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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.