The poppies seem to appear ever earlier on the dress of public figures each year in the run up to Remembrance Day on November 11th. There is a faint suspicion that nobody â€“ especially politicians – wants to be caught out by not wearing a poppy in time or, horror of horrors, not wearing one when your political opponents are. And the whole subject of Remembrance is largely off-limits for commentators as well â€“ and this in a society in which there is open public debate about just about everything including previously taboo subjects such as the value of the monarchy.
Over the past year the last three surviving British veterans of the First World War died at the ages of 109,111 and 113. When the last and the oldest of these men passed away Malcolm Rifkind, the former British Foreign Secretary, said his death marked “the end of an era”. No longer would we be able to converse with somebody who had personal experience of the Great War â€“ a significant moment. But when the nation goes into Remembrance mode next Sunday, and again a few days later on November 11th, it will be the symbols of the first war that dominate. The poppy, of course and the services at the Cenotaph which was specifically created to remember the dead of that awful war.Â There will be plenty of references to â€œFlanders fieldsâ€ and to Gallipoli, Passchendaele and to The Somme. True November 11th is also a day when all of Britain and the Commonwealthâ€™s twentieth and twenty-first century war losses will be remembered â€“ from the Second World War to Afghanistan and Iraq. There will be constant reminders that the war that was meant to end all wars did no such thing and that the only thing that we seem to learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.
But is it, I wonder, appropriate entirely to rethink Remembrance Day? To rethink whether a Christian service is appropriate in such a pluralist society as Britain? To wonder whether symbols that relate almost entirely to a conflict that finished over 90 years ago, and from which there are now no survivors, are the appropriate symbols for modern Britain. To question whether a memorial day which concentrates so much on the two World Wars should be modified and brought up to date so that it is more meaningful to the young people of the twenty-first century? Indeed even in my lifetime (Iâ€™m a baby boomer born the year after the Second War finished) there have been conflicts in which there was large British losses of life – in India, Palestine, Malaya, Korea, Kenya, Cyprus, Egypt,Â Borneo, Vietnam, Aden, Yemen, Oman, Dhofar, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, the Gulf, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Afghanistan and many more. These losses, which relate very directly to thousands of citizens alive today, tend to get overshadowed in the remembrances of the global mass destruction of the First and the Second World Wars.
If we believe that 2009 was indeed the end of an era why not draw a line under our use of First World War symbols and references and make this the last year of Remembrance Day in its present form? Change the date so that the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month is no longer the trigger. Focus on the dead for which there is there is living memory and the wars for which there are survivors who we can personally honour â€“ including especially the young men and women disabled by the most recent conflicts in the Middle East. Time to move on?