23 October 2012
Even the war dead may
not be immune from
the cacophony of 2014
Scottish National War Memorial
It is not hard to understand why memorials and commemorations attract controversy, particularly when they feed into contemporary social or political divisions. They are the past, or at least versions and memories of the past, made tangible and placed in the public spotlight.
Often framed as unifiers, they have the potential to divide and exclude. The form, location, even commissioning bodies and funders can all potentially tell us something about which historical narratives are being privileged. The memorial or commemoration that attracts no controversy or historical debate is rare indeed. Even events around which there is a large degree of consensus usually exhibit antagonism at the fringes. Wearing a poppy, for example, has become more controversial in recent years despite the campaign being more eagerly supported than ever before. According to the Royal British Legion, the 2010 Poppy Appeal raised £36 million, thus surpassing previous appeals.
David Cameron recently announced that £50 million was being set aside in order to fund commemoration events around the centenary of the first world war in 2014. Announcing this allocation of public money at the Imperial War Museum, he said that he wanted a 'truly national commemoration'. Cameron seems to be on solid ground here. A poll released the same day found that 69% of those surveyed felt that Remembrance Day 2014 should be a special national day.
Cameron said the commemorations would encompass changes to the Imperial War Museum (to the martial tune of £5 million), a programme of funded national events and an education programme, a significant part of which seems destined to be plenty of school trips to Flanders. Setting out the reasoning behind this plan Cameron said: 'Our duty with these commemorations is clear. To honour those who served. To remember those who died. And ensure that the lessons learned live with us forever. And that is exactly what we will do'. Not exactly Wilfred Owen but the point was clear enough.
Cynics might say he is moving quickly to fan the embers left after the Olympic torch was extinguished. They might also suggest that he is now latching on to this second occasion in another bid to create a sense of unity that masks the failure of his Big Society theme and the divisions being caused by the spending cuts implemented by the coalition government. One might also question the wisdom of spending £50 million commemorating an event in a climate of austerity and cuts to welfare budgets.
On the other hand it might be pointed out that major commemorations for the centenary of the first world war were always likely regardless of the party in government. It was one of the defining events in 20th-century global history. In a recent history of Scotland, Professor Ewen Cameron wrote: 'The epic scale and tragic sense of loss pulls the historian towards the conclusion that the Great War was a unique watershed'.
Moreover, the UK has a well-established culture of remembrance and it seems likely that this will be pronounced when colliding with an equally well-established fondness for anniversaries. But even on the centenary there is likely to be some consternation, people opting out or not feeling that they have been included in the first place.
In Scotland, the announcement was greeted by some nationalists as a sort of devious plot to undermine the chances of Scotland voting yes in the independence referendum. Presumably they would have agreed with Richard Seymour, writing in the Guardian's debate section, 'Comment is Free', who said it was evidence of the 'cultural formations the Conservatives are interested in supporting'. Incidentally, thoughts on appropriate levels of government spending or how we should mark the centenary were absent.
Nationalists seem to have expected to ride a Scottish wave created by the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn and the Commonwealth Games. Can we now expect Dave and the Kaiser to be blamed if the outcome is a no vote? These were the two events most conspicuously mentioned in discussing the timing of the referendum; the first world war centenary was, in contrast, rather inexplicably overlooked. I say inexplicably because the conflict had seismic effects on Scotland, not just for the duration but arguably for decades after in terms of the economic, political, demographic and cultural changes it wrought.
Scots volunteered and died in disproportionate numbers: by the end of 1914 almost 162,000 Scots had volunteered to serve in the British armed forces. It would, however, be a brave, not to say foolish, politician who tried to play politics with the statistics in the referendum campaign. Scotland, in short, has ample reason to reflect on what was a tumultuous and traumatic period in the nation's history. It remains to be seen whether quiet reflection will be possible in what looks set to be a cacophony of historical noise in 2014.
Important questions are being asked about how we remember the past on these islands. How, for example, can we remember parts of our history marked by division and violence without perpetuating those divisions or exacerbating them anew? Is it possible to remember something neutrally or in a way that embraces a variety of different interpretations?
Sir Robert Lorimer's Scottish National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle was opened in 1927 and attempted to record the names of all the Scots who had died during the conflict. It has been described as 'devoid of triumphalism'. Ideally, the centenary should be devoid of both triumphalism and gratuitous political posturing but the early indications are not particularly promising.
Alasdair McKillop is a writer based in Edinburgh