Years ago I believed in Britain; in its future and some of its stories, values and institutions. I thought that those which did not match modern democratic times, could be changed. This was the beauty of Britain and its radical currents.
Even as a teenager I knew there was some element of make belief and fantasy in this. The mythical stories of Britain as the land of liberty, rule of law and democracy jarred with too many of the facts.
Such Whig accounts have grown increasingly threadbare in recent decades. Yet they still have their last true believers in the world of Tory Eurosceptics and in unreconstructed parts of the Labour Party.
The United Kingdom has, in its politics and collective discussions, ceased to believe in the future as a better place for the vast majority of its people. It has a version of a future where the world is one of infinite choices, superabundance and glorious luxuries, but that is the plutocrat’s Britain, and not available, as they used to say, from regular high street stores!
Instead the UK has become a state obsessed with the power of the past – but a reimagined past created to mask the exhaustion of the older, positive accounts and the wanton self-interest of the new elites. It is only in this context that the unprecedented explosion of activities and events to mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War, and their contents, can be understood. Something serious and deep-seated is at work.
Michael Gove, English Education Secretary, writing about ‘the Great War’ in the ‘Daily Mail’ slammed what he called “left-wing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders” and stated that those who fought did so for “king and country, committed to defending the Western liberal order”. This is the piece where he blamed ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’ and ‘Blackadder’ for reinforcing the view of the war as ‘a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetuated by an out of touch elite’ (January 2nd 2014).
This provoked Simon Jenkins in The Guardian to accuse Gove of having “seized the moment for tub-thumbing jingoism against his political foes”. Jenkins felt the need to apologise to Germans for the forthcoming weight of British imperial nostalgia and xenophobia, which represented an “avalanche of often sickening Great War memorabilia, largely at their expense. It will be the British at their worst: sanctimonious, self-congratulatory, worshipping at the tomb of the unknown, awful German” (January 31st 2014).
Historian Tim Stanley took a more balanced view in the Telegraph stating that, “The reality is that WWI had nothing to do with modern ideology”, which seems a bit of an oversight, given that Empires and imperialism, admittedly of a more subtle kind than one hundred years ago, are still very much with us (February 5th 2014).
Perhaps more serious and worrying are the cavalcade of blockbuster books and TV programmes which contribute to telling us something about and shape the national mood. A major topic for debate is the British (and French) defence of Belgium in response to German aggression. Broadcaster Jeremy Paxman stated in his book, ‘Great Britain’s Great War’, that Britain could not have remained aloof, writing, “The problem is that it would not have fitted with the British people’s idea of who they were and what their country stood for”. That does beg some very big questions: of whose idea, and which people and country?
Historian Max Hastings has noted diametrically opposed interpretations of the two World Wars in British culture. He observed in his offering, ‘Catastrophe’, that this outlook was “powerfully influenced by the fact that the soldiers of 1918 returned from France to a dismayingly unreformed society, which offered them only the barren fruits of victory, while those of 1945 came home to a Labour Government committed to creating the welfare state”. Hastings does not develop this train of thought, with the disappointment post-1918 leading directly to the collective endeavours after 1945 to make sure it would not be the same again.
Hastings invoked one of the most potent archetypes in British culture - the capacity of the Germans to commit atrocities, invoking “German beastliness” in Belgium in 1914. In his book he differentiates between the Kaiser and Hitler’s crimes, writing that, “The excesses of the Kaiser’s nation cannot be reasonably be compared with those of the Nazi regime which followed a generation later”.
All fine and well, yet this is not what Hastings has said in interviews promoting the book. In fact he has said the exact opposite. In a BBC ‘Daily Politics’ discussion he claimed that “if Germany had won the First World War, it would have been almost as ghastly a catastrophe for Europe as if Hitler had won in 1940”. He then went on to compare the “evil” of Wilhelmian Germany and Nazi Germany as being somehow equivalent (December 3rd 2013). This is bad history, insulting to the victims of Hitler, and sloppy thinking, given Hastings has written one thing and is now saying another.
One can only conclude that he is trying to catch the national mood of xenophobia and using this to try to reclaim the supposed ‘Great War’, and that the German/Nazi set of caricatures are just too attractive, obvious and deeply rooted in the popular British psyche to resist.
Why has Germany come back to dominate the British imagination? Not just in 2014, but in the last 20 or so years. Why do so many people in public life feel that it is appropriate to engage in anti-German comments and prejudice? And why are we, year in year out, more and more obsessed with the Nazis?
The answer to the latter is part provided in Christopher Booker’s magnum opus, ‘The Seven Basic Plots’ (a book it took him 34 years to write). In it he looks at the archetypes of different stories, and at one juncture, asks why do the Nazis (along with ‘Star Wars’) matter so much to us. His answer is that they provide an element of escape and fantasy, into the world of dark matter and evil acts. Of course, one of the two was a multi-million pound franchise of films, and the other, real history, but as we get further away from the war, imagined Nazis increasingly take over from the real ones.
Even more alarmingly, there is what this says about the state of modern Britain. There is the projection onto the Germany of 1914 of the simplest motives: the Kaiser’s intentions, his militaristic aspirations, and the hunger for conquest and war.
We need to take a hard look at the Britain and the history and culture being peddled by our elites. For a start, the First World War was not a war of, or for, democracies; instead in 1914 three empires fought three empires, so it is a bit of a mute point to try to argue in retrospect whose empire was the most civilised, and whose the most barbaric.
Take a look at the Britain of 1914 and of 2014. The sociologist Stuart Hall who recently died said that Britain was increasingly shaped by a ‘collective amnesia’ about its history and past, and in particular its Empire, imperialism and record of conquest and oppression.
This is much more than a few super-remunerated egos appearing on our TV screens and in our book stories and sounding off. This is about who we are, what Britain is, and what we amount to as a people and country.
The retreat of the good stories of Britain which used to fill so many of us with confidence and glad tidings about who we were and our future prospects, is a once in a generation change. It has left us having to re-invent good accounts based on bad history, selective memories and even worse, distortion and disinformation.
We are being told everything is alright when it is not. The dissembling and deception going on is part of trying to keep ‘the Great British’ project on the road, when it has so conspicuously failed the vast majority of the people of the country.
We have to come to terms with Britain’s record as a ‘warrior nation’. One study stated that British armed forces post-1945 had only not been in active combat for one single year over that period: 1968. Another by historian Stuart Laycock asserted that Britain had not invaded only 22 countries the world over (with four of them micro-states such as the Vatican).
We do not need to accept the Jeremy Paxman and Max Hastings accounts of Britain. They are complicit in acting as cheerleaders for an imagined past which supposedly tells us that we stood for good and against evil, but which is being used to legitimise the unequal, divided, anxious society of today.