As we countdown the last few hours and minutes of 2018 and prepare for the first few of 2019 I hope that everyone will have a good start to 2019 and that whatever has happened in the last twelve months, that you will feel able to say goodbye to the past 364 days with a level of satisfaction. During the year I had the privilege to attend two weddings, both involving friends I have known for decades and three of my friends through work have had the pleasure of their families expanding following the birth of a child. However a much larger number of friends have lost a family member during 2018, so personally it has been a year of mixed experiences. I appreciate that for some readers, the year was much more positive and for others it would have been much sadder. Next year is bound to be full of opportunities and challenges on both a personal level and together as members of the British Nation with all of the elements of political, economic and social impact. I recall in early 2018 reflecting how this year was a centenary for the formal end to World War One and the beginning of universal suffrage. Although the first Armistice took place just over 100 years ago, the final elements of the war dragged into 1919 and the completion of universal suffrage did not take place until 1929 so next year marks 100 years from when the guns finally fell silent and 90 years from when all people, irrespective of their social setting were granted a vote.
It is easy when celebrating such substantial events to overlook the complex nature of what took place at the time. I am aware of two events that took place as part of World War One which involved a significant number of deaths of men who left behind small communities that were greatly isolated from the nations that they fought alongside. Both tragedies were caused by boats that sank in British waters. S.S. Mendi sank in February 1917 close to the Isle of Wight, drowning over 600 South Africans who despite their prominence at home were being brought over to France to simply dig our trenches. There is a memorial in Newtimber which was established a few years ago when some of my friends returned from a visit to a rural area of South Africa which up until that point had felt that the deaths of their families had been ignored by both Governments. The Governor General of South Africa during the war was Lord Buxton whose home was in Newtimber at the time which is why the memorial was established in his village. The other ship that sunk was HM Yacht Iolaire which ran aground 100 years ago tomorrow morning as it approached Stornoway Harbour in the Scottish Island of Lewis. Tragically the 204 men from Harris and Lewis who died 100 years ago were sailing on a boat that was designed to accommodate around 100 passengers. They had all travelled from France at the end of the war and reached the Kyle of Lochalsh by train where together they boarded the boat to complete the final 90 mile leg of their journey home. Their families were at the harbour when the yacht ran aground a mile away. The total population of the two linked islands was 30,000 and prior to the sinking 1000 had already died during the war. There is no obvious link between Sussex and the Outer Hebrides or the Islands and rural South Africa, however let us not ignore such tragedies as we mark the end of the centenary of events.
As the World War One centenary events end with a need for us to begin to focus on sustaining peace throughout Europe and beyond, the universal suffrage anniversary present us with opportunities to spend the next decade demanding a paradigm shift in our current democracy. There are many examples we can focus on such as how recent Governments have attempted to assess their educational provision using crude statistics such as exam and SAT results and school attendance data. This risks ignoring the real issues which impact families that struggle to get their children to school each day and create the head space for them to listen to and learn from their teachers. Meanwhile the current Government has committed to spend £50m on 16 Grammar Schools to allow them to expand and a mere £50k to every secondary school and £10k to every primary school for their ‘little extras’. This implies a grammar school is worth 62 secondary schools or 313 primary schools in the mindset of our current Government!