…some of you may recall the contentious line from Alan Bennett’s film The History Boys that, “there’s no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.”…recently I’ve been reading about the forms of commemoration that we collectively participate in at this time of year. There seems to be a focus on the symbols, icons and processes of remembrance, however there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of thought given to the behaviours befitting of remembrance or of learning from the mistakes of our past. It has always seemed slightly hypocritical to me that we let our politicians lead the commemorations whilst we simultaneously entertain their latest attempt to take the country to war again and sacrifice the lives of more young men and women…perhaps we feel its okay as long as they commemorate their loss once a year?
I have some prints and quotes on the wall of my home office, one of which is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the other is a quote from a film by Charlie Chaplin called the Great Dictator…the Charlie Chaplin quote is by far the more memorable of the two but probably doesn’t carry the same legislative weight. But when I look at article1 of the UN’s declaration and its reference to acting toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood, I can’t help wondering who it was aimed at? Was it you, is it me, is it us, I don’t know? I don’t see much evidence of society living up to this ideal nor do I see our Public Sector bodies or our elected Public Sector leaders adhering to it.
My wife’s grandfather Walter fought in World War 2. Like many people of that generation, Walter was under no illusions that the post-war society he was living in was not turning into the one that he thought he had been fighting for. For him democracy was still very much a work in progress and in his later years he became increasingly and perhaps justifiably resentful of how he and his surviving friends were treated. He became tired of listening to well paid publicly funded people sitting behind large desks explaining why he should be able to survive on a pension that was both an insult to what he had been through and quite simply wasn’t enough to live on. He was not a man with extravagant taste, his three pints of Mild and a couple of cigars were quite enough material pleasure for him.
And I still don’t see a system that fuels a growing divide across society, that lets its most vulnerable suffer whilst condoning corporate and personal tax-avoidance as a respectful tribute to the fallen, I don’t see the growth in Food Banks or the increasing numbers of people on zero hours contracts as a fitting tribute to the dead, I don’t see the charging of tuition fees and the saddling of our young with debt in exchange for a ticket to the world of employment as respectful to the fallen, I don’t see the implementation of a bedroom tax as a fitting tribute to the fallen, I don’t see how the hiding of great swathes of public expenditure or the sale of the nations Publicly Owned Assets to the highest bidder could be a fitting tribute to anyone. There seems to me to be little evidence that the political and public infrastructure that we are collectively paying for is treating those who defended it and those who need it with dignity and respect. I don’t see us treating those who need to claim benefits, including ex-veterans, with the dignity or respect that we should all be entitled to.
But if war is the continuation of politics by other means then what realistically should we expect to emerge from it and from the commemoration of its conclusion? What I mean is that if we simply remember and commemorate the horror of war in a set of ceremonies and processes on set dates and times, then as important as these are to keep our collective memories alive, we will be forgetting that the greatest tribute we can pay is in our behaviours and our actions. The commemorations are just prompts that should encourage us to behave differently, to give more and to expect more from a democracy that has cost the human race so much to create.
The tribute we make is in our actions and behaviours and in our judgement of the actions and behaviours of those who lead our institutions, we need to constantly be answering the challenge that Lloyd George gave us and answer honestly, have we?
“To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in”. Lloyd George.