It takes a lot of planning to fit the First World War in between Sunday’s closing ceremony for the Stolenwealth Games and tonight’s televised independence debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling.
The juxtaposition may give cause for thought. Scotland’s choice seems to lie between two visions of Europe. On the one hand, it can become a modern, pragmatic, Nordic-style social democracy whose guiding light is the common weal and not the enrichment of the slyest. On the other, it can remain part of the one centralised monarchical empire in Europe that was not toppled by the events that began a century ago. Choose well: the same class of inbred twits whose inept diplomacy launched that war is still at the helm.
That much is evident from the handling of the anniversary. The focus is on British and colonial casualties, with little attempt at reaching out to understand realities shared with the ‘enemy’. Tactics and trauma will be the thing, not the bigger picture, which is way too much of an embarrassment. But gloriously, needlessly dead is gloriously, needlessly dead: what does nationality have to do with it? The silo mentality is what wins, loaded to overflowing with our selective remembering.
What do we remember? And why? Yes, you, small child with no memory of the last century, let alone of its wars. What must you never forget of the experiences you never had? The lessons of history? We mark the centenary of the war to end war with yet more war. The sacrifices that must never be thought to have been in vain? Heresy it may be to say but was the post-war world a better world? Was it all ‘homesfit for heroes’? How many of the social and political changes that did occur were going to occur anyway? Was it all for nothing then? Quite possibly, but you won’t hear the twits admitting it.
One huge consequence of 1914-18 was to militarise the anti-London struggle in Ireland to an unprecedented degree. Should Scotland vote ‘Yes’ it will be worth watching the Scottish reaction to any dirty tricks or delaying tactics from Westminster, now that a new generation of Scots soldiers have battle experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. A worried establishment this week finally conceded ‘devo-max’, the option they wouldn’t allow on the ballot paper. Can any but a fool trust the London parties’ final desperate offer of further powers? Too little, too vague and far, far too late to make any difference. But presumably requiring another confirmatory referendum before implementation – since no-one will announce the details – and so to be kicked into the long grass in the meantime. No SNP gains at Westminster next May? Oh well, it’s a changed world, so never mind what we promised. It wasn’t exactly binding, was it?
In Wessex, we have our own regional recollections of service in the First World War. The 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division spent the war in India and the Middle East (as apparently did the duplicate 45th (2nd Wessex)). The Wessex county regiments saw action both on the Western Front and across the Mediterranean and Middle East. Military leaders seemingly understand the motivating power of the Wessex name rather better than their civilian counterparts who struggle to breathe life into ‘The South West’ and ‘The South East’. Or is that an over-simplification? Do the civilians know exactly what they’re up to? The Wessex name has been well-used by the military: for the Wessex Brigade, the Wessex Division, the Wessex Regiment, the Royal Wessex Yeomanry, even HMS Wessex. But the British Army is not a democracy: Wessex patriotism is fine when confined to cap-badges but not so fine when it gets political. That’s when it becomes less of an asset and more of a threat. To take a Welsh analogy: a male voice choir at the Albert Hall singing ‘God Bless The Prince of Wales’ is one thing; Plaid Cymru is another; the Free Wales Army something else again.
In 1997 we held a strategy conference in Reading. One of the questions we sought to answer was: where should we look for allies? The Army’s record on Wessex looked promising but even in terms of Wessex as a purely cultural project it would be self-limiting. It’s not a pride of place that comes from below but from above. At its heart is loyalty to the Crown, not loyalty to the land. Since it’s ‘their’ army, not ‘ours’, it’s more likely to end up part of the problem, not of the solution. A London fist in a Wessex glove. A sustainable future won’t lie with yet more wars for global domination beneath the Union Jack or Le Tricolore but in a Europe at peace with itself and the world, the Europe of a Hundred Flags. Are we closer to it than we were in 1914? Only time will tell.