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One hundred years ago Britain was preparing to celebrate the third Christmas of the First World War. 1916 had been a difficult year. The great battles of the Somme and Jutland had been fought. Neither had been lost, but neither quite won either. Overall victory was not yet in sight. Britain’s resolve to win was not in doubt, but her stamina was being tested. It would not be until April 1917 that the United States would finally declare war on Germany.
A general sense that the country needed new leadership had led to the Prime Minister, H.H.Asquith, being pushed out of office and David Lloyd George installed in his place. Lloyd George moved swiftly to inject new energy into the war effort and took a grip on government by establishing the Cabinet Office and creating the position of Cabinet Secretary to lead it. The first Cabinet Secretary was the formidable Maurice Hankey, a former Royal Navy officer. This new department enabled the new Prime Minister to gain unprecedented control and oversight of the government.
One hundred years on Britain once again faces a great tussle with its European neighbours, this time peacefully. Once again it has chosen new leadership to meet the challenges. Like Lloyd George Theresa May and her team have moved swiftly to take a firm grip on the levers of power. This is to be welcomed.
The process of Brexit will absorb huge amounts of resolve and stamina before it is done. Fortunately Mrs May has plenty of both. She is going to need it because so far too few European leaders are suggesting a constructive response to the result of Britain’s referendum on membership of the EU.
Britain and her European neighbours are indispensable allies. Together we need to fashion a deal on how we can trade together and co-operate more effectively on essential areas such as security, border control and defence.
The omens should be good. Popular opinion is moving against the idea of open borders and a European super-state. Britons are not unique in their scepticism, it is simply that we are the only ones that have – so far – been allowed a vote. Continental European leaders need to face up to the fact that it is in their own national self-interest to do a Brexit deal with Britain in as positive and as swift a fashion as possible. There is much at stake, as the events of a century ago remind us.
In 1916 men were living and fighting in muddy trenches across Europe and fighting in different theatres around the world for Britain and for values not that far removed from those that bind us together today. Their political concerns were not so different to ours. They were worried about jobs, healthcare, schools and opportunity. This question – are the ‘elites’ taking advantage of their position – was valid then too.
What is most striking a century on is the extent to which qualities that might be termed British values have a stubborn habit of persisting. That includes an interest in fairness, modesty, healthy scepticism, respect for institutions, affection for the Queen, liberty, freedom to worship, and wanting and hoping for something better from our politicians. These qualities and more bind us through the generations. As does a persistent sense that Britain is strong and confident enough to stand as an independent nation and can stand up for itself when required to.
This Christmas over four and half thousand women and men of the Armed Forces will be on active duty throughout the holiday season. The Royal Navy, for example, will be deployed around the world in waters and on stations that would have been perfectly familiar to their 1916 forbears. Across the country the Church of England will welcome hundreds of thousands of people who find themselves drawn to its cathedrals and churches. Many MPs will continue to work and provide public service, make visits, respond to pleas for help, mostly unnoticed except by those directly involved. The police, fire and health services will be on call. All in their different ways responding to the need for public service and all fine examples of what it is to be British.