1 July 2016

Somme centenary unites a divided Britain

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For some, last Friday felt like one of the darkest days in recent British political history.

Today, even for those most disappointed and surprised by the public’s referendum verdict, the centenary of  that is put firmly into perspective as we mark the centenary of the Somme.

As the nation paused this morning to remember the service, sacrifice and loss of so many, 100 years ago today in one of the most terrible battles of the first world war, few of those standing silently either in France or in our living rooms across Britain were asking each other who voted for Remain and who voted for Leave in the referendum.

Britain has certainly been deeply divided over the last week – but we were divided by democracy.  Millions have voted on different sides in a referendum to decide whether or not we would remain in the European Union. The narrow decision to Leave is a source of both hope and anxiety, given the great uncertainty about what will happen next.

The value of stopping to remember, the importance of peace and reconciliation with our friends in Europe, are shared across our society – including by those who take different political views about how we cooperate with our allies, through NATO, the European Union or other methods.

Knowing this history is an important way to remember and commemorate those who served their country – and also that history can also be an important source of confidence that we can come together at times of difficulty.

The armies that fought for Britain a century ago look more like the Britain of 2016 than that of 1916.

1.5 million soldiers from pre-partition India were joined by men from the West Indies, Australia and Canada to serve alongside the British forces. The first world war centenary has seen a much greater public awareness of the service of Commonwealth soldiers.

The moving Iftar event at the Ministry of Defence on Wednesday, marking a century of Muslim service to Britain’s armed forces since the Somme, was the latest event to build greater recognition of the 400,000 Muslims who fought for Britain in the first world war.

The hope that the first world war would be the war to end all wars proved a false one. Three decades later, Britain again went to war, reluctantly, to face down the fascist threat in Europe. The peace and security of Europe today is a precious product of that service and sacrifice, and must remain precious today. It was fought for by Britons from England and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, by Irish volunteers whose service has only recently been recognised, by millions of Indian and Commonwealth troops, and by brave Polish and West Indian pilots in the RAF.

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