Monthly Archives: May 2020
Modern Britons associate The Great Escape with the 1963 film of that name starring Steve McQueen, reffering to, of course, a mass escape by Allied prisoners during the second world war. But this title might more appropriately be applied to the rescue of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Dunkirk between May 27 and June 4 1940.
As the UK marks the 80th anniversary of that escape, we shall hear much of the author JB Priestley’s first “postscript” for BBC Radio on Wednesday June 5. That broadcast coined the phrase “Little Ships” and even acknowledged Priestley’s own part in shaping understanding of Dunkirk. He asked listeners: “Doesn’t it seem to you to have an inevitable air about it – as if we had turned a page in the history of Britain and seen a chapter headed ‘Dunkirk’?”
But there was nothing inevitable about it.
Before pledging to “fight them on the beaches”, Winston Churchill himself reminded the House of Commons in the same speech that “wars are not won by evacuations”. He acknowledged that the BEF had courted disaster before depicting its escape as “a miracle of deliverance”. That the British public regards it as a triumph owes much to the work of British newspaper journalists and the Royal Navy press officers who briefed them.
How the ‘miracle’ came about
Dunkirk was not reported in eyewitness accounts from the beaches. The few war correspondents who struggled back with the retreating armies had no means by which to communicate. Reports, such as Evelyn Montague’s The Miracle of the BEF’s Return for the Manchester Guardian of Saturday June 1 1940, were penned by journalists invited to witness the Royal Navy’s delivery of evacuated soldiers to the ports of south-east England. There, they were briefed with patriotic fervour and naval pride as well as facts.
The first sentence of Montague’s piece gives a flavour of the mood that was inspired:
In the grey chill dawn today in a south-eastern port, war correspondents watched with incredulous joy the happening of a miracle.
The reporter – a grandson of the famous Guardian editor and owner C.P. Scott – did not fail to give the Royal Navy credit. Having described a waterfront hotel in which “every armchair held its sleeping soldier or sailor, huddled beneath overcoat or ground sheet”, Montague turned to the scene in the port:
As the rising sun was turning the grey clouds to burnished copper the first destroyer of the day slid swiftly into the harbour, its silhouette bristling with the heads of the men who stood packed shoulder to shoulder on its decks.
Back in 1940, the Times did not award reporters bylines. Its report of the BEF’s return on June 1 was by “Our Special Correspondent”. He too witnessed the scenes in a south-eastern port (security censorship forbade more precise identification). The men, he wrote, were “weary but undaunted”. Protected by “the ceaseless patrol maintained by British warships and aeroplanes in the English Channel”, men who had displayed “steadiness under a cruel test” were “pouring onto the quays”.
The Daily Mirror’s Bernard Gray, writing in its stablemate, the Sunday Pictorial, gave his verdict in a column on June 2 headlined simply “The Whole Magnificent Story”. “There have been many glorious episodes in the history of Britain”, he opined, “but, if that great English historian Macaulay were able to select from 2,000 years the most glorious week in the annals of the British Empire, this last seven days would surely be the week he would have chosen.”
Gray did not hesitate to offer comparisons:
Never mind the defeat of the Armada. Forget even the Battle of Waterloo, the epic of Trafalgar. For this week has seen the British Empire at its mightiest – in defeat.
Standing “in the streets of an English Channel Port”, G. Ward Price of the Daily Mail was similarly enthralled in his front-page piece, Rearguard Battles On, on June 1: “It is a picture of staggering heroism, fighting spirit and determination that never weakened in the face of overwhelming odds in men and material.”
A defeat, however ‘glorious’
It took Hilaire Belloc, the Anglo-French author of Cautionary Tales for Children, to recognise in his column for the Sunday Times (The Evacuation and After, June 2) that the withdrawal from Belgium and the collapse of Britain’s key ally, France, constituted a “catastrophe”.
In his defining examination of the elements that comprise Britain’s “received story” of 1940, The Myth of the Blitz, Scottish historian and poet Angus Calder noted that elements of the way the story was reported were misleading. However, Calder agreed that “Dunkirk was indeed a great escape”.
I celebrate the work British newspapers did to stiffen resolve and sustain morale at this time of grave national peril. In a democracy fighting totalitarianism, newspapers must balance their obligation to hold power to account and their duty to the national cause. The newspapers surveyed here certainly colluded in the creation of myths about Dunkirk, but their readers might not have welcomed any efforts to report Dunkirk any other way.
After all, myths are not lies and this one was studded with harsh facts. In Bernard Gray’s words for the Sunday Pictorial, Dunkirk was glorious despite the truth that: “The British Army has not won a battle. The British Army has retreated. The British Army has had to leave the Battlefield.”
For me, David Low captured the prevailing mood in his famous “Very Well, Alone” cartoon for the Evening Standard just a few weeks later on June 18. It depicts a British soldier alone before a raging sea and gesturing with a raised fist towards the Nazi-occupied continent from which German troops were expected to arrive at any moment.
High Court ruling on ‘Palace letters’ case paves way to learn more about The Dismissal – and our Constitution
The High Court has ruled that Sir John Kerr’s correspondence with the queen comprises “Commonwealth records”. This means access to them is now in Australian hands and can no longer be vetoed by the private secretary to the queen.
This correspondence, which includes Kerr’s briefings to the queen on the political crisis prior to the dismissal of the Whitlam government on November 11 1975, and his explanation to her afterwards of why he exercised this power, have so far been kept from public view.
The High Court’s decision opens the possibility that we will finally see the last pieces of factual evidence about The Dismissal – revealing the concerns and reasoning of the governor-general, as events occurred, without the gloss of hindsight.
It could even allow this festering wound in our political history to be healed, once all the information has been revealed. But it depends now on what the National Archives does next.
How were these letters treated until now?
Until now, the National Archives has claimed all correspondence it holds between governors-general and the queen, even when written in their official capacities, is “personal” and not a “Commonwealth record”.
This means there was no legal obligation on the National Archives to provide public access to these letters. Instead, the National Archives had stated it could only release these documents in accordance with the conditions placed on them by the person who lodged them with the National Archives.
But it let those conditions be changed on the instructions of the queen in 1991 so that her private secretary and the secretary of the governor-general held a veto over the release of any such correspondence.
In the case brought by academic Jenny Hocking against the National Archives, the High Court held by a majority of six to one that the letters between Sir John Kerr and the queen were created, received and held as institutional documents by the “official establishment of the Governor-General” before being transferred to the National Archives by the official secretary to the governor-general in his official capacity. This level of official control over them was enough to make them “Commonwealth records”, even if the governor-general still held ownership rights over them (which the majority said it did not need to decide).
In their joint judgment, Chief Justice Kiefel and Justices Bell, Gageler and Keane said they could not see how the correspondence could be described, however “loosely”, as “private or personal records of the Governor-General”.
They said it could not be supposed that Kerr could have taken the correspondence from the governor-general’s official establishment and destroyed or sold it.
Justice Gordon thought even if Kerr did have property rights in the original documents, he gave up any claim to them when they were deposited with the National Archives. Justice Edelman agreed the correspondence between the governor-general and the queen was “created or received officially and kept institutionally”.
Only Justice Nettle concluded these letters were personal communications between Kerr and the Queen, and were not Commonwealth records.
Does this mean we get to see the letters now?
The court did not order that the letters be publicly released. Instead, it ordered the director-general of the National Archives reconsider Jenny Hocking’s request for access to the correspondence held by the archives, treating them as Commonwealth records.
Section 31 of the Archives Act 1983 requires the National Archives to give public access to any Commonwealth record that it holds that is within the open access period and is not an “exempt record”.
The correspondence between Kerr and the queen has been in the “open access period” since 2006/2007. The only question that remains is whether the director-general will now claim that the correspondence is comprised of “exempt records”.
Section 33 of the Act lists a number of exemptions. These include documents that could reasonably be expected to cause damage to international relations, or where disclosure of matters in the record would constitute a breach of confidence.
The damage that might be caused by the release of documents necessarily diminishes over time. So even if these exemptions are claimed, consideration would have to be given to whether they remain applicable, given the age of the documents.
The director-general of the National Archives responded to the High Court’s decision by stating the
“National Archives is a pro-disclosure organisation” that operates on the basis of making records publicly available “unless there is a specific and compelling need to withhold it”.
It will be interesting to see what “compelling” needs it might identify.
Are there any wider implications of the decision?
The High Court’s decision will also affect the release of correspondence by other governors-general. The release of Lord Casey’s correspondence with the Queen was recently blocked by Buckingham Palace, which stated it would refuse access to any correspondence with the queen until at least five years after her death, and then only if the private secretary to the new monarch agrees. That veto has now been destroyed by the High Court.
So not only is Kerr’s correspondence with the queen liable to be opened, but also the correspondence by all other governors-general with the queen, when it is in the “open access period” and subject to any exemption.
That may mean we get a better idea of how the roles of the governor-general and the queen operate under our Constitution, which would be a good thing.