A week today, when all the furore has ebbed and the markets have bottomed out, our nation will awake to the sounds of bugles and church bells as we commemorate 100 years from the start of the Battle of The Somme. I am an historian by background, and the Somme for me is emblematic of a human tragedy that need never have happened. My reading of it is this: we began a war from a variety of odd alliances and murky motivations, capped off finally by a sense that no-one had the will to stop it. In order to give the war effort impetus, posters, propaganda began to be bandied around about the enemy, about what they would do to children and how they needed to be stopped. It worked as a recruiting effort- young men, boys, and women all joined the war effort. They joined as an act of patriotism, tinged yes with fear, but also a sense that it might be the right thing to do. They joined from across the country- but at the heart of the front line forces were thousands and ten of thousands of working class men.
As the war went on, the effort to recruit had to continue at a more accelerated pace- hard when you began to people come back from war scarred in body, mind and spirit. But an added fervour against the enemy helped in the recruitment of pals battalions. And for many the prospect of miltary service over poor working conditions was a real and relevant choice. Groups of me all from the same place, given the chance to fight together against the common enemy.
And so they joined, they trained and they prepared.
And far from them a group of men of an entirely different class prepared for war. They desired a victory and drew from all that they had learned of war to implement a strategy which they felt could not fail. Integral to that strategy was a battle in the Somme region that would begin with a long shelling assault before the infantry went over the top of trenches and calmly walked towards an already vulnerable enemy.
They believed that a decisive victory here would bring Britain victory over all.
Next week we commemorate the start of that conflict.
And we remember that they were wrong. Shells do not cut barbed wire. Trenches can be dug deep and keep people safe. And walking towards machine gun fire inflicts heavy casualties. On July 1st there were 57,000 British casualties, of whom 19,000 died.
The tactics of that fight were predicated on ideas that were out of date, that denied empirical evidence and that ultimately killed or injured 420,000 UK soldiers and advanced all of a mile.
One hundred years later, hard working men signed up for a cause that they have believed is patriotic. I was both proud and terrified that very time I walked past my local polling station people were going in , Early yesterday evening Ian Duncan Smith said that as many as 85% of “council estate” (his words) residents were voting. That is unprecedented. My anecdotal experience is that they voted on the basis of immigration and a perceived injustice of limited opportunities for their own families. This instinct, coming from real experience of stretched services and lowered prospects, was manipulated by posters and propaganda. It was heighted by print media and disproportionate TV time, all contributing to the idea that immigration was the problem to be solved and the battle to be won.
And so when referendum came the pals battalions of 2016 were offered by the Vote Leave campaign. You can be with your people, you can take back control.
And so in their thousands and ten of thousands men and women who were not being listened to by those in charge, who felt that they nothing to lose, joined the Leave campaign.
And far from them a group of men of an entirely different class prepared for victory. They drew from all they knew of politics to dream of a Britain that with its mighty strength would depart from the EU into a glorious return to how things ought to be. Their vision is outdated and I fear their modo bello (forgive my Latin if its wrong) is too- it seeks a Britain which no longer exists in a world that has moved on. It also seeks a Britain that has nothing to do with the vision of the working classes.
I spoke with a much loved Leave voter early this morning who said “I’m so glad that we don’t have to use guns and bombs to get what we want, we just have to put a cross in a box”. I rejoice with her that on day one no-one has perished.
But I fear, I fear that many people who have voted to leave, out of honest and sincere motives, will end up as casualties. Brexit as won by Generals Johnson and Gove does not intend to deal with immigration. Working class people, already beset with poor job security, may be the first sent out, calmly walking towards the machine gun laden market, like pals battalions sent into needless slaughter.
Some have suggested that British social fabric was forever changed at the Somme. Authority was finally seen for what it was, out of touch and profoundly not ‘for us’. The established church certainly never recovered, having been so very much part of the establishment that effected a slaughter on its own people.
Our social fabric may be forever changed after Brexit. It is a good thing that so many people engaged, that they felt like they could do something. I am glad and I pray that the age of apathy may be over. But I also pray that the working classes do not find themselves let down like Pals Battalions, the first casualties in a senseless campaign that serves the ego needs of the few. And I pray for the church, my employer (today) that we will not be so embroiled with the establishment that we lose our people forever.