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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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage