If anybody still thought British history wasn’t a heavily politicised subject then the current skirmishing between some of our leading political figures over the meaning of World War One should have disabused them of that.
Admittedly no expert in the 1914-18 conflict I have however written about Britain during the Second World War and have been fascinated by how members of our political class are trying to gain advantage as the country prepares to commemorate the centenary of what used to be called the Great War.
These political maneuvers began during Radio 4’s Start the Week on 30th December. On the programme Michael Gove, the Conservative Education Secretary, discussed the teaching of British history in schools with a variety of historians. The discussion was fairly anodyne: nobody appeared willing to disagree with anybody else. Thus, when turning to how the First World War should be commemorated, the sound of punches being pulled was overwhelming. Gove called for a ‘deeper understanding’ of the conflict and claimed he did not want one single view of the war to emerge. He did, however, gently call for a ‘correction’ to be made to counter the influence of a ‘particular prism’ through which the war has been generally perceived, one he claimed was due to the late Alan Clark’s The Donkeys (1961), the musical Oh! What a Lovely War and the BBC sitcom Blackadder Goes Forth.
A careless listener might have missed Gove’s muted comments and would certainly not have anticipated what was to follow. For, within a few days Gove, now liberated from the need to maintain a polite consensus with his fellow Start the Week panellists explained what he meant by a ‘correction’.
Writing in the Daily Mail he emphasised the need to challenge ‘some of the myths which have grown up about the conflict … which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage’. He baldy accused ‘Left-wing academics’ – as well as (again) Oh! What a Lovely War and Blackadder but now also the 1986 BBC series The Monocled Mutineer – of propagating the idea that the First World War had been a ‘misbegotten shambles’. Strangely Clark – not only a military historian critical of Britain’s generals during the conflict but also Conservative MP and minister – had been dropped from Gove’s litany of shame.
Referring to the work of historians with whom he agreed, Gove claimed the 1914-18 conflict had been a ‘just war’, indeed a ‘noble cause’, given how the ‘ruthless’ and ‘aggressively expansionist’ militarism of the German elite had threatened the ‘western liberal order’.
Arguing Gove was hijacking the commemoration of the war for political purposes his Labour Shadow Tristram Hunt cited historians who believed Germany was not alone in having imperialistic ambitions in 1914. For his pains, London Mayor Boris Johnson called for Hunt’s resignation if he thought Germany was not to blame for the conflict, given the ‘driving force behind the carnage was the desire of the German regime to express Germany’s destiny as a great European power’.
By this point UKIP leader Nigel Farage had joined the fray. Like Gove he defended Britain’s generals from the charge of being incompetent butchers: if anyone was to blame for the carnage, Farage asserted, it was Britain’s political elite and the incompetent French military.
This fracas is clearly about more than World War One. Gove sees the 1914-18 conflict as but part of a wider war against ‘Left-wing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders’. His intervention is part of a broader push to promote a definition of Britain’s role in the world as ‘marked by nobility and courage’ and a ‘special tradition of liberty’. Johnson is using the war to expose what he sees as ‘the intellectual dishonesty of the Left’. Farage, more subtly, wants to present the conflict as yet another instance in which Westminster politicians let down Britain, something that echoes his party’s populist rhetoric.
While castigating Gove for playing politics with the war, Hunt’s intervention was of course equally partisan. Not wanting Labour to be defined as the ‘unpatriotic’ party in the run up to a keenly contested general election and so possibly frightening the voters Hunt claimed the British left was as ‘patriotic’ as everybody else in 1914-18. He even highlighted how Labour MPs acted as recruiting sergeants for the trenches. This meant ignoring the inconvenient fact that the party’s future leader Ramsay MacDonald – as well as many others in the labour movement – opposed Britain’s participation in the war. It is not clear if Hunt thinks such figures were ‘unpatriotic’ or not, especially as he argued Germany was not the only country to blame for war. His is the most befuddled intervention of them all, one that ironically echoes the divided position of the British left on the outbreak of war in August 1914. Fortunately, in this refighting of the First World War, none of the consequences of his confusion will be fatal.