Photo by Ian Forsyth
Artillery Row

The cult of Captain Tom is dead

Brits should stop gorging on sentimentality

If you wanted clinching proof that the pandemic is finally over, here it is: the Charity Commission has opened an inquiry into the Captain Tom Foundation, citing concerns over “arrangements between the charity and a company linked to the Ingram-Moore family”. April 2020 has finally relinquished its grasp on the national mindset. It’s now safe to question even the most sacred idols of the lockdown era. 

The golden rule of British politics is the NHS is sacrosanct

Before we begin, I have no reason to believe that Captain Tom was anything other than a good man doing what he thought was best for the country. That doesn’t mean I have to think that the cult which sprang up around him was anything other than completely insane. 

Captain Tom was launched into public consciousness after he set out walking laps of his garden to raise money for “NHS Charities Together”, an umbrella of charities which raise money for improving the lives of staff and patients.

In doing so, he tapped into two of the most fundamental elements of the British political psyche: the status of the NHS as de facto national religion, and an unwillingness to admit that the second world war has passed into history. It was all but inevitable that his campaign would go viral. 

On his death, Captain Tom was praised as a “symbol of Britain’s battle against Covid”. This description couldn’t be more accurate, if unintentionally so. It’s difficult to think of a better summary of Britain’s pandemic than praising “our NHS” while hospitals triaged care and pushed infected patients into care homes, before testing positive for Covid-19 after a stay on an NHS ward. More than 11,000 people died during the pandemic after catching Covid-19 while in the care of the NHS. The same health service sent doctors and nurses onto the frontlines without adequate protective equipment.

Point this out, however, and you will be about as popular as — well, a man writing an article on the cult of Captain Tom. The golden rule of British politics is that the NHS is sacrosanct. You might as well announce the appointment of King Herod as Schools Minister, as propose reforming it. 

It might be predictable that a country without an actual national religion would appoint the health service — present at the beginning and end of life — to the role, but it isn’t exactly helpful in getting better medical outcomes. The result is that we spend our time venerating a health service which does very well in international comparisons just so long as “not dying” isn’t on your list of important outcomes.

The British public is increasingly desperate for grandfather figures

There is a strain of sentimentality in the British national character which is highly detrimental to evaluating systems objectively, let alone addressing serious structural problems. Focusing on Captain Tom’s fundraising efforts — devoting endless media attention to his laps, his Christmas single, and the circus that surrounded him — was easier than talking frankly about the repeated failures of our healthcare system. This unwillingness to engage seriously means that failing institutions are patched up and allowed to carry on, rather than being exposed to the sort of upsetting changes which might result in better outcomes. 

The other half of the Captain Tom story is possibly even more controversial. British politics still holds at its core the belief that old people fought in the war. This is, essentially, a myth. There are just 169,000 men over the age of 90 surviving in Britain today who might plausibly have served in 1945. To all intents and purposes, the war has passed from living political memory.

This doesn’t mean we’re ready to accept it. As the number of veterans dwindles, the British public is increasingly desperate for people to fill the role of grandfather figure. Captain Tom was preceded by Harry Leslie Smith, and will presumably be succeeded at some point in the near future by another elderly man with a war record and comforting words to say about the NHS.

But at some point, there will be no more left. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of this. It’s on par with the death of the Queen. Britain’s self-image, its state, its national institutions, even its demographic makeup were all forged in the aftermath of the war. And we’re not ready for this foundation to become history.

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