A sense of history

A new poll reminds us that without knowing what we were, we'll never know who we are.

Britain thinks of itself as an old country, in which history and tradition matter.

That is a sensibility shared across very different political perspectives,
ranging from Eurosceptic invocations of a thousand years of history to
Occupy celebrating the 365th anniversary of the Putney debates and British
traditions of democratic equality stretching back to the Levellers.

David Cameron's recent call to ensure "an enduring cultural and educational
legacy" by making young people central to the commemoration of the Great
War will strike a chord with most people.

Fully 85 per cent of people say that school children today do not know enough
British history, and that the centenary should be seized as an important
opportunity for them to learn more in a new YouGov poll for British Future,
which explores how much people know about the history of the Great War.

What the poll also shows is that expressions of pride in British history
can often be combined with a pretty shaky grasp of the details.  Thinking
that history is very important does certainly not seem to entail knowing
all that much of it.

The findings are not, by any means, all bad news. The new poll shows that
most people can at least identify 1914 and 1918 as the years that the war
began and ended, with 65 per cent able to identify 1914, falling to 56 per cent who can get the year the war ended.

That does leave a third of people who don't know when the war began, making
guesses ranging from 1800 to 1950, with 1960 being the latest date given
for the year of the Armistice. Only a minority of those under 24 could give
either the 1914 or 1918 dates, while over 60s did better.

At least most people know that there was a Great War, and when it was, but
go beyond that and everything else about that war seems to get quite a bit
sketchier for a majority of the population.

Forty-four per cent of people could identify Passchendaele as a world war one battle, which seems a fairly reasonable score when the battle in the mud of Flanders does
not, though over half a million were killed on the British and German sides
combined, have quite the same level of infamy as the Somme. Almost a third
of those under 24 did choose Waterloo, Bannockburn or Bosworth Field, where Richard III was killed, as first world war battles.

Communities minister Sayeeda Warsi wrote recently in the Sun that "our
boys on the front line weren't just Tommies; they were Tariqs and
Tajinders as well - one million Indian soldiers fighting for our country". But
most people don't know about the Commonwealth troops fought in the war: 44 per cent are aware that Indian soldiers fought for Britain, with a similar
proportion knowing that Canadian soldiers took part. There is not much more
awareness of the role of Australian troops either, as 47 per cent of Britons know
that Australian soliders took part in the war, though that history
continues to have a powerful influence on Australian national identity,
with the increased prominence of Anzac Day down under forming a crucial
part of modern Australian citizenship and nation-building. Only half as many again (22 per cent) knew about the role of African troops from
Kenya.

Interestingly, breaking the pattern of other questions on dates or battles,
16 and 17-year olds and those under 24 were just as likely to know about
soldiers from Australia and Canada, India and Kenya as those over 60,
suggesting that this is an aspect of the war that has perhaps become more
prominent in the last couple of decades.

Two-thirds of people don't feel able to hazard a guess about the scale of
British and Commonwealth military casualties. Six per cent of people, and one in ten
of those under 24, suspect under 10,000 British and Commonwealth soliders
were killed, with under a quarter confident enough to make any sort of
sensible estimate in the hundreds of thousands or over a million. The
combined number of British and Commonwealth military deaths is just over
1.1 million, according to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

If people have a shaky grasp of what happened, there is also an appetite to
know more about it. Family history might be one starting point for many.
14 per cent of people say that their relatives fought in world war one and that
they know what they did. Another 33 per cent of people think that they did have
relatives who fought in world war one, but that they don't know the details
of what they did, while 37 per cent aren't sure whether their relatives were
involved or not. (Seventeen per cent say that they know their relatives did not fight in
the war). There is a big opportunity here, perhaps for the BBC and the
government to collaborate, to open up the "who do you think you are"
opportunities to make it easier for people to fill in the gaps in their own
family histories, and also to share that information with others.

Michael Merrick, who teaches at a Catholic school in Cumbria, told me that
schools should also seek to seize the opportunity of the centenary to
improve historical knowledge and understanding of how the events of the
last century have shaped the society we became, but warned that there are
"significant obstacles to overcome" to make this happen. "During the first years at secondary school, too many students will receive
just one hour a week of History, one hour in which to deliver an island story spanning thousands of years. One could hardly be
surprised if a teacher is thereby reluctant to devote time to exploring
local histories at what seems like the expense, on such a limited
timetable, of a wider overview. Neither, it should be added, is there
always the guarantee that the teacher will be a subject specialist, whilst
the current fashion for emphasising the forensic analysis of sources over
narrative comprehension further weakens the civic-oriented impulse, turning
History into a skill to be learned rather than a story to be told."

British Future and the Citizenship Foundation plan to work together during
the next year, looking at how schools think the centenary can best be used
to improve historical understanding in a way that engages the next
generation.

But these are not just questions for schools to address. They are also
about public understanding of the formative moments which have made us the
society that we have become. The centenary of the war should offer an
opportunity for every argument about it to be aired and contested, to thrash
out the legacies which it has had for Britain today. Why did the war happen
and how could the slaughter have been averted? How did it change Britain's
relationships with Europe, Empire and Commonwealth? What were the most
profound domestic social changes wrought by a war which finally ended the
argument about restricting the franchise, and changed the social role of
women dramatically?

It is hard to see how we can try to answer those questions, or have those
arguments if we have only the shakiest grasp on what happened. In 2014,
people will want to commemorate the war, and remember those who lost their
lives in it. We have two years to think about how we are going to learn
what we want to remember.

Sunder Katwala is director British Future
Douglas Haig visits a poppy factory in 1926 (Photograph: Getty Images)

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle