The Poppy Season has begun.
The Poppy is the symbol of remembrance honoring Britains War Dead. It culminates in services at centotaphs and war memorials in Britains cities, towns and villages on Remembrance Sunday (the second Sunday in November).
The origins of Remembrance is in World War I …the “War to End Wars”, the stalemate in the trenches and “Lions Led By Donkeys”. But of course the Rembrance is for the British dead of all wars. While there can be little controversy about honouring the war dead in the First ans Second World Wars, this becomes more problematic when it deals with those who served in India. Or Malaya. Or Kenya. Or Cyprus. Or Aden. Or …Ireland.
Especially for an Irish person. Especially for one born and raised in Belfast.
The British imperial experience is hardly honourable and it has always seemed to me that the “good wars” provide a fig leaf of respectability to the nastier wars in Britains 20th century history.
As the 20th century drew to an end, there were few to remember WW1 and frankly the whole idea of Remembrance was being treated as “old hat”. Essentially in Britain there are two annual events. The Annual Service of the “Royal” British Legion in the Albert Hall is televised (at prime time) by the BBC on the second Saturday of November. The next morning at 11am the laying of wreaths at the London Cenotaph is covered.
I always resented (for childish rather than political reasons) Saturday night being taken over by the solemnity and boredom of Remembrance. But of course the end of the 20th century brought us all multi channel TV land. Interest was dropping off…not merely because of the ceremonies being “old hat” or alternatives but it seemeda relic of Imperialism, especially in multi-ethnic, multi cultural Britain and a growing sense of (social) liberalism.
I blame John Major for pumping new life back into Remembrance. John Major spoke of England as a place of “warm beer and middle aged ladies cycling to Church” and certainly the old values was part of that picture of England.
In November 1992 or 1993, I was working on attachment in London. Prime Minister John Major decided that he would re-instate the tradition of a minutes silence at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day. I took a tube to Covent Garden to see what the craic was and very few people actually observed the Silence. A lot of bewildered tourists even in November.
Of course that was nearly two decades ago. Britain has fought a few wars since then …Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya. I have posted blogs before about the way that the narrative of public reaction of Britains recent wars has changed.
Despite its imperial past…or maybe because of it…Britain is not a militaristic society in the way that the United States seems to be. Certainly the British Public is not overly sympathetic to its military men and women. Rather the military in garrison towns such as Aldershot and Colchester seem to be tolerated rather than lionised.
To some extent, Irish Republicans have been lucky that the wars of 1970s and 1980s which resulted in the deaths of 700 British military never really produced any great outpouring of sympathy for the victims. There was no very public repatriation of bodies at Wootton Basset.
Indeed the first few years of the modern Afghan and Iraq wars seem to have greeted with indifference, except for a lot of anger addressed to politicians on the questionable legality of the wars. Its hard to escape the conclusion that the British “Establishment” has moved to deflect criticism of themselves by hiding behind the service and sacrifice of its soldiers.
The consequence is that Britain is more unquestioning in its support for its military. And the Remembrance, which no longer has any actual survivors from the First World War has effectively been re-invented for the modern era.