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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 rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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