Jayne Dowle: Why shops should shut on Armistice Day

POLITICIANS may be dragging their feet, but all the arguments I see are in favour. This November, in a one-off coincidence, Remembrance Sunday and the centenary of the First World War coming to an end will fall on the same day.

Should shops shut to mark the centenary of the Armistice?
Should shops shut to mark the centenary of the Armistice?

It’s worth reminding ourselves of the significance of this. The end of the First World War, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, is Armistice Day. However, Remembrance Sunday does not always fall on this date.

More importantly, never again will we be able to mark the centenary of the conflict which pulled apart the world and put it back together again with all its scars.

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That’s why leading military chiefs – and a growing swell of the public – are calling for this date to be marked by a public holiday so shops, public amenities and businesses can close as a mark of respect.

Holiday may be handy shorthand, but it’s the wrong word. It’s more of a national day of reflection to allow us all a moment to step back, take stock and consider the sacrifices which were made in the names of freedom and democracy.

In fact, although this year it would be underlined with extra poignancy and significance, why shouldn’t we make it a special day every year?

After all, Armistice Day is already a public holiday in France and America, where it’s known as Veterans’ Day. Whether we end up out of Europe or in the arms of the USA, we’re out of step. Both nations have a healthy attitude towards public holidays in general, whereas our own still holds a kind of grudging Gradgrindish tolerance.

The Bank Holidays Act hasn’t been significantly updated since Victorian times when workers were grudgingly allowed paid time off to celebrate Christmas and Easter and take a charabanc to the seaside in May or August.

Give or take the odd Royal Wedding or a national day of mourning for a monarch or Winston Churchill, our governments have never been known for their munificence in this respect. You may remember the controversy when the Princess of Wales died in 1997 and neither Ministers nor Buckingham Palace allowed her passing to be marked with an official gesture towards those who wished to pay their respects.

Times have changed. Events at home and abroad have brought about a nation more given to communal commemoration and a need to mark a solemn occasion together. We hold vigils for the victims of terrorist attacks and lay flowers for those who have died in tragic situations, such as the devasting fire at Grenfell Tower last year. Why shouldn’t an Armistice Day in the dark depths of November become a focus to remember all whom we have lost?

With respect to Lord Nelson, it would have much more significance than Trafalgar Day. Not least because relations with our European cousins would hardly be improved right now by reminding them of the superiority Britain held in the world in 1805.

Every so often, the House of Commons seems to get excited about adding October 21, the date on which Nelson led the British fleet to victory against the French and Spanish, to our meagre roster of public and Bank Holidays.

When the debate reared its head a couple of years ago, the then Portsmouth South Conservative MP Flick Drummond said: “If we do have a Trafalgar Day holiday I hope it will be a time for refection and an opportunity to teach the next generation about the horrors of war.”

Ms Drummond had a point, but she picked the wrong battle. Trafalgar will never be forgotten, but the First World War makes an impact on young people that should not be underestimated. They look at those sepia-tinged photographs of young men conscripted to die on the Somme and see their own faces looking back.

If you don’t believe that, just show them the estimable film of Michael Morpurgo’s novel War Horse and wait for the questions. My son, Jack, studied this text for both his drama and English GCSEs recently, and also covered the First World War and Treaty of Versailles in history.

Like many youngsters, he has a desperate need to learn about the country he lives in. What better way to foster this sense of national pride than a day set aside to think about all that makes us what we are? Our children could carry it forward to their children too.

Not that it should be entirely introspective. Armistice Day could be the springboard for greater connectivity with the Commonwealth countries who gave their troops to fight common cause.

And yes, I do know November 11 will leave just 44 shopping days to Christmas. If retailers complain about losing trade, they should be reminded that some have the audacity now to open on Christmas Day. And if shoppers don’t like the fact that the retail park or mall may be shut, they could always go online.