Mobilising the past for today’s politics

Paul O’Leary reflects on how anniversaries are being used to promote British integration and disintegration in 2014

It is important to remember that the First World War was controversial and contested from the outset. It was never an unproblematic ritual of national sacrifice and unity, as the official version of history increasingly would have us believe. Opposition thrived (and was suppressed) in some places and among some groups during the war.

The anti-war activities of socialists like Keir Hardie and T. E. Nicholas in Merthyr Tydfil are well known, as are the activities of other pacifists who formed a small minority of the population. On the Home Front civil liberties were undermined by the Defence of the Realm Act, which was used to suppress free speech and to control the behaviour of many individuals who had no connection with anti-war activities. All this is part of the experience of the war but how do we accommodate this in a narrative of heroism?

Moreover, such cultural and political fracture lines have become explicit in recent decades because devolution has given them institutional expression. Recently in Northern Ireland there have been bitter divisions over interpretations of ‘the Troubles’. The likelihood of these oppositions being resolved by the time of the war commemorations is vanishingly small. In particular, community divisions will be amplified by the centenary of events in 1916.

That year is central to the foundation myths of both the Irish Republic and the Northern Irish state through two separate narratives of ‘blood sacrifice’. While republicans trace their modern martyrdom to the Easter Rising, Unionists commemorate their blood sacrifice through the horrific losses of the 36th (Ulster) Division at the Somme. Then and now, Unionists have seen this ‘sacrifice’ as a guarantor of commitment to the Union.

The commemorations in Scotland face their own political challenges. In May 2013 Scotland First Minister Alex Salmond struck a distinctive note when he announced the Scottish Government’s programme of commemorations in terms that depicted the war as a tragedy never to be repeated:

“The Great War commemorations are in no sense a celebration of the centenary of this devastating conflict. They are a commemoration, which will give the whole of the country the opportunity to reflect on the impact that the First World War had on Scotland … By reflecting on these devastating events, and the consequences they had for communities the length and breadth of Scotland, we will help people of all ages in this country understand more about the futility of war and strengthen our resolve to never let a tragedy like the Great War happen again.”

A community engagement project at Edinburgh University is called simply ‘Scotland’s War’. But which ‘Scotland’ will it commemorate? While the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn on 24 June 2014 will be commemorated by nationalists as a key episode in Scotland’s history of self-determination, the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War will follow hard on its heels, on 4 August. That will be commemorated as a ritual of common British sacrifice, including Scotland’s part in the conflict.

The juxtaposition of these events with the Scottish independence referendum the following month is one of the clearest indications of the cultural and political cross-currents that will be swirling around this summer. History will be mobilised as a powerful cultural resource for purposes of British national integration and disintegration within a matter of weeks.

Not everyone agrees with this interpretation. Writing in The Spectator last year Alex Massie attacked backbench SNP MSPs for their attitude to the commemorations:

“I confess the connection between commemorating the First World War and voting intentions in next September’s referendum is not clear to me. Then again, I also see no link between the referendum and next year’s commemoration of the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn. Neither seems likely to sway or otherwise influence how you will or should vote. That was then; this is now.”

There is no simple correlation between commemoration and voting, yet this belief in the dissociation of past and present seems optimistic.

In Wales the picture is subtly different. Unlike Northern Ireland and Scotland, interpretations of the war do not map onto obvious partisan political traditions. Here the accent in official commemoration is on education, the restoration of war memorials and the creation of digital resources. Organisations like the branches of the National Museum plan a four-year programme of commemorations. Meanwhile, the National Library’s innovative project for the digitization of historical sources relating to the war opens up the possibility of more democratic public engagement with the past (

The emphasis on community activities has the potential to bring into focus local considerations rather than dwelling on matters of politics and national identity. It might also have the effect of appearing to de-politicise the commemoration by individualising it at the expense of the wider context.

A Heritage Lottery-funded project, Brecon Remembers, aims to create a short history of each person named on the town’s memorial and their role and involvement in the war. Whether such projects will make it easier for people to grapple with the varied experiences of their ancestors in relation to the power politics of 1914-18 remains to be seen.

How will descendants of a combatant relate their acts of commemoration to those of the descendants of a pacifist? Only a developed sense of the wider historical context can provide the basis for a resolution of that difficulty.

As these examples show, commemoration is as much about a complex present that resists neat and tidy unity as it is about the past. History is never over, finished and consigned to a secure box which we open from time to time and look at through sepia-tinted spectacles. History is how we place order on past events and interpret them for the present so that we are able to understand our own world better. How we do this in relation to the centenary of the First World War will reveal a great deal about who we think we are today and who we want to be in the future.

• Paul O’Leary teaches History at Aberystwyth University and is author of an online digital exhibition on ‘The Great War and the Valleys’ in collaboration with the National Library of Wales. His latest book is Claiming the Streets: Processions and Urban Culture in South Wales, c.1830-1880 (University of Wales Press, 2012)

Comments are closed.

Also within Culture