It’s no good. After years of railing at the television I have decided to do something about it. The war, that is. I am now committed to try and count the number of features on my regional news programme that are related to the two world wars over the course of a year. Why? Because first, it all appears to me to be rather boring; and second, I believe that rather than enhance historical understanding by shedding light on the past, it is narrowing perceptions
and understanding of Britain’s relationships with the rest of the world.
I do understand that at a regional level TV stations have to sometimes scramble around for a good story; there can’t always be the tragedy of a 99-year-old dying in an NHS hospital. When I lived a few miles down the road in a different news region, the proximity to Portsmouth for Royal Navy stories was perhaps understandable, if somewhat trying. But reference to the Great War and the Second World War now seems to have reached epidemic proportions. It seems that barely a day goes by without some discovery of a site or artefact related to the wars or a person’s role in one war or another war being relived.
On one level, the availability of technology and growth of interest in the world war by generations who are no longer required to fight – compulsorily anyway – has encouraged more personal and localised histories to be uncovered. However, I can’t help feeling this is less about the sacrifice and hardship of war than about heroism by association. A great uncle or grandfather is referred to as a hero merely by their involvement in a conflict, whether they were in combat or not – heroism which would have been met with scorn by those they revere.
Of course, it is essential to pay tribute to the combatant and non-combatant participation and suffering in wars, but where does it end? Both in terms of the types of service awarded medals, and the validity of reference to events deemed historically important. Perhaps it is symptomatic of the role of war in our popular culture as evidenced by the never-ending popularity of Dad’s Army.
No greater example of the role of war in society is the growth in popularity of Remembrance Day and the recent debates about poppy wearing. The English and Scottish football associations’ insistence on the morality of players being able to wear poppies for a match last November was deemed as political symbolism by FIFA. Yet the England and Scotland football teams had not worn poppies on their shirts until six years before – that is for more than half a century after the Second World War ended.
The practice of wearing poppies and the actual ceremony attached to the November 11 was diminishing in the 1960s and ’70s. TV programmes mocked those who claimed to be heroes in the 1939-45 conflict, like Rigsby in Rising Damp. Veterans depicted as grumbling or exaggerating their war experiences were ridiculed.
Clearly, there is the inevitable role of time and memory here. Over 60 years later, different perspectives come into play. No conscription, a waning of the novelty of youth culture as oppositional to society and a general remoteness of not so recent history for new generations. And perhaps closer proximity to more recent conflicts, even if not affecting British civilians, has stirred interest in military service. Or is it the post-Princess Diana syndrome of mass shroud wearing? As a football fan, I had to stand in silence three times in November last year – none of them on November 11. Perhaps we are seeing the start of “Remembrance Month”.
Has it all gone too far and are there political repercussions? One could argue that it is the political right that benefits most from association with Britain’s “finest hour” of WW2. Winston Churchill, probably the most recognisable historical figure to the British, was a Conservative; and even the politically apathetic, particularly among the older generation, are aware of this. Hence, patriotism, military service and, most importantly, national success are natural associations with the Tories.
Meanwhile, Labour’s most successful prime minister, Tony Blair, is still trying to live down the Iraq conflict, as much among the left as among the nation in general. And is it not ironic that the only military heroes for the left are the Spanish Civil War veterans – soldiers of individual conscience who lost in a conflict that is largely unknown to the wider public.
What is less well known is the association of the Second World War with socialism and the creation of a welfare state in Britain. The totality of conflict is cited as utilising all agencies of the state for the successful prosecution of a war leading to the same utilisation post-war for the eradication of poverty. The election of Clement Attlee’s Labour Government in 1945, with Churchill rejected by voters, nationalised industries and created the modern welfare state. The notions of a “people’s war” and equality of sacrifice – what some historians have called a leftward drift in society –facilitated that change and there was an acceptance of policies that were not repealed by future Tory governments.
Many on the left are well aware of this, but how often is it referred to in accounts of the war amid tales of sacrifice and heroism? There have been attempts to recreate appreciation of this, notably Ken Loach’s Spirit of ’45 and certainly it is covered in academia. But it is not widely adopted in popular culture.
There has though been some reappraisal of marginalised groups’ participation in war, with women and the role of Commonwealth soldiers brought to public attention in various forms in museums, films and in anniversaries of war. In fairness, the growth of social history and personal histories has aided the development of an appreciation of ethnic minorities and women in both world wars. This is a welcome change, as I remember constantly in my youth hearing older people blame minorities for ruining what they fought for in the war. There was no logic to this.
But the overall emphasis is still one of a recreation of a lost spirit of greatness, sacrifice and patriotism in the face of a threat from aliens. The lauding of new groups hitherto unacknowledged, whether they are troops from a far-flung outpost of empire, or women on Blitz fire watch duty, merely adds to the victims and heroes discourse.
Rather like the Diana remembrance, managed through association with her as a victim to embrace new groups as monarchy supporters, so with war and the concept of Britishness.
Perhaps this is being churlish and it would be wrong to castigate any new areas of research into what was such an enormous part of so many lives and Britain’s past, but I cannot help feeling that for many the war is still being fought – hence the Brexit rejection of Europeanism. I do believe that the links of war to flag-waving, anthem singing, military service and patriotism
have facilitated a distrust of Europe. It did not need Boris Johnson’s crass comments about France or Germany to stir such animosity, or UKIP’s very purpose for existing, but they fall on fertile ground that the great struggle against fascism should never be allowed to be used for.