Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

A year or so ago I was asked to sit on a committee that advises the government on how to commemorate the first world war. It consists of about 30 dauntingly well-qualified people (former heads of the army and of Nato, historians, ex-defence secretaries), so there seems little for me to contribute at meetings. But it is interesting to be on the government side of something and see how it deals with public expectation and the press. In the summer there was a report in a British paper that the Germans had sent over their commemoration team and asked if, instead of dwelling on the conflict, the British could make 2014-18 a chance to talk up the European Union. I emailed the Department of Culture to ask if this could be right. Not a word of it was; but they sent me a link to a truthful account of the visit in a German paper.

It is all surprisingly enjoyable. Maria Miller chairs at the speed of light; Andrew Murrison MP, from the Ministry of Defence, does the heavy lifting and overseas liaison. If you like, you can go into the Department of Culture for further personal briefings on how things are progressing. There, the team is already into the detail for the main events on 4 August 2014 in Glasgow, Mons and London - and very promising they look, touch wood, marrying the solemn with the modest.

It is a lot of work, but the government has to take a lead since it is ultimately responsible for the activities of so many organisations, including the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Imperial War Museum and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Its main job, however, is to enable smaller groups, including local schools, to remember in exactly the way they want. Nor is it trying to tell people what 'really' happened - or who bears the blame.

That, in my view, is how it should be. Political failure hastened the catastrophe; politicians can't now tell us what to do about it. In 1914, the old Europe committed suicide. It dismembered itself, lost three empires and killed ten million men. After 1918 it was no longer possible to view the centuries since the Renaissance as being a gradual journey, with whatever setbacks, towards a greater human civilisation.

That hope was lost for ever. But the Armistice did come. The slaughter did end - and people had to continue living. I think 2018 will be the hardest year to manage. …

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