Somehow, the First World War has come alive. Suddenly, everyone in Britain seems to have strong views about its causes, meaning and the way it is taught in schools and represented by the entertainment industry.
Boris Johnson, the Conservative mayor of London, is certain that the Germans started the war. Michael Gove, the Conservative secretary of state for education, concurs, insisting that the ‘ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites’ and their ‘aggressively expansionist war aims’ made ‘resistance more than justified’. Gove, who believes Britain fought a ‘just war’ back in 1914, has denounced ‘left-wing academics’ and cynical TV shows like Blackadder for mocking Britain’s role in the conflict.
The Labour Opposition has dutifully done what it always does – attack Gove. Labour’s shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, said in response to Gove that ‘few imagined that the Conservatives would be this crass’. He also reminded his opposite number that the left played an honourable role in the Great War. Labour activist Sir Tony Robinson, who played Baldrick in Blackadder, also joined the fray, accusing Gove of ‘slagging off teachers’.
This looks and sounds like a debate about the past – but actually, its main drivers are contemporary conflicts over cultural values and political opinions.
Hunt claims Gove is using history for political ends. No doubt he is right. However, Hunt himself, and other Labour-supporting critics of Gove, fail to acknowledge their own complicity in the politicisation of the current debate on the meaning of the First World War. When they depict Gove’s attack on media cynicism about the war as just another example of him ‘slagging off teachers’, what they’re really doing is continuing today’s education debate under the guise of talking about the past.