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As U.K. Grapples With Pandemic, Some British Leaders Invoke Spirit Of WWII


As the United Kingdom grapples with the coronavirus, some British leaders have invoked an earlier defining battle, the fight against the Nazis in World War II. But some British say when it comes to combating a pandemic, nostalgia has its limits. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from England.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Twice in the last five weeks, the queen has referenced Britain's World War II spirit, most recently in a televised address Friday to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day.


QUEEN ELIZABETH II: When I look at our country today and see what we are willing to do to protect and support one another, I say with pride that we are still a nation those brave soldiers, sailors and airmen would recognize and admire.

LANGFITT: These allusions in national mythology are designed to inspire and still strike a nerve with many Britons, like Sabrina Ellis (ph), a former nurse who lives near Birmingham. She was among more than 750,000 people who signed up to volunteer to help the National Health Service. Ellis said the country feels much more united.

SABRINA ELLIS: We are all connected. We're all helping each other. We're all a part of this puzzle. And it's huge.

LANGFITT: And Ellis adds the current crisis is providing a valuable taste of what Britain's greatest generation endured.

ELLIS: I've always thought with our generation that we wouldn't ever really truly appreciate what's come before us because we haven't had that struggle. So now going through the pandemic, drawing on the strengths from the World War II, I think it'd be really good for the up-and-coming generations.

LANGFITT: Richard Overy teaches history at the University of Exeter. He says some people like to look back to the war years because they were Britain's last high watermark.

RICHARD OVERY: That was the last moment in which the British could feel there was an empire as a great power, that they had a part to play. And everything since then has been relative to time.

LANGFITT: References to fighting the Nazis are so common, some even joke about it, as John Cleese did back in this 1975 episode of the TV comedy "Fawlty Towers." Cleese, playing hotelier Basil Fawlty, can't stop mentioning the war while serving German guests.


JOHN CLEESE: (As Basil Fawlty) Is there something wrong?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Would you stop talking about the war?

CLEESE: (As Basil Fawlty) Me? You started it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) We did not start it.

CLEESE: (As Basil Fawlty) Yes, you did. You invaded Poland - here.


LANGFITT: British patriotism and World War II nostalgia were in full force at block parties Friday celebrating VE Day. In the English town of Waybridge, a deejay blasted period music mixed with the sounds of British fighter planes. People social distanced. But some, like Emma-Jane Nutbrown (ph), who's 35, complained that younger people are ignoring basic government warnings and risking lives.

EMMA-JANE NUTBROWN: I think we're coping. But I think our generation is significantly softer than the Queen's generation. We're being bracked (ph) about staying indoors. And all we're having to do is sit on our sofas and watch Netflix.

LANGFITT: A few blocks away, James East (ph), who works for a global charity, nursed a beer in his backyard and pondered this.

JAMES EAST: Why is it that the Germans have done so much better than the Brits?

LANGFITT: Germany's death toll is less than a quarter of Britons, which, at well over 30,000, is the highest in Europe. One reason - the Germans tested quickly at high volume while British efforts sputtered. East thinks there are other deeper reasons.

EAST: We didn't lock down, I think, until too late. There was maybe a certain cavalier attitude that, being British, we could confront this thing without being too constrained. It goes back to that, you know, British bulldog spirit that, in the face of a threat, we'll pull together as a country and deal with it.

LANGFITT: East is proud of Britain's history. But he says looking to the past is no substitute for careful planning to confront the challenges at hand. Frank Langfitt, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.