'As we recall the Somme, I fear the policymakers of my generation are wilfully blind to the lessons that should be learned from it'

1st July 2016 at 15:46
battle of the somme, first world war, world war one, brexit, eu referendum, bernard trafford
The centenary of one of the most costly battles of all time in a European war should cause us to pause, reflect and consider what lessons we are teaching the young, this headteacher believes

My last blog, written just before the EU vote, ended by saying that our democracy was diminished by the campaign.

As events transpired, it was a kind of prophecy, but also a colossal understatement. Notwithstanding my concern about the result – which I consider disastrous for the UK – since its announcement, our democracy has taken still more of a battering.

We have a lame-duck prime minister, a dead man walking, while his party and its leadership hopefuls resemble more than ever the disintegration of Rome as depicted in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

In any sane country, the opposition would have been having a field day, making hay at the expense of the government’s disarray. Not our Labour party. If the Tories are reminiscent of Julius Caesar, Labour’s front bench is more like the final scene of a Quentin Tarantino film, corpses littering the scene and only one or two left standing, Jeremy Corbyn presumably among them (although currently one can never be sure: in the time it’s taken to write this far, another dozen shadow ministers will probably have resigned).

The war to end all wars

Our European neighbours, friends and allies have been deeply offended, not merely by the decision to leave the EU, but above all by the negative and xenophobic tone of the prevailing arguments that have been reported in their own countries. And don’t get me started on Nigel Farage’s display of sneering disdain and spleen in Brussels this week!

There is an irony in the fact that we are currently commemorating the centenary of one of the most costly battles of all time in a European war. The Battle of the Somme started on 1 July 1916; 57,000 British soldiers were killed or wounded on the first day. During the whole length of the battle there were a million casualties on both sides.

The war to end all wars: so it was dubbed – wrongly. An unjust peace left resentment and anger, which helped lead to a second war. But there has been no global conflict since 1945, notwithstanding terrible localised wars ever since, including the fighting against Isis in the Middle East right now.

The memory of the Somme should surely cause us to pause and reflect. The creation of the EU has been a central element in maintaining peace on our continent; that aspect was hardly discussed during the campaign, apart from one hyperbolic threat from David Cameron (unconvincing at best) that to leave the EU was to risk a third world war. Exaggeration ruled on both sides: Boris Johnson accused the EU of having Hitler-like plans for domination by a superstate.

Angry and betrayed

As we recall the terrible loss of life during the Somme, I fear the leaders and policymakers of my generation are wilfully blind to the lessons that should be learned from it.

I place my hope in the young. Angry at present, most feeling betrayed by the vote to leave the EU, by the possible breakup of our own UK that may follow, by economic and political uncertainty and the threat of recession, they are the generation who will – who must – ensure future peace. I am hopeful of them because it is not they, in general, who pander to nationalist and xenophobic sentiments. It is not they who attempt to disguise repulsive views by prefacing them, "I am not racist but…"

We are nearly at the end of the academic year. But, if politicians continue to fail us as hopelessly as at present, schools will have more than ever to do to ensure that our young ignore the shameful examples emanating from Westminster and the broader shambles that masqueraded as a referendum debate. We and they must remember and promote the values that drive a just a fair society, a country at peace with itself and its neighbours, as they progress through school and take their place in adult life.

I have lost just about all faith in our institutions of government. Mercifully, I retain my belief in the young.

Dr Bernard Trafford is headteacher of Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne, and a former chairman of the HMC. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets as @bernardtrafford

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