Should we really be making money out of the First World War anniversary?

A line is crossed when making money becomes a purpose – rather than a mere consequence – of commemorating WWI

Which event taking place in Britain this year promises to offer many "commercial opportunities", serve "as an economic driver", "contribute to the regeneration" and provide "a great opportunity to promote" a "wonderful town"? The 450th birthday of Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon, perhaps, or the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow? No. It's the anniversary of the start of the First World War.

It seems that wherever there is sombre remembrance, there is also a potential revenue stream to be tapped. London's Imperial War Museum is offering its centenary partners "unique commercial offers" and "commercial opportunities" tying in with the anniversary. Travel companies that take people to the battlefields of France and Belgium are set for a bumper year. And backers of Step Short, a charity that is erecting a memorial arch in Folkestone later this year at the cost of half a million pounds, look forward to it "attracting investment", "creating jobs" and contributing to "an expected growth in our own tourism".

Given the solemn nature of the anniversary, it is perhaps surprising there has not been more questioning of the marriage of commemoration and commerce. The only place where a real debate has opened up appears to be Folkstone, where a vocal minority has spoken out against what it sees as the distasteful inclusion of economic factors in building the new memorial. "I can't help feeling some disgust," writes Paul Brasington on a local website discussion thread. "This anniversary should be an occasion to honour the dead, but also to reflect soberly on their sacrifice and the leaders who sent them to their pointless deaths – but turning the anniversary into a tawdry competition for tourist revenue dishonours them on just about every level."

Although we should, indeed, be concerned about the monetisation of memorials, it's all too easy to rush into a misguided indignation whenever anyone profits from human suffering. Described that way, it sounds repulsive, but that is precisely what many good people do. Undertakers are the clearest example. Put bluntly, they earn a living – often a very good one – by providing a service to people in the depths of misery. We do not see anything wrong with this because that service is needed and undertakers are as entitled to a good quality of life as anyone else.

 

The same criteria – the needs for the service and for those providing it to earn a living – should be used as the benchmark for judging whether any other kind of profiting from death or suffering is morally objectionable.

Looked at in that light, much of the commercial activity surrounding the First World War anniversary appears to be legitimate. Take the battlefield tours, for example.

"If you go to Northern France and all the battlefield sites there, they're promoted, there are organised tours, many of them will have visitor centres with shops attached to them," says Damian Collins, Folkestone and Hythe's Conservative MP and chairman of Step Short. "Does that mean they are exploiting it, or does that mean there is a demand for these sorts of services, for people to know what facilities they've got and that they are available if people want them?"

Collins is right. Given that people want to visit the battlefields of Europe, it would seem odd to object if a private company helps them, with all due sensitivity, to do so. Saga Holidays, for example, tells me that it worked with the Passchaendaele Museum on its Road of Remembrance tour.

The museum asked Saga to help and encourage the descendants of those who died in the Battle of Passchaendaele to come forward with names, photos and items. This led to the holiday company working with Step Short to encourage customers to submit information in return for a genealogy service.

Similarly, although it may seem odd to hear the Imperial War Museum use the language of "commercial opportunities", these are serving the needs of education, remembrance and funding the continued work of the charity. "The merchandise we produce for all conflicts within our remit is aimed at engaging more and more people to understand the impact of war on people and society today, ensuring the stories of those affected are heard, as well as raising money so that IWM can continue its work for future generations," a museum spokesperson says.

"For every product we develop for sale, we are sympathetic to the tone of commemoration and remembrance and, as a registered charity, all proceeds from our retail sales go back directly into our work." The only partners who are entitled to sell its commemorative range are themselves non-profit-making.

However, a line is crossed when making money becomes a purpose rather than a mere consequence of commemoration. This was never the case in France and Belgium, where tourist services and facilities were provided in response to the demand created by the desire of visitors to go to the battlefields. Neither they nor the monuments were set up with the explicit purpose of creating that demand. As another local opponent of the Folkestone arch, Nick Spurrier puts it: "The Vimy Ridge, Thiepval and other monuments in France were not put there to attract spending tourists but only to commemorate the dead."

It would be unfair to claim that attracting tourists or personal financial gain is the motive for Step Short's project in Folkestone. "Step Short is a registered charity," its director Michael George tells me. "We do not make any profit and none of our volunteers makes any money out of our involvement. Quite the contrary: each of us has over the years put in our own money to pay for ongoing costs." However, once such factors become incorporated into the planning, the danger is that they skew priorities in the wrong ways. For instance, Step Short lists four factors it took into consideration when deciding upon the position of the new arch. One is "the tourist experience", including the fact that the arch would make "a stunning backdrop for photography and television broadcasts".

Concern about the foregrounding of economic benefits in the project's promotion need not assume any self-serving motives on the part of the people behind it. It does not so much cast the charity behind the arch in a bad light as shine a torch on the way in which our whole culture has been distorted so that everything we do has to be justified in terms of efficiency and economics. All Step Short has done is responded to this pressure to justify itself in financial terms. "No one would argue with the proposition that we would like to have funded the arch simply by inspiring people with our 'vision'," Michael George says. "But, equally, we had to be realistic and state that there might be a financial benefit to the town flowing from the arch and its associated events, activities and resources."

The charity's professional PR consultant – another sign of the times – puts it even more candidly. "If you're talking to the county council and saying will you help fund this thing, then they're interested in the economic benefit," Malcolm Triggs says. He talks of the need to "push the right buttons with the people you're talking to" and "tick the right boxes", saying it would be "unpragmatic" not to mention economic benefits if that would help achieve more philanthropic goals.

I think this points to a major cultural shift that has happened so gradually that we have not even noticed it. Although it is too much to suggest that nothing is done these days that doesn't have a profit motive – almost everything is expected to at least be able to make an economic case for itself. Over recent years, for instance, we have had reports claiming that every pound spent on the arts generates between two and four pounds in return. These claims can't possibly stack up. If true, then all any country would need to do to massively increase its national wealth would be to give away as much money as possible to artists. Arts groups leap on such reports because they help justify subsidy, but if you believe in the intrinsic value of culture for its own sake, it cannot be a good thing to try to justify arts spending on such narrow economic grounds. The more it becomes the norm to expect and accept such arguments, the harder it becomes to argue for spending on culture for its own sake.

Similarly, Universities UK's 2013 report, Why Government Must Invest in Universities, was all about the economic benefits of education, with claims such as "Universities generated £59bn output in 2009" and "Higher education is now a bigger industry in the UK than aircraft, agriculture or pharmaceuticals".

What is really worrying is just how natural this way of talking now sounds. Whereas once the economically reductive analyses of bean counters would have sounded odd, now it is those who talk of art, culture and education as valuable in their own right who sound old-fashioned and naive.

And yet there is hope that the tide is turning. The idea that GDP is not the sole or best measure of how much society is flourishing has moved from the sidelines to the very centre of government policy, with the Office for National Statistics now attempting to measure "National Well-being". The flaw in this enterprise is that, while it rejects money as the measure of all things, it still accepts the assumption that all that is important must be able to be captured in some kind of spreadsheet. Although it is a step in the right direction, the next move should be to have the courage to stand up and say that there are some things we value, things we will defend and promote, and we don't need statisticians to tell us what they are or to justify our commitment to them. In the meantime, the tragedy is that economic arguments are being used by people who believe in commemorating the First World War, increasing access to education, or promoting the arts for reasons that are not at all financial. Damian Collins, for instance, tells me: "We've got a proud tradition of public and private money being invested in the arts and heritage for its own sake."

So it seems that everyone is talking about the economic benefits because that is what they think others want to hear, yet few would actually agree that that is what really matters at all.

We have all been lulled into a game most of us have no desire to play. An economic case for cultural projects we value and even First World War commemorations can often be made, but perhaps it would be better if we chose not to make or hear it.

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