Michael Fry: Time to reflect, not celebrate
‘BRITFESTS’ to celebrate the end of the First World War recall times when the home nations pulled together, but lead to thoughts of why they’re drifting apart, writes Michael Fry
The new word Britfest, meaning a gaudy and excessive flaunting of UK symbols on some nationalistic pretext, seems sure of a place in the next editions of the major dictionaries.
This is because the series of Britfests that started in 2012 with the Jubilee and the Olympics looks set to continue for some time, at least so long as David Cameron is Prime Minister and the Union remains in danger – which may amount to much the same thing. It is in the nature of Britfests to be instantly proclaimed a brilliant, nay, historic, success by those who directed and took part in them. Those who turned off the telly in disgust at the vulgarity and confusion of it all are never counted.
Inevitably, I suppose, we are going to have a succession of matching Scotfests. The 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn on 23 June, 2014, followed by the opening of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow on 23 July, conveniently precede the Scottish referendum in October. Now Cameron has announced his government will spend £50 million (beat that, Salmond!) on marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War on 4 August.
A struggle in which nearly 900,000 British servicemen died – perhaps 125,000 of them Scots, though the number has never been officially established – can hardly be defined as matter for celebration. The grief for that terrible death toll is still felt a century later, bound up with awful misgivings that they did not in the end die for much. Four years of an appalling war from 1914 only led on, after a space for all the European nations to rearm and let another generation of doomed young men grow up, to six years of an even more deadly and destructive war from 1939. Not till Europe had sated itself on blood and collapsed in ruins could the sequence end.
I say Europe, knowing that these were world wars, and that the other continents got willy-nilly dragged in. In the First World War no actual fighting took place in Australasia, yet the Australians took up arms even though the cause of the conflict had nothing to do with them – and Gallipoli became one of the defining episodes in the development of their own nationhood. Down under the whole business is still a matter for rueful reflection rather than for banging the drum, and perhaps that should teach a lesson to the mother country.
True, Britain was the only combatant to fight right through both world wars from beginning to end and to emerge as a victor. On 4 August, 1914, when King George V simply proclaimed the whole Empire to be at war, Britain did not know its status as a great power was about to take a turn for the worse and that a long, slow decline, political and economic, would from this point set in.
It was even less obvious on 11 November, 1918, when peace came. Yet already, in the aftermath of that peace, the British actually lost more of their territory than the Germans did. The truncation of the UK had started with the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, and was a delayed result of the war. With the eventual departure of 26 Irish counties into the Free State, as it was at first, went 23 per cent of the territory of the UK, about double the extent lost by the German Reich in the Peace of Versailles with the annexation by its neighbours of West Prussia, Alsace-Lorraine and other bits and pieces.
It was not only Irish experience that began in the war to diverge from the British norm: Scottish experience did too. This experience, as it developed, came to resemble that of several European countries in the post-war period. The appalling loss of young men in battle was followed by chronic internal crisis affecting the whole of society, both sexes and all ages. Industry collapsed, trade dwindled, hungry men strode the streets. From Estonia to Italy, from Portugal to Poland, democracy was unable to take the strain and dictatorship replaced it, most threateningly in Germany.
Scotland, attached to a greater political entity, was not driven to such extremities. Yet the depression of the 1930s left psychological scars still there, as in the Scots’ fear of economic change and preference for public policies which will only perpetuate their problems rather than solve them.
One reason for this extreme reaction, the replacement of a confident nation by a fearful nation, was that Scots of the time could directly compare their misery with the Victorian prosperity that had continued up to the day the First World War broke out. More ships were launched on the Clyde in 1913 than in any previous year in history.
Admittedly problems had already become obvious with the slow pace of industrial innovation and with the growing competition from abroad. These were signs of danger, but there seemed no reason why Scots should not adapt and cope, as so many times before. Scotland did not easily lose the faith in itself built up during a century and more of the industrial revolution.
Yet after the war this faith in itself did in fact shrivel away to nothing, amid an almost permanent slump of such catastrophic proportions that it never truly lifted till the last quarter of the 20th century. As the whole west of Scotland, in particular, was devastated, the national population fell for the first time since records began. The combined efforts of capital and labour, supported by government, seemed useless.
A fine succinct expression of the resulting numbed despair comes in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song (1932). It is a book about a rural rather than an industrial community, but its intensely moving quality achieves universality.
In the final pages of the novel the minister of the village in the Mearns where it is set, dedicating the war memorial, says of the hour of the death of the men fallen in France: “It was the old Scotland that perished then, and we may believe that never again will the old speech and the old songs, the old curses and the old benedictions, rise but with alien effort to our lips. They died for a world that is past, these men, but they did not die for this that we seem to inherit.”
The centenary of the First World War may well be a good time, as Cameron hopes, for us all to reflect on what has held us together during the last 100 years. But, the times being what they are, it will be impossible to keep out the odd thought about what might have driven us apart.
One of those things is the fact that Scotland had in the 20th century in crucial respects a different history from England, and a history that over time grew more different: a history different enough, clearly, to have recreated nationalism – which, at least in part, is always a desire to give expression to history.
Cameron should be careful about his next Britfest.
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