Tag Archives: war

Why I haven’t worn a poppy this year

NaBloPoMo November 2012I’ve always been a supporter of Remembrance Sunday and have never held much truck with this white poppy nonsense that has always seemed more like a pose than a genuinely ethical position. This is because, for me at least, the day has always represented a reflection on the awfulness of war and the sacrifice that everyone pays – be they soldier, conscientious objector or civilian – when it sweeps across the world. It’s a act of solidarity, and walking around with a white poppy has always seemed, intentional or not, like flicking a v-sign at anyone who wishes to participate in a collective national experience. But I didn’t wear a poppy this year (although I did stand for the two minute silence despite not thinking I would).

There are two main reasons for this. The first is my shock and disgust last month at learning that Sir John Kiszely, the then President of the Royal British Legion, had been caught on camera offering to lobby government ministers at “boring” remembrance events on behalf of one of his prospective clients as a lobbyist (in this case a fake company pretending to be attempting to sell the UK government military drone aircraft). He swiftly resigned and no one at any stage suggested that the Royal British Legion in any way condoned his actions, but what does it say about the organisation that such a man was free to rise to their most senior and prominent position? Either way, I don’t think this scandal received anything like the level of attention that it deserved.

The second is this discussion about marking the centenary of the First World War, which appears to be big on history, looking backwards and even producing a kind of theme park version of the war, complete with poppy fields and token football matches, all of which looks suspiciously like a celebration. After 2012, I’ve truly had enough of all this bread and circus business and am weary of the prospect of turning such an important occasion into yet another backslapping jamboree.

As we approach the centenary, the key question we need to ask is what the purpose of remembrance is once the generation that made that sacrifice are all dead? This is universally true in the case of the first world war and increasingly so in the case of the second. Walking through Kings Cross station yesterday, I was struck at how they’d got Barbara Windsor to be the “voice” of the poppy appeal – she was 8 at the end of WW2, and far more associated with the swinging sixties. However well intentioned, having someone like that simply lacks the resonance of, say, Thora Hird.

Over the course of my life, the TV coverage of Remembrance Sunday has shifted from pictures of a dwindling parade of war veterans to pictures of a bunch of politicians doing their best to look solemn. We seem to be sleepwalking on with an annual ceremony which no longer has the same meaning, and yet there is no attempt to take a comprehensive look at how we might make it matter for a new generation. What has happened instead is that an event that was supposed to mark a dreadful, world changing war, and which could conceivably be expanded to commemorate its depressing sequel 20 years later, has come to be used to mark the low and steady hum of military conflicts which the UK as periodically get itself embroiled in in the 65 years since.

We talk about “sacrifice” but that word has acquired a different meaning over the years. 90 years ago, people were talking about the self-sacrifice of a few for the benefit of the many. But the sacrifice that is being made now looks suspiciously more like a more Old Testament style sacrifice: a blood letting to appease the Gods and maintain the status quo.

The 20th century World Wars weren’t about fighting for the status quo, regardless of the hopes of those in power at the time. Their great cost lead to a social revolution, and rightly so. Are we really that comfortable about investing its legacy into the hands of a few politicians and professional tinpot generals (I originally wrote “professional soldier” but none of the people I’m referring to have seen the front line in decades)? What was meant to be a communal event has been privatised by stealth.

Remembrance Sunday’s meditation of the dreadfulness of war has been replaced by a focus on its inevitability and relentlessness. I find that a troubling shift and an effective takeover by an industry and professional class with an interest in its continuance.

Would I be endorsing all this if I wore a poppy? No, but it’s enough to make me want to abstain for at least one year. I only hope that over the next couple of years we can, as a nation, get our heads together and subvert David Cameron’s Theme Park Centenary with something more sombre – perhaps the cancellation of the Trident replacement? That, at least, would mean something.

Oh what a lovely war!

It is possible to forgive Gordon Brown a lot. It is possible to argue (and, however incredibly, there remain people within the Labour Party who do) that Brown really does believe in things like justice, liberty and democracy. The problem is, the argument goes, that the perfidious media and electorate won’t let him promote an unashamedly progressive agenda and so he is forced to do the best under the circumstances.

If you squint a little bit, you can just about see where this argument is coming from. Sure, inequality and attacks on civil liberties have increased over the past 12 years, but look at the minimum wage, tax credits and the human rights act. These may have been ineffective, but at least his heart’s in the right place. Right?

To know the true mind of Gordon Brown one must do more than just scratch the surface. But some statements reveal rather more than he would perhaps like to be shown. Not every statement needs to be spun. Such is the case with Gordon Brown’s tribute to Harry Patch, who died over the weekend:

I think it’s right we as a nation have a national memorial service to remember the sacrifice and all the work that was done by those people who served our country during world war one and to remember what we owe to that generation – our freedom, our liberties, the fact that we are a democracy in the world. Those men and women did a huge amount and it’s right that he have a special commemoration of what they have done.

I can’t really better Martin Kettle’s rebuttal of the claim that we can attribute “our freedom, our liberties, the fact that we are a democracy in the world” to the successful outcome of World War One but I have a few thoughts of my own.

Firstly, the adventurism of the first World War killed off the first attempt to build a welfare state almost stone dead and it was not revived for another thirty years. By the twenties, many of the post-1908 gains were being subjected to means tests and being curtailed. The means to pay for it – a land value tax on wealth (not incomes – a real threat to the landed classes that they have managed to stop in the decades hence) – was quashed before it could even be properly introduced. The momentum for House of Lords reform was lost. Some might argue that what we got in exchange was women’s suffrage, but you could equally argue that the war merely postponed it.

Of course, it is quite possible that none of these things would have happened even if the war hadn’t happened. Certainly, no-one living in the early 20th century can be under any illusions about how excellent the establishment is at stifling reform. But one thing is unarguable, and that is that the first World War lead directly to the second. The men and women who fought that war really were fighting for our liberty (although that too can be overstated), but they shouldn’t have had to. And the millions who were slaughtered by the Nazis died senselessly. It is hard to see how any of this would have happened if we hadn’t chosen to bankrupt Germany in 1918.

This isn’t to dismiss the bravery of men like Harry Patch and Henry Allingham or to somehow present them as traitors and war criminals in the way that the far left and the greens are determined to present our troops today. But they didn’t fight “for” liberty and democracy. If it can be said that they fight for anything it was the last hurrah of British imperialism, something which we can be grateful is now dead. We need to remember and commemorate them because it must never be allowed to happen again. For Gordon Brown to recast history in this way on the day that the last witness to events has passed away is nothing less than grotesque. It speaks volumes about Labour’s own enthusiasm for military adventurism and demonstrates his unsuitability to the job of Prime Minister.

15 February 2003: five years (and 11 days) later

Charles Kennedy and Lynne Featherstone at the 15 Feb 2003 anti-war demo (credit: Lynne Featherstone)A combination of Valentine’s Day, a business trip and subsequent workload conspired to prevent me from writing about my experiences of the 2003 anti-war demo, but I’m taking the trouble to do so now. This is partly to provide people to an archive of the old website I set up for the day, which five years on is something of an historical archive. But it is also because, missing the anniversary aside, I believe there is something to learn from the experience.

Basically, I learnt three important things from the demo and its aftermath. The first lesson I learnt, which you will be able to vouch for, is that I really needed to learn how to design websites properly. My attempt at a website was frankly laughable – the entire thing is written in HTML (no CSS) and I had to resort to crude third party sites just to set up a working form. As I was manually inputting each pledge I received, I ended up getting swamped; the list on the website was dwarfed by the number of pledges and messages of goodwill I ended up receiving and not having the time to include. A few years later and I’m still learning, but I have at least got my head around CSS and PHP (just about), even if I’m still stubbornly appalling at planning my projects.

Secondly, I could no longer ignore the fact that the hard left is riven with dangerous arseholes who you should at all times be wary of working with. On anything. To be fair, I had broadly got this message during my university days, but my participation in the Leamington Spa Stop the War group rather reinforced this notion.

At university I learned that if you stood in a student union election against a member of the hard left and won, you were likely to get your head kicked in. I also learned about what I’ve come to learn is affectionately known as TIGMOO. Basically, if you are part of this great, glorious, socialist-labour movement you are One Of Us (even if we hate your guts), while if you aren’t you are The Enemy (even if we agree with 90% of what you say). Not so much my enemy’s enemy is my friend as my enemy is my friend as long as he can recite a couple of verses from the Internationale. Oh, the hours I wasted attempting to negotiate joint working relationships with SWPers and AWLers on issues such as tuition fees only to discover they had cooked something up behind our backs with the Labour Club which enabled both Labour and their hard left comrades to save face (even if it meant a stalemate). But I digress.

My working relationship with the Leam lot was actually quite good in the run up to the march itself. I spent a lot of my Saturdays helping to run the stall outside Woollies and a lot of my Sundays attending organising meetings. It was all good.

The problems started when the war began. In short, it emerged that a number of my comrades could not have been happier that it had happened (anyone else remember the banner greeting people as they arrived at Hyde Park on 15/2 confidently predicting that this was the beginning of the rise of the proletariat? In your dreams). At a time when the rest of us were contemplating defeat, they had got a second wind. It was all talk of demos, shutting down the town centre and vandalising the rail lines. Revolution was in the air bruvvas! Those of us who thought it would be more appropriate to hold vigils rather than demos were laughed out of the community centre.

The final straw for me, not surprisingly, was when it was “decided” that the Leam Stop the War Coalition would be supporting the Socialist Alliance in the local elections. So much for coalition (this is why I can only laugh hollowly at Alex Harrowell’s suggestion that we should offer the SWP uncritical solidarity in a stand against the “Right”. As if the SWP would do the same for anyone else!).

But thirdly, the most important thing I learned from the demo was the craven desire for what it regards as respectability of much of the Lib Dem establishment. Read the motion that Susan Kramer and I proposed to the Federal Executive and got passed nem con. To our surprise, Charles Kennedy backed the motion. Then the trouble started. If dealing with the SWP was difficult, getting our own party to implement an executive order was downright impossible!

Senior figures in the party did everything they could to stop any aspect of this motion from being implemented. They point blank refused to put anything up on the party website, hence my own ham-fisted attempt. They wouldn’t link to my site, with Chris Rennard suddenly coming up with a policy that official party website only linked to websites run by party Specified Associate Organisations. 24 hours later, I got the then LDYS Chair to agree to “publish” the website, rendering that particular “policy” meaningless.

Eventually, after weeks of lobbying (and I should make it clear here that it is Donnachadh McCarthy who deserves all the credit here; I merely skulked around in the background), and with less than a week to go before the demo itself, Kennedy was asked a direct question by David Frost on live television and, bottling it, turned volte face and said he would be “very happy” to go on it. Suddenly we got our link on the front page of the party website, publicity in Lib Dem News (which until that point had been relegated to the letters pages) and the full weight of the party’s campaigns and press departments behind us.

Yet even then Kennedy remained obsessed with having it both ways. Notoriously, his Hyde Park speech argued meekly that he was “not persuaded” of the case for war and demanding that Parliament be allowed a vote (it was; the troops went in). But the biggest single joke of the day had to be the row over placards. On the one hand, I have to admit to being vaguely amused by Donnachadh’s green piety by insisting that we should have generic “Lib Dems say no” placards on the basis that they could be reused by activists for local demonstrations on a variety of subjects (an Iain Paisley revival meeting for instance). But that paled into insignificance compared to the desperately weak “official” campaigns department placards they were insistent must surround Kennedy at all times with the oh-so-unambivalent slogan “give peace a chance!” (John Lennon has a lot to answer for for his particular brand of faux-radicalism).

The fact that, even at such a late stage, we were having such mind-numbingly daft arguments demonstrated quite how uncomfortable the party establishment was with going on this march at all. If we hadn’t dragged them, kicking and screaming, they would never have gone near it. Yet for all that, it was the symbolism of Kennedy joining the march that mattered – even his compromised speech and even more compromised policy motion at the subsequent spring conference (in which they insisted on wording that confusingly seemed to suggest that our opposition to the war would end the moment a British troop set foot on Iraqi soil) didn’t stop the party’s rise in the polls. For a brief period and not for either the first or last time, the Lib Dems truly spoke on behalf of the majority of the nation.

Does all this still matter? After all, it’s all water under the bridge now. Speaking personally, it goes to the heart of the ongoing debate waging over the party’s identity. Reading Ming Campbell’s rather self-justifying account of Kennedy’s drink problem in the Mail yesterday, I was struck by how many chances they gave the man to acquit himself despite the fact that he consistently let them – us – down. I’m afraid I have to agree with Anthony Barnett – just think of the progress we would have made in 2005 if Kennedy had either sorted himself out or been given the heave-ho much earlier (who would have replaced him is a moot point – it certainly wouldn’t have been Campbell who was still recovering from cancer at the time).

I wonder what all this pressure to keep up appearances had on Kennedy’s then-PPS Mark Oaten, and how his personal downfall is related. I hear Lib Dems continue to insist the party is in the all-clear over the Michael Brown donation and boggle (we may yet not have to pay up, but the law is quite ambiguous and the investigation continues). I welcome the anti-establishment stance Nick Clegg has adopted over ID cards, only to see that undone by his uber-establishment stance on the Lisbon Treaty (as for his line on Michael Martin, the stuff about air miles etc. is broadly irrelevant; the fact that Martin has consistently been behind attempts to block transparency and reform should be enough to prevent Clegg dismissing it all as a “witch hunt”).

I recall the cold shoulder I received, again back in 2003, when I formally complained to then Chief Whip Andrew Stunell about Paul Marsden‘s comments in the Times bragging about how researchers are desperate to climb his greasy poll, and I wonder. Marsden isn’t the first Lib Dem MP to get caught out diddling the help (although thankfully he’s the only one to write poems on the subject) I’ve heard about during the years either. If a senior Lib Dem official was ever found to be, say, a kiddie fiddler, would we take action? At what point does an individual’s personal conduct become so unacceptable that they are forced out? My concern is that the party’s collective neurotic obsession with respectability too often leads us down some very dark alleys.

As a party we have always been, and for the forseeable future will continue to be, permanently at five minutes to midnight. I’m not convinced the meekness in our approach has done much in the past to rectify this situation. Over the past couple of years we have reaped what we sowed by not dealing with issues when they arose. Clegg ought to be taking copious notes. I like to think he won’t make the same mistakes as the past, and despite my own misgivings the fact remains that the Lisbon Treaty is an issue which the public stubbornly refuses to take an interest in. But we need a few more brave stances and a bit less nuance.

A final word on Donnachadh McCarthy. The Iraq demo was the beginning of the end of Donnachadh’s time in the Liberal Democrats. Despite the fact that I think he made some shocking mistakes (if he had kept his powder dry following the march instead of demanding recriminations he would have found himself in an incredibly strong position – indeed his lack of any sense of timing always was his greatest weakness), he really was appallingly treated and bullied by the top ranks in the party. He seems to be much better off without the party than the party is without him. It is deeply sad that ultimately we seem incapable of keeping someone like that within our own ranks; whatever you may have thought of him there are far worse people who happily remain party members.

Being clear about the SWP

What is Alex Harrowell on? He has taken it upon himself to take me to task for calling Respect-cum-Conservative defector Ahmed Hussain a “socialist jihadist“, describing me as “offensive, stupid, illiberal and anti-democratic, not to mention libellous.” Well, I’ve been called worse.

If I had been shooting a little less from the lip, I would have been more precise in my language and described Hussain as a socialist and an apologist for jihadism, but if this disagreement boiled down to pure semantics, it probably wouldn’t have got this far: the essential difference between a jihadist and one who makes excuses for them is a fine one indeed. Harrowell demands I show my evidence. It isn’t difficult:

So the war in Iraq will continue. But what attitude should the global anti-war movement take towards the fighting? Many activists are wary of backing the insurgents, both because figures such as al-Sadr are Islamists and because of the tactics—suicide bombings and hostage takings—that some groups have used.

But as Walden Bello of Focus on the Global South points out, “There has never been any pretty movement for national liberation or independence.”

During the great Algerian war of independence of 1954-62, liberation fighters waged an urban guerrilla war that frequently targeted civilians.

“What Western progressives forget is that national liberation movements are not asking them mainly for ideological or political support,” says Bello. “What they really want from the outside is international pressure for the withdrawal of an illegitimate occupying power, so that internal forces can have the space to forge a truly national government.”

Let’s be clear here: whatever the rights and wrongs of the Iraqi invasion – and I am certainly of the opinion that we should not have gone in, the effect was to remove a dictator. It quickly became clear that jihadists were seeking to exploit the situation and impose their own bloody version of government on the Iraqis, a system not supported by the vast majority. They aren’t revolutionaries, they aren’t freedom fighters – they are totalitarians. The SWP are also strong supporters of Hizbollah.

As for providing proof that the SWP advocate violent revolutionary struggle, do I really have to spell it out? Apart from both the links supplied above, there is the simple fact that the SWP is a Trotskyist organisation. Trotsky was a believer in revolution. There ain’t no such thing as an unviolent revolution. Is that really such a contestable fact? If the SWP don’t contest it, then why does Harrowell?

And then of course there is the brute fact (pun intended) of the bruises inflicted on my friends by SWPers for wicked crimes such as beating them in a student union election. For too many SWP members and other Trots, the revolution part is distinctly subordinate to the violent part.

Harrowell then outdoes himself:

But it’s worse than that; the very notion that, as Graham says, there is a “difference between the Lib Dem opposition to the war and the Respect opposition” is repellent. We both opposed it because it was wrong and it was stupid. It has however been a consistent tactic of the Right, and of the Government’s pet columnists, to accuse opponents of the war of being pro-terrorist. It’s always been easier to push this at RESPECT because its membership includes the far Left, who are not respectable, and brown people. But push it they would at the Liberals if there were only more of us.

Wow – I’m part of some grand rightwing conspiracy? News to me. I’m sorry, but there was a difference between the Lib Dem position and Respect/Socialist Alliance/SWP’s. They wanted British troops marched up to the Hague for war crimes; we wanted them home and safe. They sidled up in solidarity with Saddam Hussain; we didn’t. Once the war ended and the insurgency began, we lined ourselves up in solidarity with the democratically elected government; they sided with the insurgents. We are under no compulsion to join hands with the SWP in opposition to the “right” – in the vast majority of cases, we are on the opposite side. To accuse me of racism (that’s the clear implication of the “brown people” reference) is deeply offensive and a slur I would ask him to retract.

Not content with hurling every other name under the sun at me, he also has taken to accusing me of McCarthyism. How he is wrong is quite instructive: Joe McCarthy went around accusing everyone he didn’t like of having secret links with communism and plotting against America. The SWP are communists and are actively plotting against the British state – they don’t exactly make a secret of it. It is awfully inconvenient to Harrowell’s thesis then that I am not calling for them to be locked up or otherwise restricted, merely pointing out that which is blindingly obvious.

Valentine’s Day, a business trip on Friday and other stuff today have conspired to prevent me from writing the “15/2/03 – five years on” article I intended to. It is sad that this is the closest I’ve come to commemorating what was a very special day for me. The Liberal Democrats were absolutely right to go on that march. But do we owe the SWP a thing? Not a bit of it.

Charley Junior’s School Days

I’ve just come across this public information film from 1949 (or try here) about the post-war education reforms. With hindsight, I’m a bit ambivalent about the politics, but the sentiment is touching, and the quality of the animation is breath-taking.

Remember: this is a public information film. I was looking for a different one involving a certain Charley.

UPDATE: I’m trawling through the Public Information Film National Archive – it’s fantastic!

Oliver Kamm: wrong then, wrong now

Oliver Kamm is predicting doom and gloom about political blogs again:

The blogosphere, in short, is a reliable vehicle for the coagulation of opinion and the poisoning of debate. It is a fact of civic life that is changing how politics is conducted – overwhelmingly for the worse, and with no one accountable for the decline.

I’ve written before about why I feel that both sides of this particular debate have got it hopelessly wrong. The dirt-flinging that has become associated with blogs is neither particularly representative nor new. Guido Fawkes is just the 21st century equivalent of 19th century Punch, only with poorer penetration and fewer readers. Every national newspaper has its own diary column. The newspapers of the 90s were full of stories about sleaze and scandal.

Neither does it appear to be particularly blogs that Kamm has a problem with: his real beef is with comments. This isn’t new either: newspapers have always had letters pages filled with ill-informed nonsense, and they’ve always been one of the most popular sections. Most newspapers now allow you to add comments to their news stories, and the BBC has had its own forums and ‘have your say’ for years. The fact that these things quickly become shouting matches is not particularly revelatory or interesting: only a vanishingly small number of people read that 245th comment saying exactly the same thing.

Poor political weblogs are characterised by one thing: no-one reads them. It is thus hard to see how they are can be having a particularly pernicious effect on society. Popular blogs like Guido’s are a mixed blessing, to be sure, but it is giving Paul Staines far too much credit to suggest he is doing anything particularly innovative other than getting stories a few hours before newspaper diarists get their hands on them. Worse, his Newsnight appearance has made him look a fool and I suspect that even his most fervent supporter will take his ‘exclusives’ with a pinch more salt from now on.

In short, freedom of speech has won out once again in, as the saying goes, letting us know who the arseholes are. In the short term it can give us cause for concern and thus people tend to go off in a panic from time to time about it, but the alternative would be far worse.

Personally I’ve noticed a slight improvement in the nature of the political debate on the blogosphere compared to, say, four years ago when I first started to blog. Put simply, there are now a lot more bloggers out there and it is easier to ignore people and them ignore you. I’m sure I can’t be the only person who primarily reads blogs as a useful means of filtering the news – I’m under no illusions about the newsworthiness of what most of us write.

The real reason for Kamm writing this piece (other than the fact he got paid for it of course) is simply to lob dirt at people with whom he was having shouting matches with three-four years ago. As a member of the pro-war left, he took it upon himself to explain to us why the Iraq war was an excellent idea and a means for spreading democracy across the Middle East. The fact is he has lost that argument, but rather than admit defeat he has chosen to attack the medium rather than the message.

More comment: Tim Worstall, Matthew Turner, Iain Dale, Reactionary Snob

Poppies

The white poppy raises its annual slow news day head. Personally I think this is self-righteousness gone loopy. Yes, of course peace is a Good Thing. But remembrance is a day to pay homage to those people who, for better or worse, have been killed in war in our names. Wear your white poppy on World Peace Day – don’t hijack somebody else’s day.

The real issue regarding red poppies as far as I’m concerned is how come they’re still so, well, primitive. Since I was a child, the plastic poppy has undergone two innovations: firstly they’ve added a little clip to make it slightly harder for the thing to slip off, and secondly they’ve added a green paper leaf. Fundamentally, the things still fall off at the drop of the hat thanks to the totally impractical pin you attach to your clothing and are only really practical for certain modes of dress (e.g. jeans. a hoodie and a tshirt)

At the very least, why can’t poppy sellers offer safety pins? Even better, couldn’t they also sell badges?

I’m not asking for the British Legion to turn remembrance Sunday into the equivalent of Red Nose Day, but one or two sops to modernity would probably help them immensely.

Foxwit

You’ve got to be pretty bloody barking to be able to make Jack Straw look like a liberal by comparison. Fortunately however, we have Tory MPs Julian Lewis and Liam Fox. This pair of halfwits are calling for the BBC to be bitchslapped over their decision to broadcast an interview with a Taliban leader.

I watched that interview. It was part of a piece that was very sympathetic to the British troops in Helmand province. It illustrated only too well of the sort of people they are up against. How Lewis and Fox thought this equated to broadcasting terrorist propaganda is anyone’s guess.

It brings back memories of the 1980s when the Tories banned Sinn Fein’s voices from being broadcast, leading to all the news agencies broadcasting footage of Gerry Adams and co with their voices dubbed by actors. Utter moronic, and illiberal, stupidity.

This isn’t just some dinosaur backbencher spouting off. This is Cameron’s hand-picked defence spokesperson. This is what Cameronian Conservativism is all about: be nice to gays (although not that nice), but ban freedom of the press. And chocolate oranges of course.

Another Labour Loophole

I’m not sure the government have thought this through properly.

Surely, we are bound to see hundreds of rich millionaires sign up to fight in the worst warzones on Earth so they can enjoy tax exempt status?

I mean seriously, would you want to see people such as Philip Green and Richard Branson being shot at and fighting for their lives 24/7 in the depths of Afghanistan?

Actually, come to think of it, maybe it isn’t such a bad idea.