Searching for the Soul of ‘National Heritage’ in 2014

 In October 2012, during a speech in the Imperial War Museum, PM David Cameron outlined plans to spend £50 million to support the commemoration of the Centenary of the First World War in 2014: http://www.number10.gov.uk/news/speech-at-imperial-war-museum-on-wwi/

These activities will see a complete overhaul of the permanent galleries of the Imperial War Museum itself, but most of the spend will be on schools programmes and community initiatives across the country, running alongside some central ‘set pieces’ to commemorate significant events, such as the first day of the Battle of the Somme, and the unofficial ‘armistice’ and legendary football match on Christmas Day 1914. Even 100 years after the actual events, the First World War has an immediate resonance with people. This is heritage that can do things. The idea of heritage having ‘agency’ – in the present and for the future – is not new, but these are interesting times for the ‘soul of national heritage’ within these islands, and so the stakes appear to be higher than usual.

I am sure the sentiment to use the Centenary commemorations as a moment to reflect on the meaning of Britain and ‘Britishness’ was bolstered by the broadly positive media comments (no doubt supported by focus group analysis), about the Olympic Effect on national identity in 2012. David Cameron himself identified the opportunity that the First World War commemorations will afford: to underline the ongoing process of reconciliation between the people of Britain and Ireland, as well as a chance to celebrate the connections enshrined in the British Commonwealth on a global scale. These commemorations, however, also need to be pitched into the context of identity politics that operate on other scales. How will the marking of First World War heritage within Britain work with respect to the UK’s relationship within the European Union? How will the fostering and support of so many local community heritage initiatives connect with a national ‘heritage narrative’? After all, the power of First World War heritage to provoke a reaction and cement a bond, these days, would appear to reside within the emotions of the personal and familiar, at least as much as the more traditional sentiments of ‘King and Country’.

But why is this information appearing in this blog now – more than 5 months after David Cameron’s speech?

In trying to understand how this narrative of national heritage might operate at differing scales more fully, it should be placed within an emerging story of devolution, and cast alongside an unfolding arena of competing national heritages within the British Isles more broadly. On the 21st March 2013, the Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, announced the date of the Referendum for Scottish Independence, which is to be held on 18th September 2014.

This referendum is perhaps one of the most significant events in the history of state government within these islands – and it is a vote that is being played out in the context of potentially competing versions of national heritage. First, the Referendum comes just a couple of months after Glasgow hosts the Commonwealth Games. This will see ‘Scotland’ competing independently on the sports field, and will possibly act as a totem of Scottish national galvanisation, akin to what the London Olympics did for ‘Britishness’ through ‘Team GB’ in 2012. Following the Opening Ceremony in London, therefore, we should perhaps prepare to see a show of Scottish heritage, supporting a national narrative of independence and distinction from England. In terms of commemoration, however, the key Scottish heritage event of 2014 will come on 24th June, which will see the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, perhaps the most famous victory of the ‘Scots’ over the ‘English’. In October 2012, as David Cameron was giving his speech in London about the First World War commemorations representing an opportunity for ‘British’ national reflection, the old Visitor Centre at Bannockburn, near Stirling, was preparing to close for redevelopment. The Scottish Government is spending £5 million, matched by £4.1 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund, building a new Visitor Centre at the site, to be opened in time for the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. See http://www.battleofbannockburn.com/Home/

The summer of 2014 will witness some interesting practices of ‘heritage soul searching’, in preparation for perhaps the most significant democratic vote over the very being of the nation state in the history of these islands. This is an unfolding heritage story that will be worth watching closely over the next 18 months.

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