The War That Never Ends

It has now been 75 years since the Second World War ended, and yet it remains an inescapable presence in today’s politics. Numerous anachronistic comparisons plagued both sides of the debate during the Brexit campaign. Those voting Leave celebrated the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ of Britain, while those voting Remain rendered the referendum another ‘Eden moment’. There were bizarre campaigns, such as the Leave poster exclaiming ‘halt ze German advance! Vote Leave’, and the bus blaring the tune of the 1955 war film, The Dam Busters. Even more recently, Covid-19 has elicited endless comparisons to the war: food bank support has been compared to the ‘Blitz spirit’, private labs to ‘Dunkirk little ships’, and even the Queen has drawn parallels between the experiences of isolation and wartime evacuation.

But why do these comparisons exist? It is not uncommon to draw on past events to interpret our present, but nonetheless, narratives of the Second World War appear to pervade the fabric of our politics far more than any other historical comparison. Where does this bizarre and rather loud obsession with the Second World War come from, and what are the dangers? 

Comparisons to the Second World War may arise from a desire to find solace and comfort in knowing that, as a nation, we have overcome other crises, yet other comparisons come with much greater and potentially damaging ramifications. The recurrent comparison to the war has the ability to distort our politics, warp our history, and aggrandise our perception of Britain’s place in the world. As a nation, we have a selective memory, and forget the parts we do not wish to remember. By mythologising our past into a romanticised and simplistic narrative, depicting the essence of the British ‘plucky’ character, we have forgotten the other half of the infamous speeches that our leaders continue to import today.

We need to start addressing our own failures as a nation rather than basking in a eulogised myth.

Forgotten from the “blood, sweat and tears” speech is the warning that without victory the British empire would not survive. Forgotten from the “finest hour” speech is the precursor to the infamous phrase: “if the British empire and its commonwealth last for 1000 years, men will say, “This was their finest hour.” Behind what we believe to be narratives of morality and unquestionable dignity, the injustice and inequality of the British empire is hidden. The danger in misremembering is that it continually projects an image which is factually incorrect. What has thus far contributed to a fantasy of British exceptionalism does not render us exceptional from our nation’s wrong-doings. We need to start addressing our own failures as a nation rather than basking in a eulogised myth. Moreover, not only has it allowed us to forget our wrong-doings as a nation, it also proposes the myth that Britain stood, and will stand, alone against the odds. As David Edgerton notes, this is a mythologised ideal: “people want to remember the war, and especially the early years of the war, as a time when the nation stood alone without an empire or without allies. Nobody at the time would have believed this.” Many men of the empire stood with the British army against Hitler, and yet they remain unwritten from the popularly accepted version of history.

This has very real consequences for our political decisions today. Following our withdrawal from the EU, we have overstated our independence as a nation historically, and will inevitably realise that we cannot live up to this ideal; one romanticised for far too long. India will not strike up a trade deal for sentimental reasons, nor will Ireland remain Britain’s neutral and junior partner following us out of the EU. Instead, the realisation of Britain’s lack of status and power will smack us in the face and our inability to ‘stand alone’ will challenge the 75 years of misremembered history. 

Stop Brexit March, London, March 2019. (Credit: Sandro Cenni, via Upslash)

Edgerton proclaims, “the problem is not just getting history wrong, but that history is invoked at all”. Although I would not wholly support this sentiment, the use of historical analogies in our contemporary politics, as well as our popular historical narratives, needs to be challenged. This is beginning with conversations around statues, but the issues go much further, and are certainly cause for more conversation.

Emily Glynn

Ireland’s New Government Shows the Limits to History in Politics

It has been a historic week for Ireland. After nearly 100 years, the Civil War divide appears to be coming to an end. Four months after a stunning election result, the newly formed government sees the two traditional parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, enter formal coalition with each other for the very first time.

The two are remarkably similar ideologically, sitting somewhere between the centre and the centre right. Yet, they have regularly rotated as government and opposition despite their little difference, something that is a political peculiarity.

For generations, Irish politics has been defined by a historical, rather than ideological, divide. On one side were those in favour of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, led by Michael Collins. On the other were those opposed to the Treaty, led by Éamon de Valera. This fracture in Irish politics was later translated into party politics. Fine Gael represented the pro-Treaty side, while Fianna Fáil represented those who were anti-Treaty.

This divide has prevailed long after the Civil War, with voting often following family lines rather than more common factors, such as class. There was some sense in this in the early years of the new Irish Republic. For many, the War of Independence and the Civil War were still raw. These were lived experiences for a number of generations and thus this divide ran deep. My Mum tells me the story of how my Grandad would demand the TV to be switched off if De Valera ever came on the screen. 

My grandparents’ generation, however, are no longer as large a group in the Irish electorate as they once were. To an increasing number, the old historic divide means increasingly little. Moreover, the ideological similarity of the two parties has led to frustration, particularly amongst the young, at a lack of progress on various issues. It is perhaps becoming clear the old system of Irish politics is no longer relevant or fit for purpose.

Image of Irish town with flags and banners. (Credit: Tamara Gurtler, via Upsplash).

The 2020 election and the rise of Sinn Féin revealed a large portion of the electorate eager for proper change and many for the first time willing to vote for Sinn Féin. Much has been made of the party’s history, such as its links with the IRA. However, under the leadership of Mary Lou McDonald the party has worked to modernise its image. Judging by the result in 2020, they’ve had some success. Though, there is still much to be done on that front to convince others – it was cited as a reason why neither of the other two major parties would contemplate coalition with Sinn Féin.

This raises the broader question of the role of history in politics. For generations, history has played the dominant role in Irish politics. The main two parties are built on a near 100-year divide, while challengers Sinn Féin are inextricably linked to Republican violence more recent in memory. Yet the 2020 election appeared to suggest that the Irish electorate is beginning to move on.

History undoubtedly plays an important role in politics. It shapes and informs where we are now and provides a rich archive from which to learn for future decision-makers and voters. But, it is not automatically relevant. In Ireland, the Civil War and the Troubles are becoming increasingly less salient. Voters appear to be far more worried by contemporary issues, such as Ireland’s housing crisis, and are voting to reflect that, rather than what side of the Civil War their ancestors were on.

James Reid

Scotland and England: The Irrevocable Divide

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND РJANUARY 11: Protesters take part in a Pro-Independence march on January 11, 2020 in Glasgow, Scotland. Tens of Thousands of people joined the All Under One Banner march to call for Scottish Independence following the SNP’s success in December’s general election. (Photo by David Cheskin/Getty Images)

The First Minister for Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish National Party (SNP), is currently substantially ahead of Boris Johnson in Scottish opinion polls, largely due to her comparatively steady-handed and rational approach to the coronavirus crisis. Despite recent developments, however, I am not won over by the argument for Scottish independence. This discourse is rooted centuries, millennia even, into the nation’s history, and has simulated deep divisions in Scottish society. Is Scotland even a nation, though? Or is it a country, or a state? These are questions which many are unclear on.

The 2014 Scottish independence referendum caused many young people in Scotland to become politically engaged at an earlier age than one might expect. I experienced this first-hand in my high school, where uniform was strictly enforced and expressions of individuality somewhat quashed. Despite these regulations, peers of mine proudly donning a ‘Yes’ badge on their blazers, and divisive political discourse riddled its way into our trivial early-teen conversations. 

The context and origins of Scottish nationalism do not by any means correlate to a linear or simple narrative. A significant juncture in the Scotland-England historical record, however, can be identified in the Union of the Crowns (1603). This took place following the death of Queen Elizabeth I, who, due to her childlessness, was succeeded by the son of her first cousin once removed, Mary Queen of Scots. In March 1603 King James VI of Scotland became James I of England and Ireland, and the realm became unified, at least in terms of international diplomacy. His accession took place around 300 years after the death of William Wallace (1305) and the Battle of Bannockburn (1314), – two other famous epochs – and roughly 130 years before the Jacobite rebellion (1745). This indicates that conflicts and hostilities have been continuous and relentless historical themes – on scales political, social, cultural, and, more recently, economic – despite the establishment of supposed sovereign unity.

So, taking another historical leap and moving forward a couple of hundred years, tensions remain not only evident but prominent between the lands of the red rose and thistle. The sentiments suggested when describing the Scotland-England relationship in terms of ‘Great Britain’ and the ‘United Kingdom’ are limited in the extent to which they accurately represent popular attitudes. 

In Scotland, those who choose to move south for tertiary education, – albeit with privilege a decisive prerequisite – for instance, are subjected to a degree of implicit judgement for exhibiting accommodation towards their English neighbours. This is also largely applicable to anyone who expresses a favourable, even neutral, attitude regarding a political party that is not the SNP. I have never understood this sequence of behaviours. The arguments for independence seem, to me, to be predominantly based upon internal policies, which would surely precipitate an isolationist sentiment. With the world as unpredictable and turbulent as it currently is, and with little indication that there is any stability or certainty on the horizon, we Scots need all the friends we can get. This is not to undermine our integrity or self-worth, but it is a consideration I feel is relevant to all political entities, regardless of size. 

Westminster – and the centralised authority it represents – is systemically flawed and a serious anachronism. This fact I do not dispute, but actively promote. Having said this, I would rather have an ailing friend than reject and alienate them out of blinded nationalism and grudges. The latter course, I believe, would result in a solitary state wallowing in loneliness, all for the sake of placing shallow pride before pragmatism and realism. Whilst I recognise the manifold shortcomings of this image, I nevertheless feel it has substantial agency. Difference, when accepted and celebrated, reaps innovation and progress. Isolationism, domestic preoccupation, and cognitive homogeneity do not. 

As I conclude this piece, I wish to emphasise that a full and detailed overview of the issue of Scottish nationalism, and the long-standing independence debate, cannot be covered here, but my hope is that an essence of it has been communicated. To be clear, I share in the widespread respect for Nicola Sturgeon, which deservedly permeates borders. She is talented, articulate, a fabulous female role-model, and promotes several legitimate arguments. The mission of her party, however, I fundamentally disagree with. 

Hazel Laurenson

Is our obsession with Great Men helpful? And other questions…

Photo by coombesy via Pixabay.

The tearing down of Edward Colston’s statue, and the defacing of many others, is not new. Love them or hate them, statues of gods, saints, heroes, and prominent individuals have always littered our streets. For as long as they have been in public locations, we have also challenged them; from melting down old Roman emperors, to religious iconoclasm. However, as society becomes more secular, modern statues seem to fill an uneasy gap once filled by gods, saints, or dictators. Their position on our streets, and our problem with it, goes to the very heart of a wider problem which plagues history in politics – an obsession with ‘great men’.

The current challenges surrounding coronavirus, race relations, and even Brexit all have focussed on individuals: from Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings, through to Winston Churchill, Edward Colston, and, although an uncomfortable comparison, George Floyd. My problem with these individuals is not that they are male, nor that the majority of them are white – a problem for a different debate. The wider issue is that they are all representatives of the Great Man Theory.

Before I try and justify a comparison between an infamous slave merchant and a black victim of police brutality, here is a quick insight into the theory. Put simply, it is the past through the lens of individual greats. Individuals who offer partial explanations for history, like Archduke Franz Ferdinand causing World War One, Hitler World War Two, or Napoleon the Napoleonic wars. It is the reason why we have multiple statues of Churchill, and goes to the very heart of how we imagine things to happen. And certainly, leaders or ‘great men’ can play important roles in human affairs.

However, just because these ‘greats’ are important, it does not mean that they are the most important factor in shaping human history. Moreover, while the theory is as old as history itself, the repeated failures of humanity shows that politics has not learnt from its flaws. Personally, I see these flaws as twofold: the Great Man Theory pits individuals as greater than the collective; and it turns people into binary and divisive figures.

That first factor is the most dangerous trap which we have fallen into recently. On a basic level, the removal of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol is representative of the backlash against ‘great’ men as the crowd tore down an individual. Yet while we challenge perceived ‘great’ men, we do so through the very theory which created them.

The current focus on slave trading individuals – as statues are reviewed across Britain – risks whitewashing the society they were a part of. Yes, Edward Colston transported 80,000 slaves across the Atlantic, but our focus should not be on him, but the millions whose lives were destroyed and the society which they invested in and deemed this acceptable. Moreover, we should not allow our obsession with great men to historicise contemporary issues, absolving modern factors of any blame. The very fact that Colston is being talked about, rather than institutional barriers to equality in opportunity, underlines this great flaw.

Similarly, as we remember George Floyd, we must not succumb to the ease of singling out the individual or his attackers, but remember him as a representation of the millions of black people who face injustice every day. Once the statues have been pulled down, and George Floyd’s killers have been brought to justice, is a continued focus on Great Man Theory really helpful as we try and tackle the wider problems which the individuals present?

This leads onto the theory’s divisive nature – and the anger growing within history and politics. But with space limited, I can only leave you with some more questions for History in Politics, rather than any answers. My first is whether we can do without individuals as quick explanations altogether? Looking at previous bouts of iconoclasm, monotheism, or the constant citing of Hitler or Churchill, I think not, but I would love to hear other interdisciplinary thoughts on the subject. Secondly, what is the link between individuals, the media, and politics, and is it inevitable that individuals will be singled out? Furthermore, if we can’t do without them, how can we avoid politics being so divided when it turns out these individuals weren’t so great? Historical characters seem to be much like my exes: far more complicated than merely good, bad, or ugly. Is there any way we can talk about them today without getting angry?

Edward Selwyn-Sharpe

Why the World needs Female Leaders

Photo by Jehyun Sung via Unsplash

Through the watchful eyes of the world’s media, it appears New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern can do no wrong. As the youngest female leader in the nation’s history, and only the third woman in an endless trail of male governors, in recent days Ardern has become the envy of countless world leaders as she officially declares the Covid-19 pandemic eradicated in New Zealand. As all social distancing measures are lifted and the limitations placed upon the numbers of attendees in public spaces are removed, the sentiment of the country has turned determinedly to restructuring New Zealand’s economy. As the recipient of enormous praise for her proficient handling of the Covid-19 crisis, Ardern’s leadership has served to reinforce the dichotomy between competent political management and the puerile behaviour exhibited by Britain and the United States.

As a communicator, Ardern is succinct, personal, empathetic and rational – undoubtedly a lesson in leadership to other governments struggling to subdue the spread of Covid-19 and mitigate the prospect of a major economic recession. Recently, she hit headlines as a 5.8 magnitude earthquake hit New Zealand mid-way through an interview with Ryan Bridge in May, demonstrating the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ sentiment which seems particularly lost on the disorderly British government. However, even in her short period as Prime Minister, her impressive handling of difficult situations has become deeply embedded within her political policy. The mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch in 2019 reflected one of the most major terrorist incidents in New Zealand’s history. Not a leader to simply explain away the problem with empty gestures and a piecemeal response, Ardern tightened gun law restrictions and met those affected with empathy, concern and kindness. “He may have sought notoriety but we in New Zealand will give him nothing – not even his name”, she asserted in the speech that followed. Rendering the assailant nameless, and diverting the focus instead to the victims, Ardern demonstrated one of the most articulate and thoroughly managed responses to a global terrorist attack of the modern era. It certainly seems there is a lot to praise Ardern for: from eschewing the view that working women can’t be mothers, to the crowning achievement in her policy – that she is an assertive, but non-aggressive leader.

But whilst Ardern is gaining recognition for her astute leadership of New Zealand, the world needs other female leaders, too. In Germany, Angela Merkel has presided over some of the lowest numbers of European coronavirus-related deaths, surpassing the male-led governments of the UK, Italy, France, and Spain. It is the President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, who, although severely overlooked by the media, has led one of the most effective examples of virus containment in the world. Using the experience of the 2003 SARS virus outbreak, Taiwan has kept its Covid-19 rate low and Ing-wen has successfully steered the country to a sense of resumed normality. Despite making up only 5% of world leaders, female leaders have asserted themselves as some of the most able and capable figures to navigate the tribulations and crises 2020 has brought. Today’s female politicians have worked hard to dismantle the many obstacles of the glass ceiling and match male world leaders in the respect they are afforded. Margaret Thatcher, as the first female Prime Minister in Britain, was under enormous scrutiny, with the media and her fellow MPs placing significant emphasis on her looks. Regardless of her policies, an integral part of cultivating the image of a leader involved drastic changes to her hair and her clothes to visually signal her political strength in a masculine-dominated domain. Thankfully, this prescriptive sense of female leadership has dissipated; in the twenty-first century, female political figures have opted instead to leave the pearls at home and subsequently outshine their male counterparts on the international stage.

Maximus McCabe-Abel