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As the nation marks Remembrance Sunday, Britain’s ethnic minorities will be joining commemorations as well. This is not well reflected, however, in public and media discourse, where those who protest noisily can get a hearing often denied to those who participate quietly in our shared national commemorations.
By Sunder Katwala for RUSI.org
Indian Muslim soldiers attend Eid prayers at the old East London Mosque, 446-448 Commercial Road in 1942. Picture courtesy of the East London Mosque
Remembrance has become an increasingly prominent aspect of British society in recent years. This has happened at a time when British society is becoming more diverse, as the Census findings have shown, and after a decade of controversy over foreign policy, following 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, in those contexts, the values of Remembrance show a strong and growing potential to bring our society together. If that has happened in the wake of controversial conflicts, this reflects a longer history: the First World War itself has always been sharply contested, with popular engagement with the experience of the soldiers uniting those with sharply differing views of the conflict itself. The Second World War stands alone in the near unanimity of the public consensus about its value and legacy.
This power of remembrance to bring people together does not require unanimity about the value and meaning of the poppy either. In a democratic society, questions of war and peace should always be contested issues.
We should, of course, respect the democratic freedom to not wear the poppy. That entails respecting those who choose to wear it too. What is often underestimated is how remembrance has become increasingly inclusive, both in our understanding of the major conflicts of the last century, and in shared participation in its rituals across contemporary British society.
New research data from the authoritative Ethnic Minority British Election Survey shows that 62 per cent of ethnic minorities wear the poppy. This varies somewhat across different groups, with support at 70 per cent among British Indians and 53 per cent among those of Pakistani background, though the survey does demonstrate that support for the poppy is a widespread, everyday norm across those of different ethnicities. This is not well reflected, however, in public and media discourse, where those who protest noisily can get a hearing often denied to those who participate quietly in our shared national commemorations.
The multi-ethnic nature of the army that fought and the soldiers who died in both world wars also represents the shared history of the diverse British society we were to become. This was perhaps somewhat neglected for some decades, but is increasingly part of our mainstream national history, reflecting the fact that the ethnic composition of the armies which fought the first world war have more in common with the demographic make-up of the Britain of 2014 more than that of 1914.
Research by the think tank British Future towards the First World War centenary demonstrates that there is a strong opportunity to deepen public understanding of our history. While public knowledge of the causes, course and consequences of the War is fairly sketchy – beyond images of mud and trenches – there is a strong public appetite to use the centenary as a chance to learn about an era of history which is only one generation beyond living memory.
There is also broad public agreement on the values that the centenary should reflect: peace, a chance to learn; recognising sacrifice; and promoting reconciliation. 80 per cent of people believe it is important for integration in Britain today that we should know about the history of Commonwealth troops, with only 4 per cent dissenting from this.
That we can agree on the value of engaging with our history does not mean we should shy away from controversies – over whether the war should have been fought, or the contested arguments over how we should approach the complex story of soldiers who volunteered to fight for an imperial power. Properly contested and understood, these arguments should prove educational too.
How and why we reflect on and commemorate past wars has always been a contested issue.
The arguments began before the war ended, with sharp debates over the decision to bury the fallen where they fell, and to refuse family requests to personalise graves in favour of a common design. They were particularly sharply contested in the 1920s, with the clash between those who had returned from the war and wanted to celebrate victory in often raucous Armistice Balls, and the sensibilities of grieving relatives, which led to press and political pressure to stop the celebrations.
The solemnity of Remembrance Sunday over the decades reflects the outcomes of those arguments. The centenary is also a chance to develop new perspectives as we re-interrogate the history once more.
What a common citizenship can legitimately demand is that we all must understand the symbol's meaning, including differing perspectives on it, so that we can each make our own informed choices about how to respond.
Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future, a think-tank addressing identity and integration issues.