The dutiful and the despotic: a tale of two generations

Composite image of Norma (photo owned by the author and coloured by Malcolm Laverty) and screenshot of Rees-Mogg created by Anthea Bareham

This would be a powerful piece on any day of publication but coinciding as it does with the anniversary of that law-breaking party in Downing Street and the very day that author Dr Pam Jarvis’s brother died it has additional heft and poignancy.

My mother, who died in February, was born into a generation raised to dutiful service in pursuit of the common good. Their legacy is now being tragically betrayed by the despotic ministers who currently sit at Westminster. This is an issue that should be of concern to all Britons, whatever their political allegiance.

Duty and the ‘Silent’ Generation

My mum died in Temple Cloud in February. She was ninety-two years old, in final stage Alzheimers. She’d lived a very ordinary life for a woman of her so-called ‘silent’ generation, born too late to see active service in World War II, too early to fully engage with the post-war cultural earthquake that ushered in sex, drugs and rock and roll.

The events that shaped her in early life – evacuation, rationing, long hours spent in bomb shelters – crafted her generation to be stoic and sometimes passive, but above all, highly attuned to duty and sacrifice. Born in South London to a family of working class Johns, Roberts, Alices, Joans and Marys, my mum was the one who unexpectedly got a film star name: Norma, possibly after a popular actress of that time, Norma Shearer.

Although Britain was never occupied by the Nazis, WWII had lifelong impacts upon Norma and her generation; for example, many never received a secondary education. Aged eleven at the outbreak of war, she was evacuated from London to the Kent countryside, where schools had no immediate capacity for the sudden influx of children. Then like many others, when there was little bombing in the first months of war, Norma’s parents took her back to London shortly before the Blitz began in earnest.

Norma would tell stories of seeing the fire from the South London docks lighting up the sky, night after night. Long days and nights were spent in air raid shelters, having to remain quiet to avoid further agitating highly stressed adults, whilst schools remained closed for days on end.

An Ordinary Life

Norma started work as an office junior in 1942, aged 14. By the time the war ended in 1945, she was seventeen years old and a typist. She married my father, John, in 1951, left the office behind and settled down to focus on her family, ensuring we received the secure home life and education that the war had denied her.

There were no formal chances offered to the ‘silent generation’ to make up for their lost years of education. The women seemed to feel particularly forgotten in this respect, some developing a sense of intellectual inferiority. I vividly remember conversations between women of that generation revolving around ‘if only we’d had the chance to… but the war…’

The prospect of her children and grandchildren receiving university degrees was something that Norma had never previously considered, but she attended graduation ceremonies enthusiastically, musing on the different paths our lives had taken.

I remember that most of what she said was optimistic; the opportunities we had been given that had been denied to her age group; the progress that had been made by a nation that had pulled together, not only during the war, but in the austerity years that followed.

A last year under the shadow of Covid

By the time the pandemic began, Norma was well past being able to mentally process the national situation. Luckily, she was resident in a small, high quality nursing home that managed to protect nearly all its residents from Covid, including her. But they paid a high price for this, being unable to see family members from early spring 2020 to mid-2021 other than through windows or on FaceTime. And sadly, this turned out to be the last year of Norma’s life.

For me, living more than 200 miles away in Yorkshire, FaceTime visits did have one benefit: I could ‘see’ Norma far more regularly than had previously been possible. However, we and her more local relatives were not able to take her infant great-grandchildren to see her in real life. A smiling baby had always been the most effective way to elicit smiles and a few disjointed phrases from her, even once she lost the ability to speak in meaningful sentences. And sadly, we discovered, seeing a baby on a screen did not prompt the same reaction.

It is difficult to know what an Alzheimer’s patient holds in their mind when they cannot express it in words, but I am sure that, particularly for a generation who were as focused on family as Norma’s, this lack of real-life contact was devastating.

But I am convinced that their majority position on this would have been: ‘if lockdown is for the common good, we have to do our duty.’ It was the spirit in which they were raised.

The Silent Generation betrayed

The MP for North East Somerset, the constituency in which Temple Cloud is located, grew up in an entirely different world to Norma. Jacob Rees-Mogg was born in 1969, the son of the editor of the Times newspaper. He attended Eton and Trinity College Oxford and began his career in pension fund management, setting up his own company, Somerset Capital Management. His father wrote a book which outlines a ‘dog-eat-dog eat dog future in which the welfare state has shriveled away, the rich pay little or no tax and only “sovereign individuals” are able to prosper.’

The fact that Norma and Rees-Mogg spawned in such very different environments is not an issue; the time and location of our birth is not something that any of us can choose. It is the fact that Rees Mogg seems intent on manoeuvering the UK along the path that his father predicted that raises such alarm.

Earlier this year, Tom Scott explored various issues relating to Rees-Mogg’s conduct as an MP and Leader of the House: his vote against free school meals, his attacks on UNICEF, his company’s use of overseas tax havens and its involvement in hedge funds. His arrogant personal conduct is frequently a matter for national comment. Here he is caught in the act of sneering at the dutiful behaviour of those, like Norma, who were raised with very different values.

Rees-Mogg carefully crafts his appearance to suggest that he espouses the values of an older generation. He also frequently draws attention to his Christian faith.

But all of this is spin. His behaviour and that of many of his peers in the current cabinet is not about traditional Conservatism [and certainly not about Christian values! Ed], but despotism.

I will admit that I’ve never voted Conservative. However, I did have some basic respect for previous Tory Prime Ministers who appeared to have a genuine conviction that their flawed policies would address the common good. Post-World War II examples include John Major, Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May. 

But now when I see the party of Churchill and Disraeli in action, all I see is charlatans, carpet baggers and above all, callous and narcissistic individuals, of which Rees-Mogg is a prime example. And I believe that Norma’s silent generation, who sacrificed childhood to war and later worked together to rebuild the UK would have been appalled, whatever their political allegiance.