Narratives are important in politics. I’d go so far to say they are key. In today’s modern society (although the same was almost certainly true for supposedly ‘less’ complex societies) there is no one
single cause for anything. It isn’t much of a rallying cry or newspaper article to say this though. Arguments therefore tend to focus on one clear simple story to explain things. Rather disturbingly this was the same line of propaganda use by Goebbels and Hitler.
Greedy bankers for example were an important cause of the Credit Crunch but they were not the only cause. Politicians and the media focus on bankers and bonuses however, because it gives them a clear repeatable narrative. Equally, the EU has had many good and some bad effects on the UK life and there are still greater areas where it has had little or no effect at all. Listen or read anything about the EU in the British press however, and you are likely to get a very unambiguous Brussels is bad/evil/a dirty kraut empire message.
A simple clear narrative is the stuff that day to day politicking is made of.
With this in mind the nascent discussion over WW1 and its centenary this year is particularly interesting. The standard conception of WW1 has been shaped by anti-war poetry such as Wilfred’s Owen ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ and more entertainingly ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’.
These narratives of WW1 both focus on the futility of the war and the idiocy of the upper class ‘donkeys’ that led an entire generation ‘lions’ to their deaths. WW1 broke forever notions that people should be kept in their place and that ruling elites were to be trusted for they know best.
Dan Carlin had a nice line about this in his most recent Hardcore History podcast saying that
“Here’s the thing this war (WW1) is going to teach. If you watch the charge of the light brigade and you think it is a magnificent brave a doomed attack on the part of incredibly courageous men what happens if after the charge fails they send another one and the same results occur and then they send another one and the same results occur they do it again and again at what point does this wonderful doomed romantic celebration of the military heart become something obscene”.
WW1 hammered home lessons of regarding war and authority that still resonate today. A number of right wing politicians such as Michael Grove, Nigel Farage and conservative newspapers such as The Express and The Telegraph don’t like this very much though. They are attacking this prevailing idea of WW1 as being lefty fantasy. They want to build a narrative that stresses how Germany caused the war (on balance I agree with them) and how patriotic the British soldiers were.
These revisionist ‘historians’ are for example pointing out that General Haig was quite liked by the men he commanded even though his tactics killed a lot of them. They present this fact as if is was some sort of zinger that decides the argument. There is no reason why it should. A personal endorsement from the soldiers to their commander doesn’t really hold any wider significance about WW1 then the popularity of George W Bush in the USA to this day should tell us about what a cold analytical verdict from history will say about his presidency.
So whilst these right wing revisionists focus on building a narrative of WW1 being about heroic self-sacrifice. A war akin to WW2. They want to ignore the lessons the war taught about the blinkered nature of elites and class.
They want to change the narrative of WW1 so they can begin to take Britain back to a time where the people in charge (people like them) were respected and seen to be competent. The public should not fall for their game.