Volunteers continue to assemble an installation in the moat of the Tower of London to commemorate the First World War. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

To remember the First World War we need lively debate as well as silent tributes

Our democracy expanded, society became less deferential, the trade union movement grew and our politics would never be the same.

It takes something significant to bring the noisy and fast-moving world we live in today to a silent stop. We live in an age of now, all leading frenetic lives with constant demands on our time. Rarely do we pause to reflect on events that took place long before our parents or grandparents were born. 
 
Tonight we will experience one of those moments, when Big Ben chimes 11 o’clock and marks 100 years since Britain entered the First World War on 4 August 1914. It was a conflict that changed the world forever and helped shape the lives we lead today. More than 16 million soldiers and civilians across the globe would not live to see peace in 1918.
 
Some believe they died in a conflict that though appalling, was necessary and needed to be fought. Others argue their sacrifice was futile, in a war that achieved nothing, and could and should have been avoided. My hope is that the commemorations taking place today and over the next four years will give us each a precious opportunity to make up our own minds and reflect on our shared history.
 
Anniversaries like this are essentially the closest thing our society ever has to a national history lesson. Not one where governments or politicians should hand down official judgements on events from 100 years ago, but one where we can each explore this traumatic chapter in our national story in an inclusive and democratic way. There were 16,000 towns and villages across Britain in 1914, but only 40 of them would reach 1918 without having lost someone in the conflict. It means each community has its own story to tell.
 
As I’ve travelled across the country I’ve met people of all ages who are researching their own family histories and learning about the impact the war had on the places where they live. This includes tales of heroes and heroines from the home front as well as the frontline. Stories of miners, factory and railway workers who kept our country going, of volunteers who worked the land and nurses who cared for the wounded.
 
Hearing their stories has made me revisit my own family tree. Scouring family archives with the help of my aunt, I discovered my own family connection – a previously unknown great great uncle who fought in the 16th Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. He was christened "Nimrod" but enlisted under the name of John for reasons that nobody now knows. He would become one of the 900,000 British and the Commonwealth soldiers who never returned home, killed in Belgium on 7 October 1917. It is hard to imagine what horrors he must have experienced, even as someone who has experienced combat myself.
 
The First World War contains millions of stories like his, including many that reach far beyond the poppy fields of Flanders. Two examples will stay with me as I travel to Glasgow ahead of this morning’s national memorial service.
 
The first is the immense debt we owe to millions of soldiers from the nations whose inspiring athletes we have watched competing in the Commonwealth Games over the past eleven days. They included men from India, Australia, Canada, parts of Africa, and countless other countries. Many had never been to Britain but they came to fight for Britain in our hour of need.
 
The second example is the story of a woman called Mary Barbour. A century ago she lived in Glasgow’s Govan district, just a few miles from the venue for last night’s closing ceremony. When her husband David left for the frontline, she was left to look after their two young sons. With so many men away, the city’s private landlords sensed an opportunity and began hiking the rents of Mary and her neighbours. They messed with the wrong woman. Working with her friends, Mary organised a rent strike and led tenants in a protest that grew into 20,000 people. They became known as "Mrs Barbour’s Army."
 
The government was forced to rush through immediate reforms to protect people from unfair rent increases, one of the many ways that the First World War changed the role of the state in our public life. Mrs Barbour would go on to become Glasgow’s first female Labour councillor. She didn’t even have a vote when the war broke out, but she was one of the millions of women who would help change that by entering the war effort and taking on roles that only men had ever done before.
 
Her story is an example of the social, political and economic forces that transformed Britain between 1914 and 1918. Our democracy expanded, society became less deferential, the trade union movement grew and our politics would never be the same.
 
The next four years provide us with an opportunity to explore all of this and more, and pass these memories on to future generations. That process should start tonight with silent and respectful tributes. But there should also be space for lively debate and discussion about how the echoes of the First World War continue to shape our lives today. That would be time well spent.
 
Dan Jarvis is the Shadow Justice Minister and Labour’s lead for the First World War centenary.

Dan Jarvis is the Labour MP for Barnsley Central and a former Major in the Parachute Regiment.

Parliament TV screengrab
Show Hide image

MP Michelle Thomson's full speech on rape at 14: "I am a survivor"

The MP was attacked as a teenager. 

On Thursday, the independent MP for Edinburgh West Michelle Thomson used a debate marking the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women to describe her own experience of rape. Thomson, 51, said she wanted to break the taboo among her generation about speaking about the subject.

MPs listening were visibly moved by the speech, and afterwards Thomson tweeted she was "overwhelmed" by the response. 

Here is her speech in full:

I am going to relay an event that happened to me many years ago. I want to give a very personal perspective to help people, both in this place and outside, understand one element of sexual violence against women.

When I was 14, I was raped. As is common, it was by somebody who was known to me. He had offered to walk me home from a youth event. In those days, everybody walked everywhere - it was quite common. It was early evening. It was not dark. I was wearing— I am imagining and guessing—jeans and a sweatshirt. I knew my way around where I lived - I was very comfortable - and we went a slightly differently way, but I did not think anything of it. He told me that he wanted to show me something in a wooded area. At that point, I must admit that I was alarmed. I did have a warning bell, but I overrode that warning bell because I knew him and, therefore, there was a level of trust in place. To be honest, looking back at that point, I do not think I knew what rape was. It was not something that was talked about. My mother never talked to me about it, and I did not hear other girls or women talking about it.

It was mercifully quick and I remember first of all feeling surprise, then fear, then horror as I realised that I quite simply could not escape, because obviously he was stronger than me. There was no sense, even initially, of any sexual desire from him, which, looking back again, I suppose I find odd. My senses were absolutely numbed, and thinking about it now, 37 years later, I cannot remember hearing anything when I replay it in my mind. As a former professional musician who is very auditory, I find that quite telling. I now understand that your subconscious brain—not your conscious brain—decides on your behalf how you should respond: whether you take flight, whether you fight or whether you freeze. And I froze, I must be honest.

Afterwards I walked home alone. I was crying, I was cold and I was shivering. I now realise, of course, that that was the shock response. I did not tell my mother. I did not tell my father. I did not tell my friends. And I did not tell the police. I bottled it all up inside me. I hoped briefly—and appallingly—that I might be pregnant so that that would force a situation to help me control it. Of course, without support, the capacity and resources that I had within me to process it were very limited.

I was very ashamed. I was ashamed that I had “allowed this to happen to me”. I had a whole range of internal conversations: “I should have known. Why did I go that way? Why did I walk home with him? Why didn’t I understand the danger? I deserved it because I was too this, too that.” I felt that I was spoiled and impure, and I really felt revulsion towards myself.

Of course, I detached from the child that I had been up until then. Although in reality, at the age of 14, that was probably the start of my sexual awakening, at that time, remembering back, sex was “something that men did to women”, and perhaps this incident reinforced that early belief.​
I briefly sought favour elsewhere and I now understand that even a brief period of hypersexuality is about trying to make sense of an incident and reframing the most intimate of acts. My oldest friends, with whom I am still friends, must have sensed a change in me, but because I never told them they did not know of the cause. I allowed myself to drift away from them for quite a few years. Indeed, I found myself taking time off school and staying at home on my own, listening to music and reading and so on.

I did have a boyfriend in the later years of school and he was very supportive when I told him about it, but I could not make sense of my response - and it is my response that gives weight to the event. I carried that guilt, anger, fear, sadness and bitterness for years.

When I got married 12 years later, I felt that I had a duty tell my husband. I wanted him to understand why there was this swaddled kernel of extreme emotion at the very heart of me, which I knew he could sense. But for many years I simply could not say the words without crying—I could not say the words. It was only in my mid-40s that I took some steps to go and get help.

It had a huge effect on me and it fundamentally - and fatally - undermined my self-esteem, my confidence and my sense of self-worth. Despite this, I am blessed in my life: I have been happily married for 25 years. But if this was the effect of one small, albeit significant, event in my life stage, how must it be for those women who are carrying it on a day-by-day basis?

I thought carefully about whether I should speak about this today, and it was people’s intake of breath and the comment, “What? You’re going to talk about this?”, that motivated me to do it, because there is still a taboo about sharing this kind of information. Certainly for people of my generation, it is truly shocking to talk in public about this sort of thing.

As has been said, rape does not just affect the woman; it affects the family as well. Before my mother died early of cancer, I really wanted to tell her, but I could not bring myself to do it. I have a daughter and if something happened to her and she could not share it with me, I would be appalled. It was possibly cowardly, but it was an act of love that meant that I protected my mother.

As an adult, of course I now know that rape is not about sex at all - it is all about power and control, and it is a crime of violence. I still pick up on when the myths of rape are perpetuated form a male perspective: “Surely you could have fought him off. Did you scream loudly enough?” And the suggestion by some men that a woman is giving subtle hints or is making it up is outrageous. Those assumptions put the woman at the heart of cause, when she should be at the heart of effect. A rape happens when a man makes a decision to hurt someone he feels he can control. Rapes happen because of the rapist, not because of the victim.

We women in our society have to stand up for each other. We have to be courageous. We have to call things out and say where things are wrong. We have to support and nurture our sisters as we do with our sons. Like many women of my age, I have on occasion encountered other aggressive actions towards me, both in business and in politics. But one thing that I realise now is that I am not scared and he was. I am not scared. I am not a victim. I am a survivor.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.