TODAY is Remembrance Sunday. In Whitehall, the great and the good will bow their heads in recollection of the fallen. They should also bow their heads in shame for the low status conferred on that memory in the Government’s National Curriculum for History in English schools.
Neither World War One nor World War Two is required teaching. Instead, these nation-defining events are relegated to the status of ‘Examples (non-statutory)’ that ‘could’ be taught to children. This contrasts with a statutory requirement to teach either Islamic history, West African history or central American history.
Lord Tebbit has observed that, ‘Lest we forget has become lest we remember.’ He is right. The full extent of the betrayal is set out in a pamphlet I wrote for The Campaign for an Independent Britain.
‘Britain should stop wallowing in past traumas and move on,’ Simon Jenkins, a former chairman of the National Trust, told Guardian readers in 2017. ‘Next year,’ (2018) he urged, ‘we should draw down the curtain and have a Forgetting Day, a Move On Day, a Fresh Start Day.’
Last Thursday, Polly Toynbee punched home the case for national amnesia and for the destruction of our identity. ‘It’s fine to shake tins for veterans – but surely last year was the time to say goodbye to all that, to look ahead not back.’
Toynbee is nothing if not condescending when it comes to the poor bloody infantry who, along with sailors and air crews, did the fighting and dying for us. ‘We remember their sacrifices,’ she opines, whilst ‘conveniently forgetting that victory required the greater heft of US and Russian allies’.
The Germany-Soviet pact and American neutrality until Germany declared war on the US in December 1941 seem to have escaped her. Britain stood alone for much of 1940 and 1941, albeit with support from its empire and dominions. And Russia’s cynically-calculated and last-minute entry into the war against Japan, with whom it had previously had a neutrality pact, was minuscule compared to Britain’s role in that theatre of war.
Toynbee asserts that remembrance ‘lies at the root of a Brexitism that needs to remember it was us alone against “them” across the Channel.’
Us against them between 1939-1945? Tell that to the French, the Belgians, the Dutch, the Luxemburgers, the Poles, the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Hungarians, the Greeks, the Danes, the Norwegians, the Croats, the Serbs, the Albanians, the Slovenes, the Montenegrins, the Maltese and so on. Tell it also to those who recall the resistance fighting in Italy and the consequent Nazi massacre of civilians there and across Europe.
Toynbee turns to fellow Guardian columnist Sir Anthony Seldon for endorsement. As an historian and a member of the First World War Centenary Culture Committee, Seldon should know a thing or two about remembrance. Not that he is always averse to side-stepping too much historical knowledge.
He and I once exchanged views about GCSE History on BBC Radio 4’s The World at One. I recall him declaring that promoting knowledge in the classroom could be ‘arse-achingly boring … like learning the telephone directory’.
According to Toynbee, in a recent talk Seldon asserted that ‘too much remembrance was holding us back’ and Britain has ‘wallowed in its old triumphs, forever pulled backwards.’
Both Toynbee and Seldon reflect today’s spirit of hubristic liberalism amongst a liberal intellectual elite. For Toynbee, the only thing to lament at this morning’s Cenotaph service is that, last year, Seldon’s centenary committee did not finally lay ‘to rest all this empty, vainglorious, false-memory memorialising’.
She need not worry. Bit by bit, our schools are being encouraged to dismantle and to erase the national memory and the identity it carries with it. The rot was setting in as long as ago as 1995, the 50th anniversary of VE Day. Succumbing to pressure to do something, the Department for Education sent a commemorative teaching video pack to every school in the country.
The primary school version lasted 34 minutes but allocated only 14 seconds (sic) of indistinct coverage near the end to Winston Churchill stating that ‘people thought he helped the war end in Britain.’ The video did emphasise, though, that ‘It was quite sexist in the war’. Churchill is similarly marginalised in the secondary school version of the video. He is mentioned by name just once and only in the context of losing the 1945 General Election. In contrast, Hitler is mentioned 16 times.
By the 70th anniversary of VE Day, 2015, a OnePoll survey, carried out on behalf of the charity Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association found that more than half of people did not even know what VE Day commemorated.
The world wars are still widely taught in our schools, but too often not in a way that promotes in-depth knowledge and understanding. A 2003 survey, reported in the Sunday Telegraph, discovered that only around 30 per cent of 11-18 year-olds could name the century in which the First World War was fought. In 2004, prior to its ‘Battlefield Britain’ series, the BBC reported that amongst 16-34 year-olds, around half did not know that the Battle of Britain happened during World War Two.
By 2009, the Daily Telegraph was reporting ‘what historians have described as an “astonishing” lack of knowledge’ about World War Two. A quarter could not name any of Germany’s wartime allies. Scotland and the USA appeared amongst the wrong answers.
In 2011, The Daily Mail noted that teenage pupils ‘believe Winston Churchill is a TV dog!’ A YouGov poll in the run-up to Remembrance Day the following year showed that two-thirds of 16-24 year-olds did not know when the Great War ended and more than half were ignorant of when it started.
Our high-minded moral superiors will be encouraged by this ignorance and, too often, they themselves reflect it. They have called time on remembrance. Conniving governments have gone quietly along with this by allowing the two world wars to be relegated to second division status in the school history curriculum.
Many of Polly Toynbee’s Guardian readers will delight in her use of remembrance as a anti-Brexit political weapon to attack and diminish those who wish to restore the sovereignty of the United Kingdom that so many fought and died to defend. All of this should be called out for what it is – shameful!