8th May 1945 is a date that will forever live in our national consciousness. After six gruelling years, the war was finally over.
For those who lived through the conflict, it was a moment of collective relief and elation. For everyone else since, it is a moment to pay tribute to the sacrifice of the Second World War generation; the thousands of young Barnsley men who left our town to fight for their country, some never to return.
Despite the precariousness and fear through which we are living today, it is just as important as ever to reflect on the significance of VE Day. We should also ask ourselves what lessons we can learn, while in the grip of the Coronavirus, from the Second World War generation.
What that generation went through is very different to what we are experiencing now. But when we overcome this challenge, we too will have to rebuild our country, just as they did. It is in that spirit, we should remember the unity and purpose they showed, and what they achieved.
It is hard to come to terms with the scale of human suffering that took place during WWII. Britain alone sustained 384,000 military and 70,000 civilian fatalities over the course of the conflict. Today, we are forced to reconcile with loss of life that would’ve been unimaginable a few months ago. Behind every number is a story of a life lived and a family left in mourning. The Second World War generation proved that together, we can overcome the loss, and acknowledge the pain that it has caused.
VE Day marked the end of fighting in Europe but the War had taken its toll on our economy. To fund the war effort, the government was forced to borrow huge sums of money and sell foreign assets, leaving Britain crippled with debt.
In the face of great uncertainty, we chose to turn the page, not only on the violence and devastation of the conflict, but also on the miserable years that preceded the war. For millions of Britons, the 1930s was a lost decade, defined by grinding poverty, mass unemployment, the means test and hunger marches.
There would be no return and instead, the post-war era became a period of renewal. The welfare state was drastically expanded: we built our NHS, provided unemployment and sick pay, and raised the school-leaving age.
Arguably, the challenges we face now are greater than those seventy-five years ago. It is predicted that our economy will shrink by more than a third and leave 2 million Britons unemployed. And as the coronavirus has further exposed, we already live in a deeply unequal society.
This is a new nadir but we will need to show a similar level of collective resolve and solidarity, akin to 1945, to overcome the social and economic effects of the coronavirus.
As we commemorate this landmark, we should be mindful of how our country was eventually rebuilt. We owe that generation an enormous debt. It is profoundly unfortunate that we cannot show our gratitude in the manner we wanted but we are reminded of why we need to cherish them while we have the chance.
This VE Day will be like no other before it. Seventy-five years on, we are not together in person, but we are together in spirit. As a country, we say thank you for your courage, your inspiration and your sacrifice. All that you gave us will never be forgotten.
This article was originally published in the Barnsley Chronicle on 8 May 2020