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Fantasy politics

Labour holds on to power in the general election, just. David Cameron survives an attempted coup. Th

Who would have thought that 2010 would be the most dramatic year in British politics in a generation? It started, after all, with the Conservatives still riding high, 10 points ahead in the polls despite signs of a limited Labour revival. In January, the media consensus still pointed to a comfortable Tory victory, if not by a landslide, then with a clear overall majority.

Labour's problems seemed to deepen when, as British soldiers continued to die in Afghan­istan, Tony Blair appeared before the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war. The panel focused on the 2002 memo from his foreign policy adviser David Manning, outlining the then prime minister's commitment to "regime change". Blair once more offered an impassioned "moral" case for Saddam Hussein's removal but - as the country was again reminded of the inconsis­tencies behind the decision to invade - support for Labour fell below 30 per cent in the polls. Meanwhile, the Tories, who had supported the invasion, were flatlining in the late thirties and the Liberal Democrats, who had opposed it, rose surprisingly to the mid-twenties.

Emboldened, Nick Clegg chose the occasion of the London summit on Afghanistan, on 28 January, to call for troop withdrawal. In doing so, he spurned the private advice of Paddy Ashdown, preferring to follow the example of Charles Kennedy, who had bravely stood against the Iraq action seven years earlier.

As popular enthusiasm for his party increased, Clegg faced repeated questions over which way he would jump in the event of a hung parliament. At first, he stuck to the policy of "equidistance", insisting that he would back whichever party had the most votes. However, as the election drew near, Lib Dem sources began to brief journalists that Labour was the party's more natural ally.

Brown remained personally unpopular during the early months of the year but his con­fidence grew as it became clear that a group of disillusioned MPs, led by Charles Clarke, would not rebel against his leadership. Rediscovering his ruthless streak, Brown incessantly highlighted David Cameron's proposed cut in inheritance tax for the country's 3,000 richest estates. The Conservative policy was reported to have divided the shadow cabinet, but Cameron defied calls for a U-turn and confirmed that a higher tax threshold would be a firm Tory manifesto pledge - to the delight of Labour strategists.

At the end of February, with the gap between the parties narrowing, Brown ruled out a 25 March election. The following month, Alistair Darling delivered Labour's boldest Budget since coming to office in 1997. Called the second People's Budget, after that of Lloyd George in 1909, it placed those earning £100,000 or more in the 50 per cent income-tax bracket. It widened the divide between Labour and the Tories further by raising inheritance tax to 60 per cent for estates worth more than £1m, in order to balance out extensive public expenditure cuts.

As Labour continued to shore up its support base, the Sun stepped up its vilification of Brown, focusing on his alleged "health" problems and at one point asking on its front page: "WOULD YOU TRUST THIS MAN WITH YOUR KIDS?" But the tactic backfired, as it had done with Brown's letters to parents of soldiers killed in Afghanistan, and Rupert Murdoch's most populist outlet found itself firmly on the wrong side of public opinion.

It was against this backdrop that Britain went to the polls on Thursday 6 May for the most closely fought election since 1992. By polling day, Labour had secured the support of only the Mirror, the Independent on Sunday and, in spite of internal divisions, the New Statesman. Exit polls on the BBC and ITV predicted a Tory victory of between 30 and 50 seats; only Sky News forecast a hung parliament.

It was all the more shocking, therefore, when the following morning it emerged that Labour had scraped through as the largest single party in parliament. (Elsewhere, the BNP failed to gain a seat and Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party lost in Buckingham to the newly popular reforming Speaker, John Bercow.)

It was a spectacular turnaround for Brown, written off by almost everyone in Westminster since the "election that never was" in the autumn of 2007. Even his own MPs dared not believe that he could win an unprecedented fourth term for Labour. Election analysts declared that when the voters got to the polling booths, they opted for the "devil they knew".

The recriminations were immediate. First, Cameron, who had warned against Tory complacency but always expected victory, took the unusual step of demanding a rerun of the election. Some Tory MPs called on the Queen to intervene, and public pressure increased on the Lib Dems to form a coalition with the Con­servatives. After several days of consultation, Clegg said he would back the will of the people and that he was prepared to give Brown the "benefit of the doubt".

The Tory party was ravaged by infighting of a kind not seen in a decade. Cameron's attempts at "modernisation" had failed to win the election, according to his detractors. On the major issues, from Europe to tax to immigration, he had fought shy of challenging his own party, as Neil Kinnock did with his battle against Militant in 1985, or as Blair did with his campaign to abolish Labour's Clause Four in 1994. Pre-election talk that Cameron had brought his party to the centre ground turned out to be misguided, but that perception had remained.

And so, having already tried the "core vote" strategy of William Hague and Michael Howard, the Tories were left feeling as if they had nowhere to turn. David Davis challenged for the party leadership from the backbenches but Cameron narrowly survived.

Meanwhile, Brown reshuffled his cabinet. Yet again, he tried to make his old ally Ed Balls chancellor but the increasingly popular Darling held his ground once more, after winning plaudits from finance ministers around the world for his handling of the economy. Instead, Brown rewarded his political saviour Peter Mandelson with the job of Foreign Secretary, which he had long coveted. Mandelson's predecessor, David Miliband, declined an offer to become Home Secretary and returned to the back benches.

This inevitably renewed talk of a leadership contest and, by the end of the year, four names were in the frame: David Miliband, Balls, an increasingly impressive Harriet Harman, and James Purnell. But Brown defied them all. Bolstered at last with a mandate of his own, he pressed on until the end of the year, winning an electoral reform referendum. He also called Alex Salmond's bluff, rescuing the Union with a Scottish referendum that resulted in a resounding 70-30 vote against independence.

Then, surprising everyone, Brown oversaw a smooth transition of his own, handing what he called the "Labour torch" to a new generation. With supreme irony, having secured his domestic legacy, he won the EU presidency Blair had failed to win, after the unimpressive Herman van Rompuy was forced out when his attempts to block Turkish accession were opposed by member states, including Britain.

In December, the new Prime Minister, Ed Miliband, walked unchallenged in to No 10 and immediately recalled his brother, David, to serve as his deputy.

Last year I said . . .

-Gordon Brown would resist calls for a general election in 2009.
-The economies of both the US and the UK would get worse before they got better.
-Afghanistan would prove Barack Obama's nemesis: there would be renewed bloodshed and no resolution to the conflict.
-Abandoning the ideological commitment to tax cuts remained David Cameron's best hope for a "Clause Four moment", but he would retreat into tax and spending cuts and neo-Thatcherite monetarism.
-Europe would remain a headache for Cameron . . . after Ireland narrowly
voted Yes in a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in the autumn. Cameron would have to decide whether to ditch his own commitment to a referendum.
-Alistair Darling would remain Chancellor of the Exchequer.
-Ed Miliband would emerge as the up-and-coming politician of 2009 and come to be regarded as Brown's natural successor.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

Share your thoughts on his political predictions for 2010 at his blog

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Gaza: one year on

REGIS BOSSU/SYGMA/CORBIS
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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