There was confusion last week when it was first thought that the government’s plans for a new national British bank holiday – a Britishness Day – had been dropped, and then it was revealed merely that there were no definite plans or ideas for such a holiday but that the concept was still on the table. I am one who has derided the proposal for a Britishness Day, although I’m far from averse to an extra day off! Two, preferably: the most important one being St. George’s Day (23 April); and then, if they want to give us another one on top, I’m not complaining about the principle. It’s just the attempt to exploit such a popular idea to marshal the general campaign to expunge Englishness in favour of a spurious monolithic Britishness that I object to.
Let’s place ourselves in dreamland for a minute and imagine the government concedes the idea of public holidays in each of the UK’s four (or five, including Cornwall) nations coinciding with their Patron Saint’s Day. Is the idea of an additional holiday for Britain as a whole worth considering when we set aside all the Britishness malarkey? Some people have said they think Remembrance Day would be a suitable occasion; others have advocated a day celebrating victory in the Battle of Britain or even older battles such as Trafalgar or Waterloo.
It’s funny how so many of these symbols of Britishness have a militaristic theme! I think the Remembrance Day idea is not wholly inappropriate, and other nations celebrate military victories and wars of liberation as national holidays. France, for instance, has a holiday for both 11 November (which they call Armistice Day) and 8 May: ‘VE Day’, as we would call it. But the fact that we in Britain associate 11 November with solemn civic acts of remembrance would make it a rather sombre day to have a public holiday; and, in a way, it is a more eloquent tribute to our war dead if Remembrance Day falls on a working day and everything stops for two minutes’ silence at 11 am.
In addition, the use of Remembrance Day to try and whip up British patriotic fervour and identification with all things British seems cynical and inappropriate to me. Is Remembrance Day really a time to make us feel proud to be British? Sure, we can and should feel proud of the sacrifices of so many brave, and often so very young, men and women to safeguard our liberty, security and independence. But Remembrance Day properly is also a day to call to mind the tragic losses and destruction of life suffered on all sides, and by civilians as well as the military, in the conflicts of which Britain has been a part. Just as we rightly say of our fallen heroes, “we shall remember them”; so, too, we should also repeat to ourselves the lesson that so often we have failed to learn from war: “never again”.
The idea of using great national occasions and symbols such as Remembrance Day or the Battle of Britain to reaffirm and celebrate Britishness is of one piece with the way present conflicts and their victims are also exploited. We’re all supposed to rally round our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq; to buy the X-Factor single to provide the support for their families that the government should be providing; and to laud our lads as the Best of British and applaud them as they march through our towns to remember their fallen comrades. All of this amounts to using military conflicts, and the terrible loss of life they result in, to whip up national pride: you can’t object to the generous support and affection shown to those who are prepared to risk their lives for their country, and to their families; and therefore, you have to embrace all the militaristic Britishness that goes with it.
Let me make one thing clear: I’m not saying we should not support or feel proud of those brave members of the British Armed Forces as they slug it out with the Taliban or come up against Iraqi insurgents. I have the greatest admiration for them; all the more so, in fact, given their skill, genuine bravery and (generally) integrity as they cope with what is frankly a bum hand that they’ve been dealt by their political masters: futile, unwinnable wars that have earned Britain many more enemies, and brought us much more disrespect, than they have eliminated.
And this is really my point: to celebrate such valour and self-sacrifice as illustrating the intrinsic nobility of the British, and the justness of the causes for which they are prepared to go to war, always crosses over into a celebration and justification of those wars themselves. It’s as if we can’t be proud of the amazing skill and endurance of British forces in Afghanistan without buying into the war itself as something that is genuinely in defence of our national security and way of life, as the politicians would have us believe; and the more we express support for our boys in Iraq, the more we’re supposed to accept that it’s right that they are there.
In actual fact, I think it’s disrespectful to the lives lost in such conflicts to manipulate those sacrifices to nationalistic political ends. Maybe some, perhaps most, of the families of the young men and women lost in these latest chapters of the history of the British Army take solace from all the affirmation of the meaning behind their loved-ones’ sacrifices. But, in reality, they will all have to struggle with the unbearable grief of private loss and the inevitable anguish from thinking that, perhaps, their losses were in vain: for a cause that wasn’t worth it and that will not prevail. Such thoughts will hardly heal over time, especially if – as seems to me inevitable – the British Army eventually leaves Iraq still in a state of great instability and insecurity, and the Taliban send the Western armies packing, because they don’t have the same absolute will to win at any cost: making the cost paid by those British familes who have lost their sons and daughters even more appalling.
Yes, of course, we should remember the names of the latest additions to the Army’s roll call of honour. But such ‘remembrance’ is usually synonymous with forgetting the suffering that goes on among families and traumatised comrades for the rest of their lives; and certainly also with justifying the ongoing pursuit of questionable wars, and the continuing inflicting of death on ‘enemy’ combatants and civilians alike. In reports of the return of some regiments to their Colchester barracks last week, I was struck by the way the commentary referred to the large number of British casualties on the tour from which they were coming home, with fatalities running into double figures. And then, probably in the very next sentence, they casually mentioned the fact that the same returning heroes had been responsible for thousands of enemy deaths – as if that was a good thing. But what of the mothers and the families that grieve for them? What of the innocent civilians that will inevitably be included in the ranks of those thousands? Is it any wonder that so many in Afghanistan and the Muslim world hate us, and back the Taliban as liberating heroes?
The real purpose of remembrance, as I said, is firstly to express genuine sorrow and remorse for the loss of life – all life – that war brings; and particularly to celebrate those who gave their lives genuinely in the cause of freedom and justice, from which we have all benefited. And secondly, it is in fact to reaffirm our commitment to peace, not to celebrate and glamourise war in a manner that glosses over the real pain, horror and needless destruction it involves. Because that really is what is at play when remembrance gets shrouded not in the pall of death but in the bright colours of the Union Flag. It becomes a celebration of British values and the British sense that we are always on the side of right, backed up by our military muscle and memories of our proud imperial past. All of which conveniently brushes under the carpet the moral ambiguities and personal agonies of war’s violence, bloodshed and disaster.
So, by all means, let’s remember the dauntingly large list of British military personnel and civilians whose lives have been lost to war, military conflict or terrorism over the years. But, at the same time, we should reaffirm what is paradoxically the ultimate and only true purpose of war: peace. The purpose of war is the end of war; and this can ultimately and lastingly be achieved only when peace comes to reign in the hearts of men and women, and not hatred, mistrust and aggression. Until such time, we will continue not to learn the lesson of war: that war begets war; and that we must be at all times – in war and out of war – mindful of our absolute duty to seek peace and reconciliation.
Now that would be the kind of Britain that even I could be proud of: one that, instead of disingenuously celebrating and justifying its war-like genius in public acts of partial remembrance, were to resolve itself to be a genuine force for peace and reconciliation throughout the world – not a fomenter of hatred and violence. And that would be a Britishness Day worthy of the name: ‘Peace Day’. After all, my goodness, we need a bit of that.
Suggested day: 25 June. Neatly parallels Christmas; can be combined with celebrating and enjoying the summer solstice / Midsummer, which is such a lovely time of year. We also don’t have any other public holidays in June, and most people haven’t gone on their summer holidays by then. And there are many Christians, myself included, that hope that this will one day be a recognised feast – for all peoples – to celebrate the true peace that is our hope.