11 November 2022

Calm down, culture warriors – remembering our shared history is something that can bring us together


Rishi Sunak’s first photo-call with his wife on the steps of Downing Street came as part of the launch for this year’s Poppy Appeal. He had, on his first day in office, entered Number 10 on his own after speaking to the nation from outside – part of a decidedly low key ‘lets get to work’ approach in his early days in office.
His appointment as the first British Asian Prime Minster was a historic moment but also a strikingly understated one. Others often had more to say about this than the Prime Minister himself.– from headlines in the Indian press, such as ‘Indian son rises over the Empire’, to his political opponents noting the symbolic importance of his achievement in the Commons. Indeed, Sunak’s first direct comment on this since taking the office emphasised the value of not making too much of the new norm of ethnic diversity at the top table:

‘It said something wonderful about our country that that was possible, but also that it wasn’t a big deal. It was in a sense ‘gosh this is great’ but also that’s just Britain. That’s what you would expect of Britain.’

In selling poppies to launch the Royal British Legion’s poppy appeal, Sunak was undertaking a standard prime ministerial activity at this time of year. This too passed without comment – his opposite number, Keir Starmer, was rattling a tin for the Poppy Appeal somewhere else that day too – but it is perhaps worth remarking on how unremarkable that image was, given the not-too-distant context. 

Little more than a decade earlier, after controversial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and radical Islamist Anjem Choudary burning poppies, Britain’s tradition of remembrance had appeared contested. Media debates questioned whether the poppy had become politicised and whether ethnic minority Britons would wear it at all.

That was effectively challenged by a stronger understanding of the ethnic diversity of those who fought for Britain. The armies that fought the first and second world wars look more like the Britain of the 2020s than that of 1940 or 1914 in their ethnic and faith make-up. The Indian army contribution of 2.5 million soldiers to the Second World War made it the largest volunteer army in history.

National commemorations of the First World War centenary from 2014-18 took some of the heat out of the debate. Public engagement with the history of the World Wars increased significantly through an extended programme of cultural and official events. People learned more about the men and women who served, too – that they included millions of people from across pre-partition India, Africa and the Caribbean. The diverse armies who fought in both World Wars looked a lot more like multi-ethnic Britain today: this is shared history that is equally owned by all of us, whether our parents were born here or came to the UK from Jamaica, Nigeria or Pakistan.

That shared history is, of course, not uncomplicated: it is a story of empire and colonisation; of unequal and unfair treatment; of the prejudice encountered by those who came to Britain after having served in the armed forces. Yet with all its complexity and controversy, it is the history of our country and our society.

It is a history we want to know more about, and for our children to learn about too. British Future’s research has found that, by a margin of 78% to 3%, the public would support doing more to recognise the Commonwealth contributions to the Second World War as a positive way to promote understanding of the shared history of today’s multi-ethnic Britain.

Rishi Sunak did not this year choose to make any specific reference to the Commonwealth contribution, though he and other ministers have frequently done so in the past. And his government could make more of why an inclusive approach to understanding our history can help bring people together and build a shared sense of identity, bridging divides of politics and generation, ethnicity or faith. The First World War centenary commemorations were held during one of the most turbulent and divisive times in Britain’s post-war history, in the lead-up and aftermath of the EU referendum, without getting politicised or drawn into the fiercely-contested debates about our future relationship with Europe.

Next year marks the 75th anniversary of the Windrush arriving at Tilbury docks on June 22,1948. That is a story of Empire, too, as men and women from Britain’s colonies answered the call from the ‘mother country’ to help rebuilding efforts after the war. It is also a story of service and sacrifice: one third of those onboard the Windrush were returning Caribbean RAF servicemen. The Evening Standard front-page greeted the boat with the headline ‘Welcome Home’. 

Windrush 75 will be marked next year as an important moment in Britain’s history. It is a story of migration and integration that explains how we got to where we are today, as a modern, multi-ethnic, multi-faith society. One where the British son of Indian migrants stands, as Prime Minister, on the steps of Downing Street wearing a poppy to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for the country we now share.

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Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.