9 November 2018

Ignore the culture warriors. Remembering WWI brings Britons together


The centenary of the First World War comes to an end this weekend in a world markedly different from the one in which it began. Who could now fully recall that distant world of 2014 in which Donald Trump commanded only the boardroom of The Apprentice, Jeremy Corbyn was an obscure backbencher and nobody had ever heard the word “Brexit”?

The Great War infamously confounded the expectations of August 1914 that it might be “all over by Christmas”. Over four years, 16 million lost their lives. If anything could put our present discontents into context, it would be that. Yet these centenary years have been the most volatile four years of peacetime British politics in the century since WWI ended.

The key centenary moments have often coincided with political events of a magnitude rarely seen more than once in a generation. The Queen opened the commemorations at Glasgow Cathedral in August 2014 just weeks before Scots voted, by a narrow margin, not to dissolve the United Kingdom. The Scottish National Party’s consolation prize was an avalanche landslide, ending half a century of Scottish Labour dominance. That 2015 election also saw Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats suffer the greatest setback for any governing party since the great Liberal split between Lloyd George and Asquith a century before.

In July 2016, David Cameron oversaw the most solemn phase of the commemorations – the tragedy of the Somme – as one of his final duties as Prime Minister. It came just a week after the public vote to leave the European Union had triggered his resignation. Within a year, preparations to commemorate the muddy stalemate of Passchendaele were overshadowed by the new stalemate in Westminster: Theresa May’s snap General Election went wrong, derailed by an unprecedented shift in political fortunes during an election campaign. And now, in November 2018, we mark the centenary of the moment that the guns fell silent just as the Brexit negotiations finally reach their crucial phase.

The centenary has largely steered clear of this volatile political context. That is partly because, in a polarised era, we may value more those things that bring people together. The left-wing journalist Aaron Bastani, who recently described the poppy appeal as “sickening”, clearly appears more interested in trying to start a culture war than in being genuinely concerned about how money raised in the Poppy Appeal supports veterans in need. British Future’s research shows a narrow and diminishing public appetite for these kinds of “poppy wars” — at a once-in-a-century moment like the Armistice centenary, few will want to engage in a spat that is forgotten a week later.

There had been at least a little nervousness in Whitehall about the decision to symbolise reconciliation by inviting the President of Germany to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph. Happily, it appears to have ignited next to no public or media controversy whatsoever. The idea, at a century’s distance, that former enemies should commemorate together – and remember all who died on every side – commands a near-universal public consensus.

Paris will play the central role in the international commemorations of the Armistice centenary this weekend. President Macron has managed to generate some controversy, on the neuralgic issue for successive French Presidents of how to differentiate between Marshal Petain, the hero of Verdun in the Great War, and the same man, convicted for treason after the second world war for leading the Vichy collaboration with Hitler. Peace in Europe will be the core message, especially if the ceremonies can conjure up an image of Franco-German reconciliation as iconic as that of Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl, holding hands in the Verdun rain, to mark the 70th anniversary of the war.

Beyond those high state ceremonials, it is the level of civic and public participation in the commemorations has been a distinctly British feature of the centenary, with over ten million people taking part in over two thousand local heritage projects. The people’s procession, in which ten thousand members of the public will walk past the Cenotaph, will symbolise that. The emotional intensity of the public response to the Centenary has surprised even those responsible for organising it – beginning with the five million visits to see the Tower of London poppies in the Autumn of 2014.

This reflects a curious paradox, discovered by British Future when we first began researching expectations of the centenary back in 2012.  A strong public sense of the importance of this occasion was combined with very sketchy knowledge of the history. The “World Wars” are almost universally seen as foundational to our national identity – but more people thought Britain had declared war in 1914 over the invasion of Poland than thought of Belgium. More still said they just didn’t know.

Yet the shakiness of that grasp of history was often a powerful driver to engage with the centenary. The First World War has moved from memory to history and few want ours to be the generation which breaks the chain of passing something on to our children that they might pass on again in turn. People have used the centenary to locate themselves – their family, their school, their town – into something bigger. If we believe a shared history matters, as most people do, we may sometimes need to learn more about it.

I do sometimes hear people ask whether this country’s cherished rituals and traditions of Remembrance could retain their relevance in an increasingly diverse Britain. Those asking that question probably do not realise that the armies that fought a century ago look much more like the Britain of 2018 than that of 1918, with a quarter of the ten million troops who fought coming from across the Commonwealth – from Australia and Canada, India, the Caribbean and Africa.

British Future’s research into public views of the centenary finds that the Commonwealth contribution is the issue on which public awareness has grown most: seven out of ten people are now aware that Indian soldiers took part in the war, something that was minority knowledge before the centenary began. It has not been a minor tributary but a major theme of the commemorations. That growth in understanding has helped to make this Remembrance season more prominent than ever in temples and mosques, as well as in synagogues and churches — a product of a growing understanding that we have more shared history than we think.

The Remember Together initiative, from British Future and the Royal British Legion, has sought to deepen this understanding by bringing people from different backgrounds together, uncovering WWI history that is shared by Britons of all creeds and colours. It will continue after the centenary too. Once the solemn silence of this Sunday has passed, if we seek a legacy from this First World War centenary, it should be the opportunity to build more bridges in a society that often feels more divided than any of us would want.

Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future.