Gove, 1914 and War

As with many of his utterances, it was hard to read Michael Gove’s comments regarding historians’ treatment of the First World War and not come to the conclusion that he is an idiot. Let’s be unambiguous here: he is. However tempting it may be, though, reaching this conclusion and leaving it at that is not sufficient because this particular idiot is an influential one: education secretary no less. Much like Boris Johnson – who has perfected the art of misdirection via the public portrayal of a blundering cartoon character – the fact that most of what Gove says cannot be taken seriously by anyone with any knowledge of the topics discussed does not mean that what he is able to do should not be taken seriously. Regarding history teaching, Gove’s stated aim to return to a linear format focussed on learning dates, studying monarchs, glorifying Britain and dispensing with any ideas of narratives, debates or the histories of normal people does far more to create myths than the scholarship he regularly criticises. More generally, his policies are doing their best to set education back decades, with A Level changes from modular courses to those based entirely on exams being an illustrative example. This change will not only reduce that quality and depth of work students produce, it unfairly favours pupils proficient at exams rather than necessarily those who have a true understanding of the subject. It will also greatly exacerbate the pressure on teachers to simply coach pupils for exams rather than actually ‘teaching’ them about their subjects and, of course, these sorts of emphases will further favour those schools with smaller classes, i.e. private ones. This all feeds in to the message to working class pupils from the coalition government, exhibited best by their raising of University tuition fees and abolition (in England) of EMA payments: education is not for the likes of you.

If it were really needed, the substance to Gove’s argument regarding the First World War has been convincingly swatted aside by Richard Evans’ retort and if anyone does seriously entertain the idea that Britain was acting as a noble defender of democracy and self-determination I would point them first here, then here. There are whole modules of University courses devoted to discussing the origins of the First World War (I’ve done one), but the “because Britain loves freedom and is generally just great” argument is not one discussed at any great length. Although I should concede that perhaps all the academics I have ever come across are left-wingers colluding to avoid The Truth being revealed. My first reaction to hearing Gove’s comments, though, was that this was sure to be the first of many. With this year marking the centenary of the outbreak of war in 1914, the conflict will understandably garner a lot of attention and Gove’s is the first of what I fear will be many attempts to rewrite its history during the next 12 months.

It is now 4 and a half years since the death of the last surviving veteran of the trenches, Harry Patch, who described the war in which he fought as ‘legalised mass murder’ and Gove’s comments merely form part of the wider discussion of and attitude towards war from contemporary politicians. The emphasis on showing ‘respect’ is often really an emphasis on glorification, exhibited by the increasing zealotry surrounding the wearing of a poppy, ignoring the fact that the Haig Fund (as the Poppy Fund was originally known) was set up by and named after the butcher who ordered so many men over the top to their deaths during the Great War. Nor is the rewriting of history in this way limited to the First World War. In his response to the Daily Mail’s characteristically despicable attack on his father, Ed Miliband’s main line of defence was to emphasise how much his father loved Britain and produced his record of service during the Second World War as incontrovertible proof that this was the case.  This in itself set a dangerous precedent. I will not claim to know Ralph Miliband or his motivations better than his son (though I would tentatively suggest that his Marxist beliefs would provide a hint to his feelings on patriotism), but the implication that anyone from Britain fighting the Nazis did so due to their overriding patriotism is as best flawed and at worst a deliberate misrepresentation. Many of those involved in the Second World War, my grandfather amongst them, fought not because they followed Britain’s flag wherever it may lead them, but because they believed, regardless of nationality, that Fascism needed to be fought and defeated.

The constant implication from Gove and his fellows is that by questioning the motives and decrying the futility of the war, you are in some way denigrating the courage shown by those who fought and died in their hundreds and thousands. The reality, of course, is that if anyone is insulting their memories, it is those lying about the conflict for their own ideological ends. Acknowledging the truth – that these brave men and women lost their lives in an imperialist conflict, following the commands of significantly richer men safely ensconced miles behind the trenches – is to fight for the respect their lives were not shown by those ordering them to their deaths. This constant reinforcing of the idea that wars – and particularly Britain’s role in them – must be defended owes far more to political posturing than to genuine concern for those who fought in them and is impossible to detach from the context of Britain currently still having troops stationed overseas, fighting and dying in wars owing far more to imperialist financial gains than to any supposed defence of liberty and democracy (sound familiar?). If those in power constantly playing to the jingoistic chorus of ‘supporting our troops’ really supported them, they would stop risking these troops’ lives for the next oil contract and if Gove and others really sought to respect the memory of those who fought and died 100 years ago, they would not shamelessly lie about the conflict that caused their deaths.