Mourning in numbers: visitors to the poppies at the Tower of London. Photo: Getty
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Will Self: Public mourning is the loyalty oath of the modern British state

The visitors who have filled the precincts of the Tower of London since August have been deeply moved by the great crowd of ceramic poppies planted in its dry moat – but moved by what, exactly?

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn./At the going down of the sun and in the morning/We will remember them . . .” But did we, I ask, did we really remember them on 11 November? I mean to say, my great-uncle Stanley Self fell on Flanders field, but obviously I never knew him – indeed, I did not discover his existence until years after the death of that generation, and the subsequent one, when I obtained a copy of my paternal family’s census form for 1911 and found Stanley on it. The last British soldier to have served in the First War died a lustrum ago – and he was extremely long-lived; soon enough even the people who knew the men who fought will all be gone. Which returns us to the rather troubling question: what is it we’re remembering on Remembrance Day?

For families that have lost loved ones in more recent conflicts the commemoration cannot but continue to have an enormous emotional impact, yet I wonder – because that’s what I am paid to do, no matter how unpopular it may make me – can anyone make an equation between those 888,246 lost lives and the 5,120 lost since 1945? Or, to draw out the inequity a little further, between the Great War dead and the 453 British lives lost in Afghanistan since 2001? I mean, British casualties in the first three hours of the Somme alone were pushing 20,000; in effect, it took only four minutes and 22 seconds for as many men to die as did during 13 years of the more recent conflict.

The more than four million visitors who have filled the precincts of the Tower of London since the beginning of August have been deeply moved by the great crowd of ceramic poppies planted in its dry moat – but moved by what, exactly? I chanced upon the display the other day, and if I was moved by anything at all it was intense claustrophobia as I struggled to escape the rubbernecking, sad-snapping hordes. Does this make me a bad person? I don’t think so. There’s been a vogue for these massed multiple artworks for some years now – Antony Gormley kicked it off with his Field series, featuring hundreds of little ceramic homunculi, crafted in different locations by different crowds. Then Ai Weiwei bedizened the floor of the Turbine Hall in Tate Modern with his millions of porcelain sunflower seeds that, it transpired, had been fashioned in the conditions so beloved by Chinese manufactories. For my money (and undoubtedly some of my money has been expended on these displays), all of these artworks act at a subliminal level, attracting huge numbers of people who are moved to contemplate an analogue of their own numerousness.

The First War is neither here nor there; what matters with these very public exhibitions of “remembrance” is precisely that they be public: to be seen to be mourning the fallen is the loyalty oath of the contemporary British state, and if you take it you’re helping to ensure that no matter what your personal cavil may be about this or that “illegal” war, overall you’re still prepared to back our government’s use of lethal force in the prosecution of its foreign policy. Can I be alone in seeing more than mere coincidence in the decision to put British boots back on Iraqi ground in the same week as Remembrance Day? What better way can there be of ensuring our tacit compliance than planting in our minds this equivalence between the existential threat posed by Germany in 1914 and the existential threat posed to . . . Well, posed to what? For all the blether we hear from our political class, a small crowd of actual military men have stepped forward in the past few weeks, and in no uncertain terms have said that our best possible response to Islamic State would be to do precisely nothing.

Really, it is British politicians’ fantasy of commanding a world-bestriding superpower that is under threat – oh, and there’s the troubling consideration that it was their own botched actions that have made Iraq a de facto failed state; under such circumstances, what better way can there be to deflect any public recollection of this cosmic and murderous cock-up than engaging in a new war?

And so it goes on: each ritual remembrance of wars past paradoxically serving to create a very contemporary amnesia. There have been calls from Boris Johnson and David Cameron to keep the ceramic poppies blooming a while longer before they’re flogged off to raise money for ex-servicemen and women’s charities, but what sort of a state is it that doesn’t make adequate provision for those wounded, or the dependants of those killed in its service, out of the public purse?

Surely only the same sort of state whose military adventuring has helped since 2001 to create another enormous crowd of poppies? Not ceramic ones, these, but Papaver somniferum, production of which reached “a sobering record high” last year, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. That’s a big crowd of heroin coming out of Afghanistan, another de facto failed state. Perhaps our political class should indulge in some, too? After all, the drug was first synthesised in our very own imperial capital and was named “heroin” because it made its users feel . . . heroic, and surely that’s what we want our leaders to be in time of war. 

Next week: Real Meals

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.