Pro Palestine protestors marching on Armistice Day. Steve Taylor/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

What we have forgotten

As rival values furiously clash on Armistice Day, it’s time to remember the truth of British wars, not the fond myths

Artillery Row

Yesterday hundreds of thousands gathered to chant, scream, and wave flags out of passion for the cause of Palestine, on the same day and in the same city where solemn ceremonies of national remembrance of our war dead were taking place. Several hundred hooligans led by the ridiculous Tommy Robinson turned up at the Cenotaph, many miles away from the Palestinian marchers, only to be pushed back by police — had he got lost? We may never know, but it was the perfect distraction for those who feel deeply uncomfortable talking about the views of Britain’s Islamic community, or engaging with ugly scenes that have, in recent days, included poppy sellers being beaten up, ordinary people harassed in the street, public buildings and monuments taken over by screaming mobs, and fireworks hurled in the face of police. Still less do they wish to confront the exposes of the organisers of the pro-Palestine march, many of whom have been exposed as having links to Hamas, and one of whom is in fact a former Hamas commander. 

The simple, primordial act of putting your life at risk for the sake of the tribe is far older than liberal ideals

One group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, has been especially active in the protests, openly shouting calls for “jihad” in British streets. The Metropolitan Police kindly explained that “the word has a number of meanings” and made no move to prosecute members of the group (though they will be, serious people that they are, investigating one marcher for calling the Prime Minister a coconut). Jihad does have a number of meanings, but if the context of a violent war between Jews and Muslims was not enough of a clue, then perhaps Hizb ut-Tahrir’s own charter for the global Islamic caliphate they wish to establish: “the state must rise to declare Jihad against the Kuffar without any lenience or hesitation”. 

The open evidence of Islamist groups marching on our streets every week has been simply ignored, not least by the many left liberals who are apparently utterly comfortable with sharing space and a platform with such people, and chanting “from the river to the sea” without thinking too hard about what would happen to the Israeli Jews to achieve that vision of total Palestinian victory. 

Another useful distraction was a fixation on Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, who has in recent days accused the Met of inconsistency in their approach to policing protests, and has been straightforward in her condemnation of the moral bankruptcy of marchers willing to ignore or support hatred, and the inappropriateness of such a march on Armistice Day. For daring to look at a problem that many refuse to admit exists, she has been made a scapegoat for the actions of a small number of far-right thugs. If only, the implication goes, she had politely ignored the excesses of the marchers, we could all have waited till it blew over and gone back to pretending that Islamism and anti-semitism are not problems amongst British Muslims. 

Politicians and commentators prefer to speak in safe generalities about foggily pervasive prejudices, condemning both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, upholding both the “right to protest”’ and the need to “ban incitement”. Nobody seemed very much disturbed that we have Hamas militants being handed British passports; that such people are helping to organise massive marches in our capital; or that the Metropolitan police’s attitude to such a march is to stand by and hope it burns itself out without too much gunpowder thrown at their officers. Nor, amidst the flood of condemnation for Suella, did anyone stop to wonder that if the Metropolitan Police can ignore the wishes of the Home Secretary, what mechanism for democratic oversight of the most scandal-ridden police force in Britain exists? Instead, Britain’s Left, which will very shortly find itself in power, has cheered on every civil service rebellion against the political authority of our elected government. Perhaps they assume these same rebels will become loyalists under a Labour government — but I wouldn’t count on it. 

Whilst democracy and public order was quietly immolated, I reflected on something I heard a lot from well intentioned people in public life. They accepted that the protests might be inappropriate or unruly, but surely the “freedom to protest” was what our war dead had paid the ultimate price to secure? Didn’t they die for British values after all? You hear something like this, along with the Dulce et Decorum Est reheated anti-war WWI spiel, every November. It is, however, total, arrant, nonsense. To use a soldierly expression: it’s bullshit

British soldiers died for Britain. We are not a country, like America, built on an idea. Our politicians and soldiers are not sworn to defend our constitution, but our monarch, who himself represents the body politic. Britain is a democratic, republican society as well as a constitutional monarchy, and was so at the time of WWI. But soldiers then as now, fought, killed and died for their fellow citizen, to keep our country from being conquered by foreign powers, and to advance its interests around the world. Certainly they sacrificed to preserve our liberty, primarily from being subjected to occupation, but there was and never has been a consensus political commitment amongst British soldiers to liberal ideas of civil liberty, egalitarianism or tolerance. 

A number of soldiers hoped the result of their sacrifice would be socialistic progress for society, a “Home fit for Heroes”, others dreamed of an idealistic internationalism of “the war to end all wars”, many from Ireland and the Empire believed that their service would further aspirations for national independence or home rule. Plenty, especially the junior officers who died in greater numbers than any other rank, were conservative members of the British aristocracy, giving their lives out of a sense of noblesse oblige, and a desire to preserve Britain’s empire. Others were motivated by baser impulses, whether a solid wage, a desire for adventure, or a jingoistic hatred of their opponents. And this was just one conflict –– in its day our country has fought for Catholicism and Protestantism, wars of imperial expansion and in support of colonial rebellions, battles against both Communists and Fascists, wars to abolish slavery and wars to promote drug deals. Not every war was noble, even in its aim, and almost none of them were fought primarily for liberal values –– and those that ostensibly were, like Afghanistan, have had some of the most terrible outcomes. 

Such moments must be seen as crucial tests of our will and worthiness to continue as a flourishing culture

The uniting principle, the golden chain that links the stolid longbowmen of Agincourt and Crecy with Napoleonic Grenadiers and 20th century merchant sailors, that binds together fallen men and women of every colour and creed, is duty and sacrifice to the British people and nation. The simple, primordial act of putting your life at risk for the sake of the tribe is far older than liberal ideals, however admirable, and deserves to be honoured for its own sake, without self-flattering political spin that imposes a false meaning on the sacrifices of our forebears. There’s something subtly distancing about assigning a merely ideological motive to a sacrifice that is ultimately personal –– British soldiers died for us. Not for whatever the “current thing” is in our progressive politics, not as an affirmation of the superiority of our way of life 50 or a 100 years on. In a country where fewer and fewer people turn up — hollowing out churches, trade unions, or political parties –– the simple ethics of duty to the commonwealth and physical courage could not be more relevant. 

The desperation to distort Remembrance is linked, in part, to the fact that a great number –– both younger, leftist Britons and Muslim minorities, many of them recent immigrants –– lack any emotional or personal attachment to the ritual. Names on village church walls mean little to a highly mobile, urban population, and Afghanistan and Iraq have (with some cause) soured and alienated both groups from pride in British military service. British schools, which teach a fragmented, often passively subversive account of our history, compound the problem, especially for communities with no organic attachment to that history, and powerful cultural reasons to resent Britain’s historic role in shaping contemporary conflicts. 

To solve the issue, Remembrance has been crudely yoked to a civic nationalist agenda, championed by Blair and carried forward by leaders like Humza Yosaf and Sadiq Khan. British history was stripped of its deep and complex specificity, assumed to be unpalatable both to newcomers and our Americanised native youth. Instead, the Human Rights and Equality acts were retrospectively rendered as the founding basis of British civic life and politics. “Being British” would no longer be tied to history, geography, culture, language or cuisine. Instead it was sufficient to sign up to universalist liberal norms around tolerance, democracy and the rule of law. But even that version of Britishness is one that policy makers have been either unable or unwilling to enforce, as the events of this weekend have demonstrated. 

Only a renewal and re-engagement with Britain’s real history and identity, which includes a long and profound interest and connection with other cultures and civilisations, can create a British culture able to confront the challenges of multiculturalism with both strength and compassion. Ethnic hatreds and religious extremism must be firmly stamped out. Those who support terror should, where legally possible, be deported, and face severe legal consequences in either case. Every British child, regardless of background, should receive a thorough education in our national and civilisational story –– one that is English-speaking, Christian, and European. Our national rituals and gatherings are essential expressions of our freedom of association, a freedom that is fundamentally threatened when such symbols are attacked or disrespected without challenge or consequence. If we wish to survive as a civilisation, then such moments must be seen as crucial tests of our will and worthiness to continue as a flourishing culture. This weekend we failed that test. 

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