Sunder Katwala

How should we mark the Great War’s centenary?

How should we mark the Great War’s centenary?
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It seems strange now to recall that, it was not so many years ago, around the time of the millennium, that some in Whitehall were talking about how to scale down Remembrance Sunday. One theory was that marking the centenaries of the start and end of the Great War could also mark an appropriate moment to bring the solemn Cenotaph ceremonials to a gentle end. The assumption was that Remembrance would gradually lose its resonance and relevance once the generations who fought the Great War had all passed on. Such thinking did also reflect the mistaken New Labour view of the Dome era: that Britain would be able to face the future more confidently if it let go of the historical baggage which could weigh us down.

That is not how things turned out. If anything, Remembrance seems to be gradually growing in resonance, with little sense among the children and grandchildren of the wartime generations that this doesn’t mean anything relevant to them. And perhaps, paradoxically, because recent military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan have been politically contentious, they seem to have renewed a sense of connection with the armed forces who, as in the Great War, do not make the political decisions about war and peace that put them in harm’s way.

As Prime Minister David Cameron speaks at the Imperial War Museum today, to set out the government’s thinking about the centenary of the Great War, he will spark a broader civic debate about how to mark this national moment. As a solemn moment of commemoration will, naturally, be very different in tone to the celebrations of the Queen’s Jubilee and the Olympic Games, but could prove as important in bringing people together.

The public want to see special efforts to mark the centenary, and to ensure we learn about it too. Seven out of ten people believe it offers a once in a generation opportunity to make sure we all know our shared history, and why remembrance matters, while a small minority of 16 per cent believe existing remembrance activities are sufficient, and worry that Britain spends too much time looking at the past.

YouGov polling for British Future found sweeping support for symbolic gestures – flying flags at half-mast from every town hall, and ringing bells from churches and other places of worship across the country. It is interesting that opinion is more equally divided over ways to mark the occasion that might involve even minor inconvenience, though there is support for making Remembrance Sunday 2014 not just feel like any other Sunday. 54 per cent would like a day free of Premiership football fixtures and other major sporting events. The country begins split down the middle, before a public debate has begun, as to whether Remembrance Sunday 2014 should be a day on which the shops close, with 45 per cent in favour and 45 per cent against, an idea which is more popular In England and Wales than it is in Scotland. As Labour peer Maurice Glasman has asked, is a quiet moment of Remembrance by the cheese counter at Waitrose quite the right way to mark the moment?

The next year or two will offer a chance to talk about how we will mark this moment, locally as well as nationally, but to talk too about the history that we should all know. There will be many different perspectives on the legacies of the Great War – from family histories, and how it affected the towns and villages, to how it reshaped global politics. It is also a chance to renew our understanding of the extraordinary global story that saw so many British Empire and Commonwealth soldiers fight for Britain. For a long time, the service of 210,000 Irish soldiers, and the sacrifice of 35,000, was largely airbrushed from history, but remembering their role could now contribute to the deepening of reconciliation, having been an important part of the symbolism of the Queen’s successful state visit to Dublin. If the history of the sacrifices of the Indian Army was known by the next generation, writer Mihir Bose suggested to me that this should mean that Britons from South Asian backgrounds would be just as likely to wear a poppy as anybody else. He doubts that is yet the case.

Marking the centenary of the Great War could also be a chance to understand that we share more history than we might realise.

Sunder Katwala is the director of British Future.