Speech by Dan Jarvis MP, Labour’s lead on the First World War commemorations, to a Labour History Group event in Parliament on ‘Labour & the First World War’:
I’d like to start by thanking the Labour History Group for organising tonight’s event and bringing us all together.
And let me pay tribute to the role you play in our party. Because I believe if the Labour History Group didn’t exist then we would have to invent it.
Politics will always about the future.
But we can only own that future if we stay connected with our history. And that’s something the Labour History Group helps us do every day.
So thank you for the work you do and the brilliant way you do it.
I also want to extent a special welcome to my constituent Liam, who I met when I visited Darton College, in Barnsley last Friday.
Liam had just finished a GCSE exam and very eloquently told me that the “trouble with politicians is that they never learn the lessons from history” – so I invited him to come along to this event! Liam, it’s great you could make it.
We are here tonight to discuss the history of Labour and the First World War.
There are two particular themes I’d like to talk about by way of introduction:
- First, the World War One centenary, and what I think we need to remember in the commemorations between now and 2018.
- And secondly, about our role in those commemorations as a Labour Movement.
Let me start with what we know:
The First World War changed Britain forever.
In many ways it marked the true beginning of the 20th century, setting events in motion that would shape people’s lives for generations to come.
It was a conflict that touched every family, affected every community and fundamentally altered our country’s place in the world.
It took the lives of 16 million soldiers and civilians across the globe, including 900,000 servicemen from Britain and the Commonwealth.
The centenary anniversaries this year and over the next four years provide us with an important moment to pay tribute to their service and sacrifice.
Those commemorations begin in just eleven days time.
On Saturday 28th June, people all over Britain will mark Armed Forces Day,
Showing their support for our brave servicemen and women, and remembering the contribution of veterans in past conflicts.
This year, that date coincides with the 100th anniversary of the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – the day when the assassination of one man, a member of the Austro-Hungarian royal family, by a Serbian nationalist, would plunge a continent into conflict.
On the 4th August, there will be events across the country to mark the moment when Britain would enter that conflict.
And I think the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings a fortnight ago gave us a poignant and powerful indication of how millions of people – of all ages – will want to take part in this important year of remembrance.
There were 16,000 towns and villages across Britain in 1914, but only 40 of them would reach 1918 without having lost someone in the conflict.
So every community has its own story to tell.
Let me tell you one from my constituency – the story of the Barnsley Pals.
It’s about the men who responded to Lord Kitchener’s famous recruitment poster in 1914, and formed the 13th and 14th Battalions of the York and Lancaster Regiment.
They included miners, glassworkers, stonemasons and clerics – many of them friends and neighbours.
They joined up together, trained together, went to war together, and ultimately many of them died together.
A few weeks ago I travelled to Serre in northern France, where the Barnsley Pals fought at the Battle of the Somme.
I walked the ground over which the Pals had fought – open rolling fields that have changed little this past century.
I tried to imagine what it must have been like, what must have been going through their minds.
Before departing for France, my 9 year old daughter had lent me – and she was quite clear she wanted it back – a replica 1916 trench whistle that she’d got from a school trip.
I had it in my pocket and I thought that I might blow it from one of the trench positions that still scar the countryside.
When I got there, I simply couldn’t bring myself to blow that whistle.
It wasn’t that it seemed inappropriate, although maybe it would have been.
Standing in front of their graves, in the pouring rain, thinking about the sound that signified the start of the attack, the sound that so many men must have dreaded, it was hard not to be overwhelmed by the emotion of it.
Later we visited the Memorial of the Missing at Thiepval. And it was there, as I read the names inscribed on the memorial, that I saw my own name staring back at me – D. Jarvis.
Two things hit me at that moment.
The first was the profound scale of the sacrifice.
Our country’s deployment in Afghanistan has now lasted over three times longer than the First World War.
453 servicemen have died, and we’ve felt the pain of each one of them.
So it’s hard to imagine now what it must have been like to live through a conflict where around seven times that many soldiers would lose their lives each week,
Or to appreciate how much of a scar was left on the country by the first day of the Battle of the Somme – a beautiful summers day on the 1st July 1916 – when 20,000 men were cut down in a single day.
And that’s the second thing that came to me.
Because one reason why it’s harder for us to grasp today is that we’ve lost our connection to the people who actually experienced it.
The D-Day anniversaries reminded us how privileged we are that so many veterans who fought for our freedom are still with us today.
For them, the Second World War is still very much a war of memory.
That can no longer be said for the First World War.
The sad death of the last Tommie – Harry Patch - in 2009 - at the age of 111 – marked the transition of the First World War from a war of memory to a war of history.
And that does change the nature of the commemorations.
It creates a distance, a space, for us to look at the conflict in a different way.
Now I know that there are strong opinions about the merits, causes and consequences of the war that took the lives of those young men from the Barnsley Pals, and so many others.
Some will say they died in a conflict that though appalling, was necessary and needed to be fought.
Others argue their sacrifice was futile, in a war that achieved nothing, and could and should have been avoided.
So before I go any further, let me say this.
I believe we can learn a lot from history, but I don’t believe politicians should be in the business of writing our history.
If Alastair Campbell said ‘we don’t do God,’ I’m saying politicians probably shouldn’t do history either.
I don’t think the public want or expect us to be handing down official positions on events from a century ago.
As I see it, we have two roles to play in this debate.
The first is to create an environment where we can discuss these issues openly together.
The sort of environment we’ve already seen on our TV screens this year, where historians like Max Hastings can present his view of the First World War on one night, and then Niall Ferguson can go on the next and argue an entirely different case.
That’s healthy, that’s democracy.
Our second role is to engage the public, raise awareness and where appropriate, help shape that debate.
And that’s what I want to do tonight.
Because I strongly believe that if we want to properly commemorate the First World War, if we want to do justice to the memory of those who lived through it 100 years ago, then these commemorations cannot solely be about those who fought and died on the frontline.
We also have to remember the heroes on the home front:
The miners, factory and railway workers who kept our country going, those who worked the land, and cared for the wounded.
And the commemorations also have to be about how our country changed.
About the type of country those returning servicemen came back to, and the legacy it left to the society we live in today.
Take our democracy.
When war broke out in 1914, most working men and not a single woman had the vote.
By 1918, 8.4 million women would be enfranchised when Parliament passed the Representation of Peoples Act.
Women took on jobs that had previously been seen as the preserve of men.
An additional 800,000 women would take up jobs in industry, raising the total number to just under 3 million.
A million were employed by the Ministry of Munitions alone.
Some 400,000 women found work in offices, another 200,000 in different branches of government.
So the First World War left millions of cracks in what had previously been a pretty immaculate glass ceiling.
The war also placed different demands on families and greater demands on Whitehall.
Government took a more hands-on and interventionist approach, with the Defence of the Realm Act granting sweeping powers to Ministers.
The strains of war also contributed to unrest in Ireland, and helped change the shape of the United Kingdom.
Britain’s place in the world shifted.
Our society became less deferential, readier to challenge authority, and more multicultural.
More than 1.2 million people from across the Commonwealth served in the British war effort.
It’s important we remember that.
Men who had never been to Britain would fight for Britain, including soldiers from India, the West Indies and parts of Africa.
It’s for all these reasons that I believe our commemoration of the First World War has to go further than the poppy fields of Flanders.
Our national commemorations need to reflect that broader story.
I know efforts are being made to do that, but I believe there’s more to do in the months ahead.
Because the moments when we all reflect on our history together are both precious, and few-and-far between.
This centenary is an opportunity we will not have again as a country, so we must not fail to tell that wider story.
And that brings me to the duty that falls upon us as Labour supporters.
Because there’s particular role for us in these commemorations as a Labour Party and a Labour movement.
Because if the First World War is partly the story of how working men and women won a greater say in public life,
It’s also part of the story of how Labour emerged as a greater force in British politics.
And we in the Labour movement need to tell that story.
Because it is our story.
And if we don’t tell it, no-one else will.
It’s the story of an emerging party that only had 29 Westminster seats in 1906, but by 1918 Labour would be sat on the Commons frontbenches as the official Opposition for the first time.
It’s the story of the trade union movement, and how a third of all workers unionised during the war years.
It’s about Labour’s first Cabinet Minister – Arthur Henderson – who in 1915 became President of the Board of Education, and later a member of Lloyd-George’s War Cabinet.
And it’s the story of what happened after the war, and how the first Labour Government took office.
In the General Election of 1918, Labour won 63 seats.
Four years later that number more than doubled.
Cities like Glasgow, which only elected one Labour MP before the war, were now returning 10.
By 1924, Labour would have 191 seats in Parliament and were able to form a government for the first time.
Now the forces that led to this were already well underway before 1914, not least the fracturing of the Liberal Party.
But there can be no doubt that the First World War accelerated these trends, and changed the balance of British politics forever.
And its echoes would influence Labour politics for many years to come.
In the 1920s, Labour’s candidates included a Major Clement Atlee, who was wounded in action, and the last man but one to be pulled off the beach at Gallipoli.
Atlee later reflected on the First World War in his autobiography:
“The outbreak of the war,” he said, “brought great heart-searchings in the ranks of the Labour and Socialist Movement,
“especially in the membership of the Independent Labour Party, which had always been strongly pacifist.
“The difference of view in the Party was well illustrated in our family.
“My brother Tom was a conscientious objector and went to prison.
“I thought it my duty to fight.”
He was not the only one.
Atlee would lead a Labour Government in 1945 that counted several veterans who fought in the First World War.
They included the Chancellor, Hugh Dalton,
The Home Secretary, James Chuter Ede,
Viscount Stansgate – also known as Tony Benn’s Dad.
And they would work alongside Atlee’s deputy, the staunch pacifist, Herbert Morrison, also known as Peter Mandelson’s grandfather.
Their government’s programme would be shaped by their experiences of the First World War.
We should reflect on that – and I’m pleased we are discussing it here tonight.
So my message to Labour activists is that we should also be reflecting on the legacy of the First World War in constituency parties across the country.
In this important year of remembrance, we should take the time to discuss how the war helped change our movement, our communities and our country.
And we should be talking about the importance of equality, democracy and protecting people in the workplace.
Whether we do that by talking about it in our meetings, supporting our local museums or exploring our own local and family histories – we need to take the opportunity to engage with these issues.
Now there are some who will ask why this is important when we are less than a year before a General Election?
This is my answer.
Because if we get this right, if we dedicate ourselves to these commemorations in the right way, it will be relevant to the lives we live today.
We’ve seen that this week, in debates about the crisis unfolding in Iraq.
The history of how the map of the Middle East was re-drawn during the First World War is an important part of that discussion.
And that’s not the only example.
100 years ago, on May 22nd 1914, suffragettes were being arrested at the gates of Buckingham Palace, petitioning for the right to vote.
On May 22nd 2014, nearly two thirds of a country with universal suffrage decided they were better off staying at home on Election Day.
100 years ago, the debate was about whether women should be allowed in the Polling Booth, and whether they could do jobs that only men had done before.
Today, the debate needs to be about getting more women onto ballot papers and into boardrooms at the top of our workforce.
100 years ago, no-one had ever heard of shell-shock or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Today, the issue is not just what more we can do for our veterans returning from action, but how we prioritise the mental health of everyone.
100 years ago, people from all over the world fought and died to protect this country.
Today, we need to remember that debt we owe to people who weren’t born here, but who helped make this country what it is today.
And 100 years ago, the First World War changed role of the state. Government took action on food, rents and wages.
And that links to one of the central arguments in our politics today – about how markets, rules and the state should best work in the 21st century.
So the relevance of the First World War is much broader than we might think.
And the means to retell it and reflect on it are all around us in the history, the names, and the places where we live today.
Let me finish with one such story that I heard recently.
It’s about a man called Arthur Gardiner.
He was born in Huddersfield – but the First World War took him to Wakefield.
That’s because Arthur was a Conscientious Objector – one of the many men who refused to fight after conscription was introduced in 1916.
He spent the war in Wakefield Prison, which had been emptied and used to hold over 600 conscientious objectors from across the country.
Arthur would eventually be released and returned to his hometown. It was there he became the first full-time agent for the Labour Party in Huddersfield.
He would help elect the town’s first Labour MP, one who helped form this country’s first Labour Government in 1924.
He would serve as a Labour councillor himself, and many years later was elected as the Labour Mayor for the town where he grew up.
As I think back to standing in those cemeteries in France a few weeks ago, I wonder now, how many Arthur Gardiners we lost in the trenches.
We must remember them.
But we must also remember the Britain that they left behind – the one they fought to protect – and how it became the country we live in today.
That would be the best tribute we could possibly pay.