Andrew Murrison: In a tumultuous time for British politics and society, commemorating the centenary of the end of the 1914-18 war has brought people together
The PM’s special representative for the centenary of the First World War, Dr Andrew Murrison MP writes about the seven-year long journey to ensure the centenary of the Great War was commemorated appropriately.
In 2011, David Cameron was buttonholed by his Belgian opposite number on the UK’s plans for the upcoming centenary of the Great War. There were no plans, perfectly understandably since in 2011 government was completely focused on the 2012 Olympics and the Queens’ diamond jubilee.
The solution was to appoint a prime ministerial special representative, probably the first of its kind, to work with the wonderful, incomparable Department for Culture, Media and Sport and come up with a cunning plan. That blueprint was launched by David Cameron at the end of 2012 from the Imperial War Museum to an eclectic audience including the arm’s-length and non-governmental organisations that would play such an important role in what then happened.
The six years since have been an extraordinary journey, honouring the fallen in the best ways imaginable – bringing people together at home and, abroad, uniting partners and former adversaries.
The timing could not have been better.
On 1 July 2016, in driving rain, eight days after the EU referendum, David Cameron met President Hollande at the Thiepval Memorial in northern France to mark the centenary of the battle of the Somme. With damp VIPs pondering the geopolitical implications of what had just happened, it was a particularly sombre state occasion.
Before the Somme, and particularly since, official moments organised to mark the waypoints of the war have provided brief interludes for reflection and perspective in rancorous times for our neighbourhood. They have shown that the commemoration of shared history, even where it is complex and nuanced, is a powerful unifier. That is one of the messages I take home from this centenary.
Since June 2016, some EU politicians upset by Brexit have been huffing that the UK has chosen to become less than European, a third country. But just a few miles from Brussels in the city of Ypres is the Menin Gate. There are 54,000 names engraved in its cold Portland stone. They are the missing. What that means is the flesh and blood of the British Isles and its family will for all time be part of European soil, literally and metaphorically. That means a very great deal.
So, in this year of all years, let’s not have loose talk about the UK casting itself adrift. We have always been, are now, and will always be a European country.
At home, the centenary’s reach has been extraordinary, touching the great majority of citizens and launching thousands of grassroots events. Much of that spirit of togetherness and the structure for nurturing it will last well beyond the end of the centenary.
Nowhere has the power of commemoration to bring communities together been more evident than on the island of Ireland. I remember a show-and-tell event in Belfast City Hall and nationalist families queuing up with their relatives’ Great War medals, out of the shoebox in the attic for the first time in decades. The centenary has provided safe space for the telling of those stories and with them the gentle correction of historical misapprehensions, mistrusts and misrepresentations.
It was vital in the early stages to get the tone right. An early flurry of confected jingoism in the tabloids was killed stone dead by the public mood. What the British public wanted was a thoughtful, measured approach to the material, reflecting its quiet pride and based around the personal and parochial rather than the grand and strategic.
Early on, government decided to facilitate learning and exploration and avoid offering a narrative, prescription or approved interpretation of events. It was the right course. We were also clear that there had to be so much more to this than grand state occasions, important though they were and as fine as they turned out to be.
Drawing from experience of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, an artistic and cultural wraparound was designed, made possible with a generous injection of lottery money. It has enriched the centenary to such an extent that it would be unthinkable to have a state programme of any scale in the future without something similar. Such an undertaking would appear oddly sterile and almost certainly fail to engage beyond a predicable demographic.
Now, seven years on, what have we achieved and what are we left with? There is an answer and DCMS will quantify it, as it is bound to do. There’ll be charts and graphics showing how much activity there has been, how much better informed people are, the number of sites restored and footage generated, the scale and scope of the cultural legacy.
But I am left with the dawning realisation that this is just the end of the beginning.
A few days ago, I was talking about the Great War in assembly at a village primary school. From 2039, of course, we will be commemorating the start of another wall of misery. The children in my audience will be replaced by their children, two generations spanning the centenary of a 30-year war. The bit in the middle is a story of abject political failure. In many ways that bit of the sandwich is the bit to remember.
Andrew Murrison is Conservative MP for South West Wiltshire and the PM’s special representative for the centenary of the First World War