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.

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By refusing to stand down, Jeremy Corbyn has betrayed the British working classes

The most successful Labour politicians of the last decades brought to politics not only a burning desire to improve the lot of the working classes but also an understanding of how free market economies work.

Jeremy Corbyn has defended his refusal to resign the leadership of the Labour Party on the grounds that to do so would be betraying all his supporters in the country at large. But by staying on as leader of the party and hence dooming it to heavy defeat in the next general election he would be betraying the interests of the working classes this country. More years of Tory rule means more years of austerity, further cuts in public services, and perpetuation of the gross inequality of incomes. The former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Seema Malhotra, made the same point when she told Newsnight that “We have an unelectable leader, and if we lose elections then the price of our failure is paid by the working people of this country and their families who do not have a government to stand up for them.”

Of course, in different ways, many leading figures in the Labour movement, particularly in the trade unions, have betrayed the interests of the working classes for several decades. For example, in contrast with their union counterparts in the Scandinavian countries who pressurised governments to help move workers out of declining industries into expanding sectors of the economy, many British trade union leaders adopted the opposite policy. More generally, the trade unions have played a big part in the election of Labour party leaders, like Corbyn, who were unlikely to win a parliamentary election, thereby perpetuating the rule of Tory governments dedicated to promoting the interests of the richer sections of society.

And worse still, even in opposition Corbyn failed to protect the interests of the working classes. He did this by his abysmal failure to understand the significance of Tory economic policies. For example, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer had finished presenting the last budget, in which taxes were reduced for the rich at the expense of public services that benefit everybody, especially the poor, the best John McConnell could do – presumably in agreement with Corbyn – was to stand up and mock the Chancellor for having failed to fulfill his party’s old promise to balance the budget by this year! Obviously neither he nor Corbyn understood that had the government done so the effects on working class standards of living would have been even worse. Neither of them seems to have learnt that the object of fiscal policy is to balance the economy, not the budget.

Instead, they have gone along with Tory myth about the importance of not leaving future generations with the burden of debt. They have never asked “To whom would future generations owe this debt?” To their dead ancestors? To Martians? When Cameron and his accomplices banged on about how important it was to cut public expenditures because the average household in Britain owed about £3,000, they never pointed out that this meant that the average household in Britain was a creditor to the tune of about the same amount (after allowing for net overseas lending). Instead they went along with all this balanced budget nonsense. They did not understand that balancing the budget was just the excuse needed to justify the prime objective of the Tory Party, namely to reduce public expenditures in order to be able to reduce taxes on the rich. For Corbyn and his allies to go along with an overriding objective of balancing the budget is breathtaking economic illiteracy. And the working classes have paid the price.

One left-wing member of the panel on Question Time last week complained that the interests of the working classes were ignored by “the elite”. But it is members of the elite who have been most successful in promoting the interests of the working classes. The most successful pro-working class governments since the war have all been led mainly by politicians who would be castigated for being part of the elite, such as Clement Atlee, Harold Wilson, Tony Crosland, Barbara Castle, Richard Crossman, Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey, Tony Blair, and many others too numerous to list. They brought to politics not only a burning desire to improve the lot of the working classes (from which some of them, like me, had emerged) and reduce inequality in society but also an understanding of how free market economies work and how to deal with its deficiencies. This happens to be more effective than ignorant rhetoric that can only stroke the egos and satisfy the vanity of demagogues

People of stature like those I have singled out above seem to be much more rare in politics these days. But there is surely no need to go to other extreme and persist with leaders like Jeremy Corbyn, a certain election loser, however pure his motives and principled his ambitions.

Wilfred Beckerman is an Emeritus Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, and was, for several years in the 1970s, the economics correspondent for the New Statesman