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War is deeply political, and the way we commemorate it even more so

Mourning war without questioning the causes risks portraying it as something inevitable. 

In many ways, British public life has never been so polarised and controversial, so unpredictable, and so receptive to previously heretical ideas. Austerity was once a religion of mainstream politics, until it suddenly became a failed policy. Brexit was impossible in 2015 - now, no one is allowed to question it. But the parameters of dissent, and the extent of the radicalism, seem oddly constrained.

Nothing better illustrates the limitations on permitted dissent than this weekend’s Remembrance events. By the time that Huw Edwards gets on stage to present the BBC’s “Festival of Remembrance” from the Royal Albert Hall on Sunday – which last year peaked at 5.9m viewers – millions of Britons will have been wearing poppies for weeks. Many more will have them on their cars, vans, lampposts, golf flags, dog leads, shop fronts, and football strips.

The proliferation of poppies can sometimes can seem absurd. Not to be outdone, Newcastle City Council has this year erected a crystal maze-style globe to blow poppies around a statue of a soldier. If you want to remember while you eat, why not buy a “poppyroni pizza” from Tesco? For many, wearing a poppy is a simple sign of respect for the victims of war – but the realities of the spectacle clearly go much further than this. The official tradition of Remembrance has a deeply political purpose, from which no-one in public life is allowed to dissent.

The idea of coming together, above all the politics, to mourn the dead of war is an attractive one – but it is a fantasy. War is deeply political, and the way we commemorate it even more so. A million British men were slaughtered in the First World War, sent to their deaths in a war fought not against fascism, but for the imperial interests of the British ruling class against the German one. This is not that controversial. Most high school history students could tell you about “the old lie – Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”, or that the war dead were “lions led by donkeys”.

Yet what Remembrance offers us is a commemoration mediated by the exact same institutions that have repeatedly failed and betrayed the victims of war. When wreaths are laid at the cenotaph this Sunday, Tony Blair – who backed a war in Iraq which has cost hundreds of thousands of lives – will be standing in the second row. While Theresa May bows, her government will be shipping arms to Saudi Arabia. War is, by and large, not an inevitable tragedy but a crime, inflicted on ordinary people by the political, economic and military elite on all sides of the conflict. 

Within the official tradition of Remembrance, wars are not analysed, but instead become one single event to be mourned together. There is no discussion of how we might prevent them from happening again. Perhaps, to really respect the war dead, we ought to acknowledge that many brave soldiers – who had families and lives at home – did not “die for our freedom”, but in futile wars into which they were conscripted, by force or lack of opportunity. Any discussion of the crimes committed by the British military – civilian slaughter after civilian slaughter – goes unmentioned and has no remembrance day of its own.

Poppies do raise money – and it is good that someone is putting resources to go towards caring for veterans injured or affected by their experience of war. But in 2017, it should be regarded as an outrage that injured soldiers have to rely on charitable donations to the Royal British Legion – a charity that was founded in 1921 by General Haig – and not the state.

For many people, including many soldiers and their relatives, the poppy has a deep and personal symbolic meaning unrelated to the official script – and it certainly isn’t for me to tell people what they should or shouldn’t wear. Symbols, however, are never just what we make of them. For those of us who choose not to wear poppies, it is not for lack of respect, or a lack of will to remember. Even now, with passionate anti-war advocates at the head of the Labour Party, that position is still almost beyond the pale. But it is important that we continue to articulate it.


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Can a “Momentum moment” revive the fortunes of Germany’s SPD?

Support for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, behind the far right Alternative for Germany.

Germany has crossed a line: for the first time in the history of the federal republic, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, polling just 15.5 per cent – half a point behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The poll was published on the day the SPD membership received their postal ballots on whether to enter another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and inflamed debate further.

For the grassroots coalition opposed to the so-called GroKo (Große Koalition) the poll is proof that the SPD needs a fundamental change of political direction. Within the two grand coalitions of recent years, the SPD has completely lost its political profile. The beneficiary each time has been the far right. Yet another GroKo seems likely to usher in the end of the SPD as a Volkspartei (people’s party). Taking its place would be the AfD, a deeply disturbing prospect.

For the SPD leadership, the results are proof that the party must enter a grand coalition. Failure to do so would likely mean new elections (though this is disputed, as a minority government is also a possibility) and an SPD wipeout. The SPD’s biggest problem, they argue, is not a bad political programme, but a failure to sell the SPD’s achievements to the public.

But is it? The richest 45 Germans now own as much as the bottom 50 per cent. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, German income inequality has now sunk to levels last seen in 1913. Perhaps most shockingly, the nominally left-wing SPD has been in government for 16 of the last 20 years. Whatever it has been doing in office, it hasn’t been nearly enough. And there’s nothing in the present coalition agreement that will change that. Indeed, throughout Europe, mainstream left parties such as the SPD have stuck to their economically centrist programmes and are facing electoral meltdown as a result.

The growing popular anger at the status quo is being channeled almost exclusively into the AfD, which presents itself as the alternative to the political mainstream. Rather than blame the massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, however, the AfD points the finger at the weakest in society: immigrants and refugees.

So how can the SPD turn things around by the next federal election in 2021? 

The party leadership has promised a complete programme of political renewal, as it does after every disappointing result. But even if this promise were kept this time, how credible is political renewal within a government that stands for more of the same? The SPD would be given the finance ministry, but would be wedded to an austerity policy of no new public debt, and no increased tax rises on the rich. 

SPD members are repeatedly exhorted to separate questions of programmatic renewal from the debate about who leads the party. But these questions are fundamentally linked. The SPD’s problem is not its failure to make left-wing promises, but the failure of its leaders to actually keep them, once in office.

The clear counter-example for genuine political renewal and credibility is, of course, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of all dire warnings that a left-wing programme was a sure-fire vote-loser, Labour’s massively expanded membership – and later electorate – responded with an unprecedented and unforeseen enthusiasm. 

A radical democratic change on the lines of Labour would save the SPD party from oblivion, and save Germany from an ascendent AfD. But it would come at the cost of the careers of the SPD leadership. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, they are fighting it tooth and nail.

Having promised an “especially fair” debate, the conflict over the GroKo has suddenly surged to become Germany’s Momentum moment - and the SPD leadership is doing everything it can to quash the debate. Party communications and so-called “dialogue events” pump out a pro-GroKo line. The ballots sent out this week came accompanied by an authoritative three-page letter on why members should vote for the grand coalition.

Whether such desperate measures have worked or not will be revealed when the voting result is announced on 4 March 2018. Online, sentiment is overwhelmingly against the GroKo. But many SPD members (average age is 60) are not online, and are thought to be more conservative.

Whatever the outcome, the debate isn’t going away. If members can decide on a grand coalition, why not on the leadership itself? A direct election for the leadership would democratically reconnect the SPD with its grassroots.

Unless the growth in inequality is turned around, a fundamental reboot of the SPD is ultimately inevitable. Another grand coalition, however, will postpone this process even further. And what will be left of the SPD by then?

Steve Hudson is a Momentum activist and a member of both Labour and the SPD. He lives in Germany, where he chairs the NoGroKo eV campaign group.