I have perhaps made too much already of the similarities of the present time of COVID-19 and the early stage of my life during and after the war, but the memories keep coming back. The latest one comes from the current conflict between safety and freedom to live a normal life, whatever that normal is to you and me. The memory is of one of the first poems I learnt as an eight-year-old, just after the Second World War ended: Siegfried Sassoon's celebration of the end of his service in the First World War:
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.
For Sassoon, the sense of liberation from the trenches and shell shock to return to his former life must have been almost inconceivable. Freedom after the Second World War was, to say the least, relative and for me marked the start, for family reasons, of 10 years' experience of English boarding schools. My concept of freedom, constrained by tight regulation, may thus differ from that of many succeeding generations. Not unreasonably has it been said that such an upbringing is excellent preparation for imprisonment; it was quite deliberately designed at that time to prepare one for military service and it doubtless conferred a certain resilience in those of us who endured it. For me, lockdown has posed no psychological problems other than anxiety for the health of my family and friends.
Now, I have found that the vaccination has conferred an element of freedom and we have cautiously ventured out to have a meal in a restaurant and have even booked a three-day holiday in Yorkshire. We have had brief garden meetings with several grandchildren, all of whom have grown remarkably since we last saw them. I have had several walks with friends. My wife has returned to the shops, or those that have survived. We look at holiday brochures and think: maybe next year – we'll see where Covid is then.
I watch the news and see freedom interpreted as hugs, pubs, raves and oversea holidays. You will understand that for my generation three of those are only occasional pleasures and one is totally unnecessary; freedom is to be able to do what you want, say what you want and go where you want, but always within the reasonable restraints placed upon responsible members of society. These freedoms were summarised by Franklin D Roosevelt in a speech in 1941: freedom of speech and expression; freedom to worship God in your own way; freedom from want; and freedom from fear.
They were echoed in Sir William Beveridge's report the next year, in which he identified the five giants to overcome on the road of reconstruction: freedom from want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. In the introduction, he noted:
Now, when the war is abolishing landmarks of every kind, is the opportunity for using experience in a clear field. A revolutionary moment in the world's history is a moment for revolution, not patching.
This must have seemed a strange conclusion for a Liberal but, of course, it led directly to the introduction of the Welfare State by Clement Attlee's 1945 Government. The freedoms from being attacked by those giants for more and more of us led directly to us having longer and healthier lives, extraordinary progress that continued until the last two decades when an insidious increase in inequity has been associated with decreasing life expectancy amongst a growing group of the poorest.
This is a danger signal. Want, squalor and idleness are exemplified by homelessness and begging on our streets, ignorance by falling literacy levels among children and by racist and discriminatory behaviour, disease by our response to the pandemic and the problems of healthcare in an emergency. These can be seen to be even more pressing when we add in the imperative to ameliorate the effects of climate change. The giants have woken up, but the pandemic provides us with an opportunity; it is a revolutionary moment, and we need a revolution in recovering from it. That revolution must involve all of us. It will be a revolution in the way we live our lives, a revolution requiring sacrifice, even loss of perceived freedoms.
Some readers will remember gaining our freedom from the bombs, the U-boat blockade, the threat of invasion; this was the time of the trades or the wakes week, when working folk had their annual holiday in Morcambe Bay, Blackpool, or the Isle of Man, shivering in unheated boarding houses. Food rationing, queues outside the butcher's at a time when only the wealthy had a car and very few could afford a flight in an elderly Dakota to Dublin; these represented that relative freedom. I do not need to stress how different life has been for the majority recently. This increase in more trivial freedoms has resulted in a huge increase in our use of energy.
Here are a few facts:
• In 1940, global fossil fuel usage produced some four billion tonnes of CO2.
• By 2019 this had risen to 36.4 billion tonnes in the year.
• In 2019, each of us in the UK contributed on average 12.7 tonnes of CO2 – gas weighs very little and this equates to each of the 60 million of us driving a car round the world.
However, there is some good news. In the UK, we have managed to reduce our CO2 output from fossil fuel combustion by 40% since 1990 and this reduction has received a welcome boost during lockdown. It is clear from this that we as individuals can make a difference. Now is the opportunity for a revolution in our behaviour, a responsible use of freedom constrained by our understanding of where we are heading if we do not change.
As I write, we face two challenges that address the major dangers of our time. The pandemic is still with us, in the form of a mutating virus, and people are still dying and being admitted to hospital with it in Scotland; we are not yet fully protected by vaccination. COVID-19 is unlikely now to fade away and is currently increasing again with the Indian variant. Similarly, climate change is going to have greater effects on our lives and those of our children than many have accepted hitherto. Both require us to continue to modify our lifestyles, to take care of ourselves and of our fellow human beings.
Our freedoms will necessarily be curtailed – be relative. The sooner politicians recognise this and pluck up the courage to tell us, as Mr Churchill once did, the better. But remember, a greener lifestyle is also a healthier one.
Anthony Seaton is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aberdeen University and Senior Consultant to the Edinburgh Institute of Occupational Medicine. The views expressed are his own