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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

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 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser