Occupation protests and poppies can mix

The St Pauls demonstrators are remembering how the peace was won after the great wars of the 20th Ce

Given their timing, it was inevitable that there would be a clash between our annual ceremonies of national remembrance and the Occupy London protest. In the past few days many newspapers have begun to allude to this, casting the situation as one where protest and remembrance were mutually exclusive.

The Mail lead the charge on 24th October, invoking St Paul's Cathedral as a symbol of the "nation's Blitz spirit". On the 25th October, the Express quoted Conservative MP Priti Patel saying that protestors should "think twice" due to the "significance of St Pauls as we head into the Remembrance service period".

"TENTS STAND-OFF ON REMEMBRANCE DAY", screamed the Star. The inference underlying all this is that the protestors are disrespectful as well as deluded. Nigel Farage, Ukip leader, put it more plainly: the protestors should "do the decent thing" and leave. This atmosphere has only been heightened by the language used in some comment, where the protest is described as a "siege". You are invited to imagine the dome of St Paul's standing defiant among dark clouds, as in Herbert Mason's famous 1940 photograph.

It's not surprising that an alleged threat to the Remembrance Day service could raise strong emotions, even though the protestors themselves have repeatedly stated that they have no intention of keeping the Cathedral closed. The idea of sacrifice - and of the commemoration of that sacrifice - is still a culturally potent force, as our nearly-annual debate over public figures' poppy-wearing choices shows. We cannot, and perhaps should not, argue with the need for commemoration - remembering the thousands of lives snuffed out. Although St Pauls was, in some respects, an accidental choice of venue for Occupy London, interference with this is something the protestors need to bear in mind.

Yet is it really necessary to rank protest and remembrance in a hierarchy of priorities? Let's remember, for a second, what the combatants of the UK and its empire achieved. After victory over fascism, those returning from the war or shaking off years of austerity and tragedy were determined to rebuild society. The desire for change, in fact, was so strong that Britain jettisoned its wartime leader, electing Attlee and a Labour government by a landslide.

Their reward and lasting monument was a society free of want, as Beveridge identified: "the Plan for Social Security [...] takes abolition of want after this war as its aim". Whereas the veterans of World War I found themselves in a world where Lloyd George's promises of a "land fit for heroes to live in" came to have a hollow ring, those returning from World War II could look forward to something more lasting, guaranteed by a broad agreement across all political parties. Beveridge would lead to a system of state-directed support that would finally end the system that had overshadowed the lives of their fathers and grandfathers: dependence on the charity of rich men and the begrudging support of private employers. It's something you can look on with as much pride as is implied in wearing a poppy.

While the aims of Occupy London might seem confused, there is a strong and consistent narrative of anger at the massive socialisation of private debt. There is a deep fear of the effects of cutbacks to the National Health Service and worse - the erosion of the fundamental principles on which it is founded. The NHS was the cornerstone of the new state built after World War II: it is a better commemoration of the sacrifice of the working class than crumbling memorials or the rhetoric of mere patriotism. It is worth protesting for, as an increasingly large number of voters may be coming to realise.

Protest, then, need not be disrespectful, if the world that previous generations fought to defend and then to reshape is a part of the protest's aims. It is unfair for sections of the media to present Occupy London as diametrically opposed to a 'public' right to the space. Perhaps both the protestors and the poppies can coexist.

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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