Understandable caution, and it doesn't take much imagination to see how that kind of logic would win over a high-level crisis committee meeting. I wonder if the room had the acronym COBRA even then. Understandable caution; understandable in every respect except that it just wasn't good enough. So the people went out to get the soldiers. And thinking about it now, the people were right and the government was ... less right. With hindsight, 400,000 young British men in Nazi camps. I'll stop that sentence there.
In today's language, the British government of Summer 1940 faced "tough choices". Ha! Tougher choices. At Dunkirk, either lose the soldiers, or risk losing ships and soldiers. For our times, perhaps the moral of the Dunkirk story - I do mean the story; I grew up with it and I've now seen the new-ish film - is that governments, administrations, establishments don't really run anything. "What happens next" is generally beyond their competence. Read any coverage of this year's disasters - Grenfell Tower in particular - and what comes across is the contrast between the people's response and the government's. A bomb goes off, or a tower burns, and we're all there: emergency services, taxi drivers offering free rides home, "ordinary people" (the BBC's usual designation) giving first aid and then donating time and material aid.
While the "powers that be" (don't laugh) blunder about in the background. I came home from Dunkirk the 2017 film (in which the British, the French and "the enemy" slug it out) and pulled out The World At War (the 1973/1974 TV series). The queues on the beach weren't quite as orderly in 1973 (the episode "Alone" showed archive footage) as they were in the 2017 version, but apart from that, the main difference was in the telling. More wreckage on the beach in 1973, more of an air battle (and the role of the Germans was acknowledged), but the "little ships" were just part of it. I'm being very 2017 if I implied above that the British government and the British people were at odds over the evacuation. That wasn't the point back in 1973, but in 2017, Dunkirk was emphatically the people's evacuation.
We're not wrong about the relative performance of the 1940 government and the people, though. And maybe the real difference is just that the people didn't have an immediate outlet back then, in the way that we have the internet and our very different media. Churchill was hoping for 30,000 rescued soldiers, the people delivered 330,000. End of story. And then, even after "winning the war" (so to speak), Churchill went on to lose the 1945 General Election by a landslide. Almost as big a shock as - oh, any recent election in the UK, USA or France. Government incompetence, establishment complacency, institutional indifference - only recently have they been outed as an issue, but they're always punished in the end.
Thinking about this further (and making a real effort not to use the obvious current example from US politics), I remembered a line from the 2007 film Live Free or Die Hard (described as "preposterous" by one broadly positive critic; I liked it the same way): Bruce Willis and Justin Long are debating whether to let the government handle the film's central crisis. "It took FEMA five days to get water to the Superdome," says Long, in a brief reference to a recent real-world failure of government, and that's the clincher - Bruce is going to do it his way. There are going to be explosions, gun battles, catchphrases and one-liners. We're not going to be watching a film about Bruce dropping off Justin and then going home to do some laundry and maybe binge-watch a box set.
Nobody expects - has ever expected - government, etc., to respond sufficiently to a crisis, neither in myth nor fiction nor fact. I checked that FEMA reference. Briefly: survivors of Hurricane Katrina were holed up in the New Orleans Superdome; the Federal Emergency Management Agency initially delivered supplies appropriate to a chemical attack by terrorists "because that's what it says in the book", according to one report I've just (re)read. Water and food came later. Impressive that "the book" over-rode everything that those FEMA people must have been seeing and hearing on every news outlet everywhere. Impressive in the sense: unimpressive. But somehow not surprising. There's a whole book to be written about going by the book.
Oh, and it's always been this way. Along Hadrian's Wall - yes, that Hadrian's Wall; no contemporary reference intended - the Romans built a guard post every third of a mile. Never mind the specifics (milecastle, observation tower, whatever), the intention was to have soldiers on watch every third of a mile. There's one guard post that really brings the Romans alive for me. It's built exactly one third of a mile on from the one before, next to a rise in the ground from which you can see forever. But the guard post is built next to the rise, so that the rise itself blocks the soldiers' view. Yes, yes, we know about the threat from the other side; the book says one third of a mile; that's what you're going to get.
I'll bet those Roman soldiers drew lots for which of them was going to spend the night sitting on top of the rise looking North. Extra blankets and a shift system. Bet they didn't stand where they were told. If only they'd had social media; think how our view of their Empire would be different today.
I know balance is important, but somehow, I can't remember any "government did well" stories. Are there any? Maybe what we need is not a strong and stable government, nor indeed any senior politician confidently promising change - because when did any political leader ever achieve what she or he set out to achieve exactly as intended? - but a new campaign to stir the hearts of the people; a campaign that could even bring hope to our political system; indeed, a campaign that would be an alternative to popular revolt in these networked and uneasy times - a Campaign for Humility in Government.