The public is increasingly rejecting the more politicised interpretations of the Centenary – from Michael Gove’s proposed focus on British victory to the ‘No Glory’ anti-commemoration protest of Vanessa Redgrave and Billy Bragg – according to new research tracking public attitudes to the centenary commemorations. Instead, at a time of heightened attention to Britain’s relations with our European neighbours after the referendum vote, voters on both sides of the referendum debate would rather focus on reconciliation with former enemies.
The report, A Centenary Shared: Tracking public attitudes to the First World War Centenary 2013-16, finds that only 23% of people agree with the statement “Instead of focusing on the pity of War and loss of life, the central theme of the First World War commemoration should be that this was a just war that was important to Britain to fight and win,” – a drop of 10% from 2014. Four in ten people (42%) now disagree with that interpretation, up 7% from 2014.
While there remains little public appetite for the centenary becoming a victory parade, the same is true of ‘No Glory” counter-voices who warn against commemorating the centenary at all. Only 17% of the public agrees that “We should worry about the rush to commemorate the First World War as this may encourage war and nationalism, when this was a futile war of unimaginable slaughter,” while 53% say they do not agree.
Three-quarters of the public (74%) agree that ‘The centenary of the Great War is an important moment when former enemies should come together to remember – and value the reconciliation and friendship which helps us to understand each other better, from business links to sport and culture, in our more connected world.’
Though the referendum divided public and political opinion across Britain over the future of our relationships with the EU, we found a broad consensus on attitudes to the Centenary commemorations, including their importance as a symbol of reconciliation within Europe. Three-quarters (76%) of Leave voters and 83% of Remain voters agree that the centenary is “an important moment when former enemies should come together to remember – and value the reconciliation and friendship which helps us to understand each other better, from business links to sport and culture, in our more connected world.”
Both Leave and Remain voters also feel that the tone of the Centenary has been about right, with 58% of Leave voters and 50% of Remain supporters giving the commemorations an approval rating of 7-10 out of ten, and only a small proportion (Leave 1% / Remain 4%) rating it negatively 0-3. Whatever our views on the EU, we can all agree that the Centenary offers a chance to learn more about our history (Leave 84% / Remain 86%); and would like to learn more over the next two years until 2018 (Leave 53% / Remain 53%). More people on both sides of the referendum feel that the Centenary has brought people across Britain together (Leave 50% / Remain 41%) than feel it has not done so (Leave 23% / Remain 21%).
The report also finds:
- Two years into the centenary, half of the public (51%) still wants to learn more about the First World War before the Centenary commemorations conclude, while only 15% feel that they have learned all they need to know.
- Most people (57%) feel that the First World War remains relevant in 2016. The most popular reason why is its impact on the society we live in today.
- Over three quarters of the public (77%) believe it is important for integration today that children are taught about the role of Commonwealth soldiers in the First World War and our shared multi-ethnic history. 1.5 million soldiers from undivided India fought for Britain in 1914-18, 400,000 of them Muslims from what is now Pakistan.
- 80% of people agree that the Centenary is an opportunity for schools and museums to do more to help children and people of all ages learn more about our nation’s history.
- In 2016, 43% of people feel that the centenary has brought people across Britain together, compared to 32% who feel that it has not.
When the centenary comes to an end in 2018, just a few months before Britain leaves the European Union, the importance of bringing people together in a shared national moment will be significantly magnified. Halfway into the centenary, these findings suggest that the public will see this as an opportunity, not for political points-scoring but to promote education and the value of reconciliation.