Brian Monteith: Fight to keep wars out of independence debate

Picture: Getty
Picture: Getty
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WE must not allow the commemoration of Bannockburn and the Great War to be used for political ends, writes Brian Monteith

Yesterday around the Commonwealth people old and young paid their respects to the fallen. While the focus remains on the huge loss of life in the two great wars there are also the tributes to those who paid with their lives in other subsequent conflicts, such as the 43 British personnel who have died in Afghanistan so far this year.

Picture: Jane Barlow

Picture: Jane Barlow

The poignant services were honoured by those of all colours, all faiths and both sexes. Although elected politicians attend the ceremonies and lay wreaths in remembrance, they do so as representatives of all of us.

When David Cameron lays his poppies it is not on behalf of Conservative voters or even Conservative Members of Parliament, but on behalf of the United Kingdom and every citizen of our four nations.

Likewise when provosts or council leaders perform the same ceremony all over Scotland they do so on behalf of the local people, not for a minute thinking of how the victims of war voted, or what political benefit is to be had by participating in such a solemn event.

It is the same for the First Minister Alex Salmond: when he attended the ceremony outside Edinburgh City Chambers yesterday he did so representing you, me and all of us – whatever we might think of his wish to deliver sovereign independence for Scotland by leaving the United Kingdom.

That is of course how it should be. Without making judgments about the motives or merits of past and current wars there are very few among us who do not stop to pay respect to those who have given their lives in defence of our own.

Any politician who would seek to take partisan advantage of this would soon know the wrath of public opinion. And yet at this point in two years time we shall have had a referendum on the issue of independence and there is every possibility that the two great historical anniversaries of that year will be used by some for their own political advantage.

It is something that we as ordinary citizens must call on all our politicians to commit to avoiding.

I write of course about the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn of 1314 and the commencement of the Great War in 1914 – both of which are quite rightly to be marked by historical events and ceremonies.

It has often been remarked by the First Minister’s opponents, and a number of his cheerleaders, that in holding out until 2014 for the independence referendum, Alex Salmond had one eye on the Commonwealth Games and another on the anniversary of Bannockburn, as they both might add to a greater sense of pride in Scottishness – pulling on the patriotic heart-strings before people go to vote in the biggest decision the nation has ever made.

I can’t say if it was indeed in the First Minister’s thinking but I would be surprised if it had not crossed his mind that either event would be a useful coincidence. It has also been said that Mr Cameron has supported the idea of commemorating the start of the Great War as a means to strengthen the sense of Britishness as the referendum approaches, and indeed there have been a number of memos that suggest some who advise him thought it would helpfully remind the Scottish people of their common bond.

Again, I think that the Prime Minister would be aware of the possibilities – he is a public relations man after all – but nevertheless such an event is entirely consistent with the modern trend in trying to bring Britain’s recent history alive to our own people or the investments being made in the Imperial War Museum.

That said, we all know how politics works. The leaders of the nationalist and unionist parties will do their best to keep their hands clean and not inflame our passions but there will be many others only too willing to try and claim both the Battle of Bannockburn or the Great War for their cause.

Some nationalists will seek to suggest, if not insist, that the relevance of Bannockburn is that it confirmed the Scottish kingdom as free from the subjugation of the English throne and that to oppose independence now would be akin to taking the side of Edward II and barons on that sacred day.

Some unionists will seek to suggest, if not insist, that the relevance of the Great War today is the solidarity between all Britons in fighting for what was then believed to be the just cause of defending the interests of imperial Britain and to oppose such solidarity now is to put at risk Scottish interests in a big bad threatening world.

I find both arguments simplistic and, I would warn their adherents, they are more than likely to have uncontrollable and unintended consequences if they seek to harness them.

There is the danger that Bannockburn encourages a degree of anti-Englishness that would be regrettable in the extreme while it should be understood that the Great War can be argued as the folly of a British mindset that some argue remains imperial.

All Scots own Bannockburn; it is a cause for patriotic pride rather than nationalist passion. One can toast the victory of Bruce without it preventing you supporting the Acts of Union in 1707 if you believe they were in the interests of Scotland.

All Scots own the Great War; it is a cause of sorrow that so many sons of the nation went to their deaths, a disproportionately large number that reveals both the support at that time for the concept of imperial Britain and Scotland’s military tradition.

My forbear, Sir John de Menteith, fought at the side of Robert de Bruis at Bannockburn and lived to enjoy his victory and go on to sign the Declaration of Arbroath. My great grandfather, George Monteith, was not quite so lucky: a volunteer with the Royal Scots, first in the Boer War and then in the Great War, he was killed by a sniper’s bullet at Ypres in 1915.

It is entirely consistent to take pride in Bannockburn and remember the fallen of the Great War while being either a unionist or nationalist and our politicians should take great care before seeking to polarise the nation and suggest anything else.