Ninety-nine years ago this weekend Britain entered the First World War. Through 2014’s commemorative platform of events, next year will see a collective discussion of that conflict arguably not seen since the publication of the ex-servicemen novels and biographies in the late 1920s such as Goodbye to All That and Journey’s End. Such authors were, in part, telling a story – a semi-fictionalised version of their own perspectives on the horrors of bloodshed. But, as we may be about to find out, politicians can be story-tellers too.
Alex Salmond is probably leading the ‘politicising the war’ stakes at present – not least with the independence referendum looming large – but it is worth setting the potential meaning of commemoration for the Conservative-led government in Westminster. If Salmond was widely mocked for waiving the Scottish saltire like some Facebook photobomber after Andy Murray’s victory at Wimbledon, the Tory Party has rarely skirted ephemeral appeals to patriotism either.
The Prime Minister has promised a ‘truly national commemoration,’ but – not least because £50m of public money has been pledged to this cause – all must be wary that this is indeed delivered. Some form of non-drily neutral message is perhaps inevitable – and Gary Sheffield has made a cogent case for the commemorations to limit any Wilfred Owen ‘futility of the conflict’ narrative – but this should not be to the benefit of any one party, or set of leaders. This is a proactive call for sensibility from the government rather than a directly chiding of any particular policy to date, but the history of the Great War, how the Tory Party used it in subsequent years, and the current political narrative suggests we must at least be vigilant.
Firstly then, there is a class based issue regarding the event itself. Although one in eight of all Britons who served died – over seven hundred and twenty thousand in total – the death rate amongst the British aristocracy was proportionally even higher. Oxbridge deaths were just under one in five every man who enlisted, with losses at Fettes School approaching one in four. And, for all the no doubt later mythologising, the best and brightest boys in such institutions did indeed die in staggering numbers. Almost a third of the fastest members of Eton’s pre-1914 rowing teams fell in battle, a similar rate to winners of that school’s Newcastle Prize for Classics. When the interwar Tory and Old Etonian Alfred Duff Cooper looked back to a 1913 social gathering and claimed he could ‘recall only the dead,’ he was no doubt exaggerating, but nor was his sorrow completely put on. With the current government suffering something of a PR problem on the too many Etonians front, such noblesse oblige is not without contemporary political appeal. If the playing fields of Eton contributed so much to the Napoleonic Wars, and certainly to the Great War, they should not be used – even in a roundabout sense – to bolster in any even indirect sense those waging their own ‘war’ on the deficit.
The direct impact of a conflict almost a century old on our current debate is naturally limited. But there is broad mood music in the margins here we must be wary of. Between the wars the Conservative Party was a hub for ex-servicemen. From Stanley Baldwin’s first election of 1923 to his last in 1935 no less than 44% of his Tory MPs had performed uniformed service in the Great War. These men, by and large, were lobby fodder for appeasement in the late 1930s – albeit most motivated by the understandable desire to avoid another conflict rather than any more sinister concerns. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s such ex-servicemen were used – quite adroitly – to portrayed Labour as a semi-bolshevist party in the pay of the USSR, and the Liberals (the Tories having ditched governing with Lloyd George in 1922) as a force of the sectional middle class.
This is a particular problem because 2014 falls very close to the next election, and 11 November less than six months from polling day. The two major parties are also associated with slogans ‘we’re all in this together,’ and ‘One Nation Labour’ which call to mind the type of warlike language the media will no doubt resurrect when discussing the issue. And the Great War did indeed in many ways create the Harold Macmillan generation of Veteran MP. Such types held back the female march into parliament after the extension of the franchise. Parading a young veteran (particularly in uniform) was viewed as a safer bet than a woman even with good deal more competence. There was no questioning ex-servicemen on their qualification for political office (despite the fact that, at an average age of 32 in 1918, they were not exactly grizzled veterans of life itself) whereas women faced an uphill struggle to get nominated for selection (less than 3% of parliamentary candidates between the wars were women), let alone win a seat. Interwar MPs were three and a half times more likely to have gone to Eton and then fought in the war than they were to be a woman: 109 to 31.
This type of veteran Tory – who had served alongside the working man and went on to represent him (Macmillan, for example, in Stockton) in parliament – was not incapable of sympathy or even revolutionary thought. In 1938 Macmillan’s Middle Way called for a National Minimum Wage, clamping down on financial sector speculation, and, broadly, the economic case for raising the standards of middle and low earners. With the Tories – and associated groups like Renewal – looking to broaden their message to working class voters at present, there is no doubt a sound case for the party to look to borrow from the Macmillan playbook policy wise, but the use of his generation’s sacrifice to sell any such agenda is to be avoided. The lesson of young Conservative radicalism in the 1920s and 1930s was, in any case, a bark with hardly any bite. Talking nice but acting little will not deliver for the electorate, but it might sell surprisingly well, and it is to be hoped that the current Coalition government does not go too big on the ‘here’s what a Tory-Liberal coalition did earlier’ agenda.
2014 must be a period of contemplation. The war unleashed a series of ambiguous trends beneath the overarching story of a tragic, but probably tragically necessary, conflict. Heroism in the trenches was followed post-war by both sustained unemployment at home, and barbaric violence by ex-servicemen in India and Ireland overseas. Women entered the workplace and were given the vote/the chance to stand for parliament, but saw this advance checked as soldiers returned home and, reasonably enough, wanted their jobs back, including in some limited cases the birth given ‘right’ to enter the House of Commons. The state undertook to raise the standards of the poor to a degree not seen before 1914, but in the late 1930s Seebohm Rowntree could still deem 60% of the workforce earning a lower wage than any acceptable national minimum. In 1918 Britain crept over the winning line in the war, only to go into irrevocable decline thereafter.
As we remember those who safeguarded our liberty, so too must this story be told in truly national terms, not just in the triangulating language of politicians who wish us to perceive them as representing the ‘national interest.’ David Cameron no doubt genuinely fells some sense of emotional connection to the Great War (perhaps a more palatable Etonian legacy than some), as he indeed professes. But he is also a politician, a sharp one, and one likely to campaign on the type of ‘don’t let Labour ruin it’ strategy run by interwar Tories including Baldwin, in many ways his direct political descendent. As we look to next year’s commemorations, it is to be hoped that the Prime Minister in him beats out the Conservative Party leader.