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e-cyclopedia Thursday, 1 June, 2000, 09:09 GMT 10:09 UK
Dunkirk spirit: Do we still have it?
Sixty years on, the scale of the Dunkirk rescue mission still overwhelms - 338,000 men plucked from the beaches of northern France by a rag-tag flotilla of 850 vessels.

A retreat it may have been, but the humiliation of defeat was more than tempered by the triumph of what became known as "Dunkirk spirit".

E-cyclopedia
But while Dunkirk remains a towering monument to British bravery, what of the spirit it spawned?

In short, does Dunkirk spirit still exist?

The spirit in question is the ability of British people to come together and rise above adversity.

In his book, 50 Years On, the veteran Labour politician Lord Hattersley notes how the immediate post-war years were characterised by a strong sense of "all for one, one for all" community.
Lord Hattersley
Doggedness: Lord Hattersley says we still have it

That fell to the mantra of individualism championed by Margaret Thatcher, who famously commented "there is no such thing as society". Yet Lord Hattersley is certain Dunkirk spirit has survived into the 21st Century.

"Of course it still exists. The British character is often at its best when its people are cornered and must fight their way out," he says.

There has been little call for it in a wartime context. Since 1945, Britain has engaged in mostly limited conflicts, often backed by the might of the Americans.

Inevitably, if Dunkirk spirit exists, it is in a tamer environment.
Wimbledon spectators
Grin and bear it: Tennis fans weather a downpour

Somewhere Britain, or at least England, often finds itself with its back against the wall is on the cricket pitch.

Paul Burnham, of the unofficial England supporters club, the Barmy Army, says Dunkirk spirit is alive and well among its members.

"It's the case that the more England lose, the more we shout and sing," says Mr Burnham.

"There have been times when England have lost a Test match and we've been singing for an hour-and-a-half afterwards. We've had to be thrown out the ground."

In a neat twist of tradition, Mr Burnham says the younger fans are more charitable than England's senior supporters, who tend to "moan more".

Sing your troubles away

The notoriously bad weather can also bring out Britons' gritty determination. In 1996, Sir Cliff Richard stood up on centre court at Wimbledon during a downpour and convinced some 11,000 spectators to join him in an impromptu sing-song.
Mourners for Diana, Princess of Wales
The death of Diana united Britons in grief

Although they won't thank you for the comparison, Glastonbury festival-goers showed a similar defiance during the rain-lashed shows of 1997 and 1998.

Jacqui Gellman, of London's Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, says shows are frequently interrupted by showers, but audiences seldom complain.

"Sometimes when they are watching Shakespeare there are references to the weather and you get these great roars of laughter from the audience," says Ms Gellman.

But Dunkirk spirit is not necessarily a laughing matter. Last year British consumers put on a show of solidarity by boycotting French produce after France refused to accept British beef imports.

The wave of public mourning for Diana, Princess of Wales, showed the British still have a capacity to come together in a time of crisis.
England cricket show they are made of stronger stuff
If it's raining, then at least we can't lose

So 60 years on, there is plenty of evidence that Dunkirk spirit is still key to the British character.

Not everyone is happy though. Jasper Griegson, author of The Complete Complainer, says Dunkirk spirit is stopping us from getting what we really want.

"Faced with bad service, the British would rather button their lip and remain resolute than speak out," says Mr Griegson. "We should be very proud of what happened at Dunkirk but the problem is we are now too accustomed to losing."

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