This day mat­ters so much be­cause we’re so di­vided

The Mail on Sunday - - NEWS - By JEREMY PAX­MAN Jeremy Pax­man’s Great Bri­tain’s Great War is pub­lished by Pen­guin.

TO­DAY, amid much som­bre pomp, there will be cer­e­monies right across the land. Mil­lions will watch as The Queen at­tends t he Re­mem­brance Day ser­vice, and lead­ers of the com­bat­ant na­tions will join each other in declar­ing ‘never again’.

Yet at the last sig­nif­i­cant an­niver­sary, in 1968, 50 years since the Ar­mistice, the Queen and Prince Philip weren’t even in the coun­try. They were in Rio de Janiero and it was left to the Duke of Kent to lay a wreath at the Ceno­taph.

Then, there was a wide­spread feel­ing that it was time to call an end to the cease­less com­mem­o­ra­tion, and in­stead to em­brace the present and the fu­ture.

On this 100th an­niver­sary, how­ever, there seems to be a gen­uine pop­u­lar de­sire to reimag­ine the hor­rors of that par­tic­u­larly hor­ri­ble war. Why not fol­low the in­stincts of decades ago and al­low it just to be­come his­tory? Af­ter all, those who wore Bri­tish uni­forms and sur­vived to the Ar­mistice have now suc­cumbed to nat­u­ral causes.

The tim­ing is part of it, per­haps. While Re­mem­brance Sun­day hap­pens ev­ery year, to­day it falls on the 11th day of the 11th month. One hun­dred years ago to­day, at 11am, the blood-let­ting stopped.

There is more to it than an ac­ci­dent of tim­ing, though. Bri­tain has been walk­ing back­wards into the fu­ture for decades, rev­el­ling in long-gone glo­ries on our way to car-boot sales or over spoon­fuls of in­stant food eaten on self-assem­bly fur­ni­ture. But this an­niver­sary is more than the rec­ol­lec­tion of past glo­ries (for what­ever else it was, the Great War was not glo­ri­ous).

Is the rea­son that we – rightly – take this cen­te­nary quite so se­ri­ously that we have be­come an an­gry na­tion, a peo­ple in search of unity and pur­pose? Bri­tain in 2018 is a coun­try that feels let down by our politi­cians and lied to by our me­dia, while the cus­tody of the Western world is in the hands of the most unattrac­tive man to hold the of­fice since it was first in­vented.

Re­moan­ers claim that the vote to leave the Euro­pean Union was an in­co­her­ent howl of ‘noth­ing can be worse than this.’ The coun­try didn’t, they as­sert, know what it wanted, but it sure as hell didn’t like what it had.

This is a pa­tro­n­is­ing in­sult to any­one vot­ing to leave the Euro­pean Union to re­gain con­trol of na­tional des­tiny. A sense of pur­pose mat­ters, whether that’s for an in­di­vid­ual or for a na­tion, and a sense of pur­pose is what so many of us will be re­flect­ing on to­day.

HOW dif­fer­ent was the Bri­tain of the First World War, when mil­lions of men and women came to­gether and ‘did their bit’. Look at the pho­to­graphs of the jolly young Tom­mies march­ing off to war and the fe­male tram driv­ers, mu­ni­tions work­ers and Land Army girls, also cheery for the cam­era: the na­tion they rep­re­sent smiled in the face of hard­ship.

No one in their right mind would claim that pre-war Bri­tain – where the women and most of those do­ing the dy­ing couldn’t vote – was bet­ter than to­day. The qual­ity of life was far worse. But the faces in these pho­to­graphs are those of cit­i­zens an­swer­ing what they felt to be a na­tional call.

By the time of the Ar­mistice, a stag­ger­ing five mil­lion were wear­ing Bri­tish mil­i­tary uni­forms. But Bri­tain is no longer a coun­try where una­nim­ity pre­vails. To­day, we mark Re­mem­brance Sun­day to hon­our the mem­ory of the empty places at so many fam­ily din­ner ta­bles – and it is this that should take prece­dence, not the grand plans and ges­tures of politi­cians here and abroad, who have their own pur­poses in mind.

The Great War was it­self a po­lit­i­cal project. ‘The war that will end war’ had been HG Wells’s Pollyanna-ish claim in 1914. That it didn’t turn out to be any­thing of the kind was not the fault of those who died but of politi­cians.

It is not as if we had been forced into hos­til­i­ties. There was no im­mi­nent threat to this coun­try. The im­me­di­ate casus belli was the Ger­man in­va­sion of Bel­gium, which Bri­tain had promised to pro­tect way back in 1839.

Bel­gium is an in­her­ently in­co­her­ent coun­try, which is, of course why it now so jeal­ously pro­tects its role as seat of the supra-na­tional Euro­pean Union. But com­mit­ments are com­mit­ments, and the Bri­tish Gov­ern­ment could not hope to be taken se­ri­ously in the world if it ig­nored the coun­try’s des­per­ate pleas.

When Lloyd George was asked how he had got on at the treaty talks which fol­lowed the Ar­mistice, he is sup­posed to have replied ‘Not badly, con­sid­er­ing I was seated be­tween Je­sus Christ and Napoleon.’ Christ was the US pres­i­dent, Woodrow Wil­son, a zealot who thought he could re­shape the world, ‘Napoleon’ was the wal­rus- mous­tached French prime min­is­ter, Ge­orges Cle­menceau.

It is France’s curse to keep knit­ting one macramé Napoleon af­ter an­other. The lat­est, Emanuel Macron, will lead his na­tion’s re­mem­brance cer­e­monies and has said that the First World War memo­ri­als re­mind him of how im­por­tant the EU is in ob­struct­ing Euro­pean na­tional- isms. We can ex­pect more of the same. The foun­da­tions of the Euro­pean Union lie in France’s fear of Ger­many and Ger­many’s fear of it­self.

It is no­table that re­la­tions be­tween the lead­ers of the two na­tions are still the most trum­peted in the block.

Oddly enough, when George Or­well looked back at the war, he thought that the av­er­age Bri­tish sol­dier had emerged from it with con­tempt for French civil­ians and a sneak­ing re­spect for the Ger­man sol­dier. The Bri­tish rul­ing class has been try­ing to make us love the French for gen­er­a­tions, when in fact we have very lit­tle in com­mon with them.

WE SHOULD never for­get that the pur­pose o f Re mem­brance Sun­day is to hon­our the dead. All politi­cians need projects. But let us be wary of grand schemes. We should re­call the ex­tent to which re­spect for our an­ces­tors is in­ex­tri­ca­bly mixed up with how we feel about our coun­try. Let’s get the re­la­tion­ship be­tween in­di­vid­ual sac­ri­fice and na­tional pur­pose right.

Courage is hard. Speeches are easy to make. And dan­ger­ous.

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