but the principal architects of austerity in Cameron, Osborne, Clegg, May and Alexander (among others). Their denunciation would break austerity’s grip on not just the public imagination, but potentially allow anti-austerity politicians to seize the reins of parties and be seen as the only viable way forward. A modern pamphlet could easily affect government thinking long after it was published, just as Guilty Men did. A modern ‘Cato’ could also change Britain’s political soul, to make any policy which enriches the wealthy by punishing the poor totally unthinkable by any party for decades. To have the same impact as Guilty Men, it would have to grab both the apolitical and political experts alike, and leave both with an undeniable dissatisfaction with the past ten years. A modern ‘Cato’ is not just necessary for the people of our country, but owed to them.

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