COLUMN-Lest we forget

london callingSunday last, I had the honour of joining 45 of my fellow Commonwealth high commissioners at the Cenotaph in London for the Remembrance Service. In a nine degrees Celsius temperature we gathered and stood at attention to honour the contribution of the Commonwealth forces and civilian personnel in the two World Wars.

Held at 11 a.m. on the second Sunday in November (the Sunday nearest to November 11, when the World War I Armistice went into effect at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month and all guns fell silent), a two-minute silence was observed before Her Majesty The Queen laid the first wreath to start the commemoration.

Other members of the Royal Family, including the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles and Prince William, along with the Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband joined the queen in laying wreaths.

Then in order of the dates of Independence, each high commissioner placed a poppy wreath inspired by the World War I poem In Flanders Fields:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

Church bells were rung half-muffled creating a sombre effect. Taps, “the bugler’s cry”, concluded the service sending its mournful sound drifting across the air, rousing all to remember these fallen heroes.

As this year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of Taps, the commemorations were particularly poignant. The Tower of London held a unique art exhibition entitled Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red. Created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins, 888,246 ceramic poppies, each representing a military fatality during World War I, were placed to fill the tower’s famous moat. They have each been paid for on behalf of a charity.

Poppies at the Tower
Poppies at the Tower

As I stood there, shoulder to shoulder with the other high commissioners, wreath in hand to pay tribute to our brave men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for king and country, I couldn’t help but consider the increasing number of young people from comfortable homes who seem oblivious to notions of service and sacrifice, and also those from developed, democratic societies who are being radicalized by extremists.

To counter the growing individualism and isolation of members of society, I would suggest that we need to reconsider the use of civic education to support the consolidation of our society and to sustain our constitutional democracy. This is important, I believe, as the habits of the mind, as well as habits of the heart, those characteristics that inform the democratic ethos and encourage social cohesion, are not inherited but must be infused.

The state and society –– Pride And Industry –– is not a machine that would go of itself, but must be consciously reproduced, one generation after another. Alexis de Toqueville, the French political thinker and historian, asserted that each new generation is a new people that must acquire the knowledge, learn the skills, and develop the dispositions or traits of private and public character that undergird a society and democracy. These must be fostered and nurtured by word, study, example and by the power of action.

Civic education, therefore, should be considered as a part of household and community nurturing and the national curricula as there are not many more significant tasks than the fostering of an informed, effective, and responsible citizenry. Parents, educators, policymakers, and members of civil and wider society are needed to support a civics agenda, without which the fundamental values and principles of democracy and of an open and cohesive society are hard to guarantee.

It is probably easier for a society to produce technically competent people than to maintain a social order in which rights are respected, individual dignity is acknowledged, the rule of law is observed, responsibilities willingly fulfilled by people, and in which the common good is the concern of all.

Civic knowledge is embodied in the form of three significant questions that should not only engage philosophers and politicians, but every thoughtful citizen. These questions are: what comprises civic life, politics, and government?  How does the constitution embody the purposes, values, and principles of our society and democracy? And, what are the roles and responsibilities of all citizens?

If Barbados is to maintain a strong and responsible democracy, a stable and heathy society, and a prosperous and growing economy, and also successfully navigate the major challenges at home and in the world, a well educated, informed and engaged populace, as obtained in the generations past, is a sine qua non.

If Barbadians, especially our younger generations, are to be prepared to participate effectively in our processes of democracy, function effectively in an increasingly diverse yet rapidly shrinking world, a new focus on citizenship will be required. Our generation of tomorrow needs to understand and accept their responsibilities and obligations as citizens of our fair land,    with pride and industry.

As, if to underscore the importance of yesteryear, I had the double delight of ending the day with a visit to Rita Griffith in Wembley. Originally a Straughn from Lyders Hill, St Philip, I joined her family to celebrate with her –– faculties and joie de vivre intact –– the milestone of her 100th birthday. As I spoke with her I couldn’t help but realize how much her past is indelibly linked to our future.

(Reverend Guy Hewitt is Barbados’ High Commissioner to London. The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity, and do not in any way represent the views of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or any other entity of the Government of Barbados.)

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