Tom Watson MP. Photograph: Getty Images
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Chris Huhne spent his last night of freedom watching me do karaoke to “Teenage Kicks”

Tom Watson's diary.

The fightback

To Easington, where I am the guest of Grahame Morris MP for the constituency annual dinner. Our backdrop was a new National Union of Mineworkers banner. Where once there was a pithead, the banner now portrays a newly built school with happy children excitedly leaping into their future.

I couldn’t help but be struck how these potent symbols of our past were being used to project a new hope for the coal communities. Which is perhaps why there was fury directed towards Michael Gove, who that week had attacked local schools for having “the smell of defeatism”. The working classes of Easington have been in plenty of battles, but on the evidence of last week they’ve never been defeated.

Then a post-midnight drive through the mist and fog to wake up in the rustic peace of Keswick for the Words by the Water festival, to discuss my book Dial M for Murdoch. I shared a dressing room with the Guardian’s indefatigable Polly Toynbee. “Why are your frontbenchers not more angry?” she asked me. She’s right. I resolved there and then to work with the team of grass-roots members who are organising more than 53 protests against the bedroom tax.

The paperback

The former Labour MP Chris Mullin says he thought the art of political debate was over until he started to address literary festivals. He’s not wrong. The audience was intensely interested in the fine detail of the Leveson proposals and kept me on my toes.

I was struck by how even the most politically aware audience has almost given up on Westminster. Trust in public institutions is at an all-time low. We’re going to have to address the trust deficit if we are to strengthen civil society post-hacking, post-MPs’ expen - ses, post-banking crisis.

Jailhouse rock

The finest part of the weekend was the wedding of Charlotte Harris – the incisive media lawyer who cracked open the phone-hacking case – and her debonair fiancé, James Burr. Poor Chris Huhne was there, looking wistful. I couldn’t help thinking that spending your last night of freedom listening to me singing “Teenage Kicks” with a karaoke band would make prison seem a more tolerable fate. He got an eight-month sentence the next day. Even though he lied to a court, the sentence seemed hard for a scandal that started with a speeding offence.

Lazy Labour

Fair bit of ribbing wherever I’ve been about “Lazy Labour”, a nickname mentioned last week in an interview with Jim Murphy in this magazine. Reminded me of the old story about Roy Jenkins. The Balliol-educated son of the south Wales mineworkers’ leader, Jenkins had entered parliament in 1948, just as Nye Bevan was in the throes of founding the NHS.

In the smoking room one evening, it was suggested to Bevan that Jenkins, though clever and articulate, might be lazy. Bevan didn’t hesitate: “Lazy? Lazy?” he shrieked. “A boy from Abersychan with an accent like that – whatever he is, he’s not lazy.”

And Bevan was right. Whatever Jenkins was or wasn’t, the ensuing half-century proved beyond doubt: he wasn’t lazy.

The current “controversy” is almost equally amusing, and typically lazy. A classic mediadriven fuss over nothing, in which a Labour frontbencher making a perfectly reasonable point has his words twisted to resemble an attack on (of all people) me.

Changing times

In the brouhaha over Murphy, some central points – on which we all agree – have been entirely overlooked. On one level, the “debate” has been couched in terms that have romanticised the New Labour era. And yet sentimental attachment to old dictums is the very antithesis of everything that Tony Blair and New Labour were about.

Media critics attempting to beat Ed Mili - band with this stick are not just wrong, but incoherent in their own terms. Not only is it wrong to go back to the past, no sane person has ever said that and nobody is saying it now.

The interpretation that media critics have been putting on the word “segmentation”, as though it were a divisive strategy, is dis - ingenuous. Unless you have either a single voter, or 60 million unrelated individual voters, somewhere in the middle you always have groups of voters. To talk to them is hardly to abandon the middle ground.

Stuck in the middle

Most preposterous of all, bored pundits have tried to present some Labour colleagues as believing that appealing to disillusioned Lib Dem voters is some kind of exclusive, zerosum strategy. I don’t believe (and I don’t say this lightly) any Labour MP is that stupid.

Lib Dem activists may well be a crazy sect of staring-eyed obsessives but their voters are anything but. They are slap-bang in the middle of the national mainstream. Millions of them now feel betrayed by the Lib Dems and are looking for a new home. Failure to compete for that group of people would be an abrogation of serious politics and a dereliction of duty.

What the media pundits really mean is that Ed is too left-wing. The Daily Mail and the Sun won’t be happy until Ed fights the election on a right-wing agenda, which goes further right than Blair, and probably in some cases than the Tories.

The one thing Tony taught us is not to be sentimental about the past. We can’t just repeat what happened in the Nineties and expect the old magic to work again.

Blair was not electorally successful because he was right-wing, he was successful because he was right – particularly on some of the important socio-economic issues in the early days.

You win elections by talking to all the people about the things that matter most to them, by giving them a real choice, by being right for the time. Every Labour frontbencher knows that. Bring on 2015.

Tom Watson is the MP for West Bromwich East and deputy chair of the Labour Party

Tom Watson is the MP for West Bromwich East, and Deputy Chair of the Labour Party. He is also an avid gamer and campaigner for media integrity.

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem

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How memories of the Battle of Verdun inspired a new era of Franco-German co-operation

The fight at Verdun in 1916 set a precedent for peace that lives on at the heart of Europe.

How do you clear up after a battle that took the lives of more than a quarter of a million men? In Britain we don’t have much experience of this kind. There hasn’t been a major war on British soil since the 1640s, and that wasn’t a shock-and-awe inferno of industrial firepower (although it is estimated that a greater percentage of Britain’s population died in the civil wars than in the Great War).

The French, however, fought the Great War on home soil. The ten-month Battle of Verdun in 1916 stands out as the longest of the conflict, and one of the fiercest, with fighting concentrated in a small area of roughly 25 square miles. The terrain was pounded by heavy artillery and poisoned with gas; nine villages were reduced to rubble and never rebuilt – remaining on the map to this day as villages détruits.

In November 1918, soon after the Armis­tice, Monseigneur Charles Ginisty, the bishop of Verdun, was appalled to see mounds of unburied corpses and myriad bones still scattered across the blasted landscape – what was left of men who had been literally blown to bits by shellfire. “Should we abandon their sacred remains to this desert,” he asked in anguish, “littered with desiccated corpses . . . under a shroud of thorns and weeds, of forgetting and ingratitude?”

Ginisty became the driving force behind the ossuary at Douaumont, at what had been the very centre of the battlefield. This he intended to be both “a cathedral of the dead and a basilica of victory”. It is a strange but compelling place: a 450-foot-long vault, transfixed in the middle by a lantern tower, and styled in an idiosyncratic mix of Romanesque and art deco. To some visitors the tower looks like a medieval knight stabbing his broadsword into the ground; others are reminded of an artillery shell, or even a space rocket. Creepiest of all is what one glimpses through the little windows cut into the basement – piles of bones, harvested from the field of battle.

Sloping away downhill from the ossuary is the Nécropole Nationale, where the bodies of some 15,000 French soldiers are buried – mostly named, though some graves are starkly labelled inconnu (“unknown”). Each tomb is dignified with the statement “Mort pour la France” (no British war grave bears a comparable inscription). The nine villages détruits were given the same accolade.

For the French, unlike the British, 1914-18 was a war to defend and cleanse the homeland. By the end of 1914 the Germans had imposed a brutal regime of occupation across ten departments of north-eastern France. Verdun became the most sacred place in this struggle for national liberation, the only great battle that France waged alone. About three-quarters of its army on the Western Front served there during 1916, bringing Verdun home to most French families. Slogans from the time such as On les aura (“We’ll get ’em”) and Ils ne passeront pas (“They shall not pass”) entered French mythology, language and even song.

Little wonder that when the ossuary was inaugurated in 1932, the new French president, Albert Lebrun, declared: “Here is the cemetery of France.” A special plot at the head of the cemetery was set aside for Marshal Philippe Pétain, commander at the height of the battle in 1916 and renowned as “the Saviour of Verdun”.

The ossuary must surely contain German bones. How could one have nationally segregated that charnel house in the clean-up after 1918? Yet officially the ossuary was presented as purely French: a national, even nationalist, shrine to the sacrifice made by France. Interestingly, it was the soldiers who had fought there who often proved more internationally minded. During the 1920s many French veterans adopted the slogan Plus jamais (“Never again”) in their campaign to make 1914-18 la der des ders – soldier slang for “the last ever war”. And they were echoed across the border by German veterans, especially those on the left, proclaiming, “Nie wieder.”

For the 20th anniversary in 1936, 20,000 veterans, including Germans and Italians, assembled at Douaumont. Each took up his position by a grave and together they swore a solemn oath to keep the peace. There were no military parades, no singing of the Marseillaise. It was an immensely moving occasion but, in its own way, also political theatre: the German delegation attended by permission of the Führer to show off his peace-loving credentials.

Memory was transformed anew by the Second World War. In 1914-18 the French army had held firm for four years; in 1940 it collapsed in four weeks. Verdun itself fell in a day with hardly a shot being fired. France, shocked and humiliated, signed an armistice in June 1940 and Pétain, now 84, was recalled to serve as the country’s political leader. Whatever his original intentions, he ended up an accomplice of the Nazis: reactionary, increasingly fascist-minded, and complicit in the deportation of the Jews.

***

The man who came to embody French resistance in the Second World War was Charles de Gaulle. In 1916, as a young captain at Verdun, he had been wounded and captured. In the 1920s he was known as a protégé of the Marshal but in 1940 the two men diverged fundamentally on the question of collaboration or resistance.

De Gaulle came out the clear winner: by 1945 he was president of France, while Pétain was convicted for treason. The Marshal lived out his days on the Île d’Yeu, a rocky island off the west coast of France, where he was buried in 1951. The plot awaiting him in the cemetery at Douaumont became the grave of a general called Ernest Anselin, whose body remains there to this day. Yet Pétain sympathisers still agitate for the Marshal to be laid to rest in the place where, they insist, he belongs.

After 1945 it was hard for French leaders to speak of Verdun and Pétain in the same breath, although de Gaulle eventually managed to do so during the 50th anniversary in 1966. By then, however, la Grande Guerre had begun to assume a new perspective in both France and Germany. The age-old enemies were moving on from their cycle of tit-for-tat wars, stretching back from 1939, 1914 and 1870 to the days of Napoleon and Louis XIV.

In January 1963 de Gaulle – who had spent half the Great War in German POW camps – and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who first visited Paris to see the German delegation just before it signed the Treaty of Versailles, put their names to a very different treaty at the Élysée Palace. This bound the two countries in an enduring nexus of co-operation, from regular summits between the leaders down to town-twinning and youth exchanges. The aim was to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism.

France and West Germany were also founder members of the European Community – predicated, one might say, on the principle “If you can’t beat them, join them”. For these two countries (and for their Benelux neighbours, caught in the jaws of the Franco-German antagonism), European integration has always had a much more beneficent meaning than it does for Britain, geographically and emotionally detached from continental Europe and much less scarred by the two world wars.

It was inevitable that eventually Verdun itself would be enfolded into the new Euro-narrative. On 22 September 1984 President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood in the pouring rain in front of the ossuary for a joint commemoration. In 1940 Sergeant Mitterrand had been wounded near Verdun, and Kohl’s father had served there in 1916, so personal memories sharpened the sense of political occasion. During the two national anthems, Mitterrand, apparently on impulse, grasped Kohl’s hand in what has become one of the most celebrated images of Franco-German reconciliation.

“If we’d had ceremonies like this before the Second World War,” murmured one French veteran, “we might have avoided it.”

Institutional memory has also moved on. In 1967 a museum dedicated to the story of the battle was opened near the obliterated village of Fleury. It was essentially a veterans’ museum, conceived by elderly Frenchmen to convey what they had endured in 1916 to a generation that had known neither of the world wars. For the centenary in 2016 the Fleury museum has undergone a makeover, updated with new displays and interactive technology and also reconceived as a museum of peace, drawing in the Germans as well as the French.

With time, too, some of the scars of battle have faded from the landscape. Trees now cover this once-ravaged wasteland; the graveyards are gardens of memory; the EU flag flies with the French and German tricolours over the battered fort at Douaumont. Yet bodies are still being dug up – 26 of them just three years ago at Fleury. And even when the sun shines here it is hard to shake off the ghosts.

Exploring the battlefield while making two programmes about Verdun for Radio 4, the producer Mark Burman and I visited l’Abri des Pèlerins (“the pilgrims’ shelter”) near the village détruit of Douaumont. This was established in the 1920s to feed the builders of the ossuary, but it has continued as the only eating place at the centre of the battlefield. Its proprietor, Sylvaine Vaudron,
is a bustling, no-nonsense businesswoman, but she also evinces a profound sense of obligation to the past, speaking repeatedly of nos poilus, “our soldiers”, as if they were still a living presence. “You realise,” she said sternly at one point, “there are 20,000 of them under our feet.” Not the sort of conversation about the Great War that one could have anywhere in Britain.

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster). His series “Verdun: the Sacred Wound” will go out on BBC Radio 4 on 17 and 24 February (11am)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle