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Laurie Penny: Poppy Day is the opium of the people

A million paper flowers will never be enough to mop up the carnage of war.

On a rainy Thursday in Cheshire, at a base belonging to Europe's largest arms dealer, veterans laid down paper poppies in memory of fallen soldiers. This was no protest, however: BAE systems, a prominent supporter of the Royal British Legion's annual Poppy Appeal, cheerfully hosted the solemn ceremony to mark the beginning of the Appeal at its Radway Green facility.

Officials from the arms and munitions company, which rakes in billions from international wars and is subsidised by the British government, watched as servicemen and schoolchildren planted crosses in front of the base. The awkwardness of their presence passed unnoticed in a country that seems to have fundamentally misunderstood the nature of remembrance.

It might seem a little disrespectful to describe Remembrance Sunday and the rash of poppies that precedes it as "just show business", but that is precisely how Harry Patch, the final survivor of the 1914-1918 war, characterised the ceremonies in his memoir, The Last Fighting Tommy. Patch died last year at the age of 111; there is now nobody left living who truly remembers the futility of the war that sustains our patriotic imagination. Remembrance Day has been expanded to commemorate all fallen British servicemen and women, but in practice the events of the day focus on the two World Wars -- and no wonder.

British children are raised on the mythology of those wars, in part because, particularly in the case of the Second World War, there were clear moral and practical reasons why conflict was unavoidable, and more to the point, we won. Neither of these things can be said of the desert wars currently providing BAE with a healthy market for their wares. Soaked n the powerful narrative of righteous heroism, the poppy of remembrance has become a fig-leaf for the overseas military interests of successive governments.

There are good reasons to donate to the Royal British Legion, especially with government support for veterans so notoriously constipated, but poppy-wearing, especially by public officials, is tainted with hypocrisy. The poppy was chosen as an euphemistic symbol of the horrors of war by a generation for whom those horrors were all too immediate; it should be doubly offensive, then, that almost a century later members of the British administration wear poppies while sending young people to fight and die far from home for causes they barely comprehend.

It is understandable that friends and relatives of the fallen might wish to find meaning and purpose in the offensive futility of war. It is unforgivable that governments and businesses should seek to do the same. It behoves our leaders to be mindful of the ugly, unsentimental nature of conflict, but instead the mounting death toll is listed with precisely the sort of macabre piety that horrified Private Patch. When the human wastage of a body count becomes an emotional excuse for continuing a military offensive, in order to properly honour the fallen it's time to question our attitudes to war.

"Sacrifice" is the word continually used to associate this cynical and relentless carnage with public nostalgia for the glory of past victories. There are, however, two meanings to the word. One can sacrifice, in the sense of willingly giving one's life for a cause, or one can be a sacrifice, offered up for slaughter by one's betters in the name of God, or greed, or homeland.

It is this second understanding of sacrifice that we should bear in mind this poppy day. Even in the First World War, not all of the men and boys shot by their own side for cowardice or driven out "like cattle", in Wilfred Owen's words, in front of the German machine guns, died with future generations in mind. Not all of them bled willingly, for king and country; some of them simply bled because they had been seriously injured, because their leaders deemed it appropriate for them to die in pain and terror. A million paper flowers, rooted in the dark earth of this country's frantic military self- fashioning, will never be enough to mop up the carnage.

Of course, there are those for whom the paper poppy is undesirable by virtue of being rather too declasse. If you're one of them, you might consider going all out and purchasing a poppy pin encrusted with Swarovski crystals, as Simon Cowell and Cheryl Cole have just done. What more fashionable way could there be to pay tribute to the unnecessary slaughter of millions than with a sparkly bit of political bling?

As we celebrate another Remembrance Sunday, we should remember that the politicians wearing red flowers in Whitehall have cheerfully authorised the decimation of jobs, welfare and public education in order to defend Britain's military spending and nuclear arsenal and offer tax breaks for business. They have sacrificed the life chances of a generation of young and working-class people while making rhetorical sops towards "the national interest", and that is not remembrance, nor is it any way to honour the memory of the Great Generation. That, in fact, is "just show business".

A version of this column appears in this week's magazine.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.