The fall and rise of Poppy Day

Remembrance poppy sales figures are expected to break records again. More people than ever, it seems, are buying them this year. The charge that poppies are becoming something of a fashion item is not without foundation. I find the ‘bling’ poppies somewhat distasteful but if that’s what it takes to raise cash for wounded soldiers in a celeb-obsessed age then so be it.

The wearing  of poppies has seen something of a revival since the 1990s. There was a time when many people wondered whether and for how long the tradition of remembrance would survive. Conventional wisdom held that, once the Second World War veterans got too old to march, that would be it.

When I started work in the mid-1980s, our chief executive was a veteran of the Second World War. He had only caught the last few months of the war and he was working well past retirement age but, even then, there were still a few wartime soldiers in public life. Thanks to the conscription of the 1950s, most of those in the upper echelons of society had seen military service. Company directors, senior civil servants, hospital consultants and judges tended to be in their 50s; just the right age to have done national service.

In the decade that followed, they all began to retire it was probably no coincidence that, at the same time, the poppy boxes began to disappear from offices, shops and public buildings. I couldn’t find any figures to confirm this but it seemed to me that fewer people were wearing poppies each year as the nineties wore on.

It all changed in 1998 with the anniversary of the end of the First World War and the re-discovery of veterans like Henry Allingham and Harry Patch. The BBC, with its TV series and news reports, played a large part in making these men famous and telling their stories to the world. In 1998 the long-abandoned tradition of keeping the two minutes’ silence on the 11 November, as well as on Remembrance Sunday, was revived.

This renewed interest in Remembrance Day was, sadly, fuelled by the regular flow of dead and wounded soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan over the next decade. The suggestion that the work of the British Legion would one day be over now seemed absurd as a new generation of servicemen clearly needed its help.

Now, the poppy and Armistice Day probably have more publicity than ever. Football teams, as far as I know, never wore poppies in the past and they were never as prominent on TV as they are today.

So, while this might look like an old tradition, quite a lot of it is relatively new or, as in the case of today’s silence, a recent revival. I’m not knocking it. Anything that raises money for people who have sacrificed so much is a good thing, even if those sparkling poppies make a few old gits like me wince.

I will carry on wearing my paper one as usual. Though it began to go out of fashion, I always wore my poppy. Even when I was a punk I wore one. It was usually wound through the skull and crossed bones on my leather jacket. Appropriate in a funny sort of way, although perhaps as distasteful to some at the time as the sparkling poppies appear to me.

I’m glad poppies and Remembrance Day have had a new lease of life, although some of the reasons behind it are no cause for celebration. It will, though, clearly go on for many years yet. Even when the last Second World War serviceman has died, and the war passes beyond living memory, we shall still be wearing poppies and keeping the silence. And, however sparkly the poppies are, that has to be a good thing.

Another dodgy deal – again, the left wins on culture, the right on economics

More on that tacit deal I wrote about last week. Looks like another one is being cooked up, this time between the two parts of the Coalition.

“You can get rid of immigration checks if we can get rid of employment protection.”

Again, we see the economic triumph of the right and the cultural triumph of the left. We abolish protection for workers but not discrimination protection and we stop employment checks on immigrants, which works well for business and for those who want an illegal immigration amnesty.

In many ways, the Coalition epitomises that accommodation between the economic liberalism of the right and the social liberalism of the left which has come to dominate modern politics. 

Last week, Jonathan Freedland wrote a piece on the split between the Conservatives’ “rural and urban, landed and mercantile wings.” In a reference to Downton Abbey, he notes:

That these two strains of conservatism exist is becoming ever more visible. Take the coalition’s proposed changes to planning law, enshrining an automatic bias towards development, even at the expense of the countryside. In that drama – just as in the proposed forestry sell-off last year – the Conservatives have cast themselves in the Sir Richard role, putting pounds, shillings and pence above all else, letting the National Trust and Daily Telegraph pose as the benevolent Granthams, protecting the landscape.

The Coalition suits the metropolitan pounds-shillings-and-pence wing of the Conservative Party. If they can do deals with the Lib Dems on trashing employment rights in return for reducing immigration checks, they don’t have to worry so much about the traditional lot in their own party getting stroppy over planning laws and crime.

We are heading for a strange society in which there is no general employment protection but strong equality and diversity laws, where businesses can fire workers and outsource jobs on a whim but where they will be severely punished if they refuse to serve or employ gay people. It will be a country where what’s left of trade union rights are crushed but the rights of criminals and wannabe terrorists are upheld, where corporate bosses can do what they like but teachers walk the corridors of state schools in fear. A country which cuts the jobs and benefits of those already here while opening the doors to whoever else wants to come.

A strange society indeed – one where the right has won the economic war and the left has won the culture war.

My poppy is not a fashion appendage, Mr Fisk

It’s the time of year for wearing a poppy, or pointedly not wearing a poppy, and the pro and anti poppy articles have become almost as much a part of the annual tradition too.

Most of the anti-poppy articles are drearily predictable but the tone of Robert Fisk’s piece on Saturday was particularly nasty. He starts off: 

I turned on the television in my Damascus hotel room to witness a dreary sight: all the boys and girls of BBC World wearing their little poppies again.

Bright red they were, with that particularly silly green leaf out of the top….

Why does he dislike poppies so much? Because his dad, who fought in the Great War, felt betrayed and stopped wearing one:

He was a soldier of the Great War, Battle of Arras 1918 – often called the Third Battle of the Somme – and the liberation of Cambrai, along with many troops from Canada. The Kaiser Wilhelm’s army had charitably set the whole place on fire and he was appalled by the scorched earth policy of the retreating Germans. But of course, year after year, he would go along to the local cenotaph in Birkenhead, and later in Maidstone, where I was born 28 years after the end of his Great War, and he always wore his huge black coat, his regimental tie – 12th Battalion, the King’s Liverpool Regiment – and his poppy.

But as the years passed, old Bill Fisk became very ruminative about the Great War. He learned that Haig had lied, that he himself had fought for a world that betrayed him, that 20,000 British dead on the first day of the Somme – which he mercifully avoided because his first regiment, the Cheshires, sent him to Dublin and Cork to deal with another 1916 “problem” – was a trashing of human life. In hospital and recovering from cancer, I asked him once why the Great War was fought. “All I can tell you, fellah,” he said, “was that it was a great waste.” And he swept his hand from left to right. Then he stopped wearing his poppy. I asked him why, and he said that he didn’t want to see “so many damn fools” wearing it – he was a provocative man and, sadly, I fell out with him in his old age. What he meant was that all kinds of people who had no idea of the suffering of the Great War – or the Second, for that matter – were now ostentatiously wearing a poppy for social or work-related reasons, to look patriotic and British when it suited them, to keep in with their friends and betters and employers. These people, he said to me once, had no idea what the trenches of France were like, what it felt like to have your friends die beside you and then to confront their brothers and wives and lovers and parents.

Now if we were to restrict poppy wearing to those who knew the horrors of war first hand, hardly anybody would be qualified to wear one. I understand why Robert Fisk has strong personal feelings about the poppy but there is no logic here.

If, like Mr Fisk, we are looking to our ancestors for guidance on this, I take my cue from my grandfather. He too fought at Cambrai. He was wounded in the desperate fight to take that hill. My grandfather had every reason to be bitter too. A few months after he was wounded, his elder brother was killed. He came back to the colliery, a year-long general strike, a pit accident and years of unemployment.  He had no illusions about the war. I remember him sitting in his chair at Christmas, dismissing the war film we were watching as “imaginary violence”. “War isn’t like that at all,” he told us. But he sold poppies and wore one every year. He supported the British Legion for the rest of his life.

So when I wear a poppy, it isn’t to glorify war or to look patriotic. It’s a way of showing gratitude to all the people who have sacrificed the best years of their lives, and all too often more, in the defence of this country. But, at a more personal level, it’s also a tribute to my grandfather and his brother.

Wearing a poppy is a personal choice and if Robert Fisk doesn’t want to wear one, that’s his business. But the sneering tone of this article is totally unnecessary. Yes, the poppy has become a bit of a ‘thing’ on the BBC over the past decade or so. Everyone who is interviewed seems to be given one to wear. It’s a big step from that, though, to suggest that those of us who buy poppies every year “mock the war dead”.

He finishes his piece in the way he started:

But now I see these pathetic creatures with their little sand-pit poppies – I notice that our masters in the House of Commons do the same – and I despise them. Heaven be thanked that the soldiers of the Great War cannot return today to discover how their sacrifice has been turned into a fashion appendage.

I usually like reading Robert Fisk’s articles. Quite often I disagree with him but he writes well and researches his subjects thoroughly. I can understand why he has won so many awards. But this piece was mean-spirited and petulant. There is no sense to his argument and the sneers and playground jibes do nothing to advance it.

As I do every year, I shall wear my poppy with pride, as my grandfather did. Perhaps, for the sake of his blood pressure, Robert Fisk should stay out of the country every November. Then he wouldn’t have to see people wearing poppies and we’d all be spared his priggish and self-righteous whinging.

The Charlie Hebdo bombing couldn’t happen here

A bit of mid-2000s nostalgia in France. Satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo made Mohammed guest editor for a special issue called Charia Hebdo and published a few satirical cartoons. The response from Muslim religious nutters was exactly as it was last time. Violence was the first resort and they firebombed Charlie Hebdo’s office.

This is the cover of the magazine that upset them so much.

Here are the other cartoons. Unfortunately, I don’t speak French so I’ve no idea what they are about. Whatever they say, though, they don’t justify bombing people.

Left-wing blogger Coatsey notes that high-profile figures on the French left have been quick to condemn the bombing and stand up for free speech. Would the same thing happen in this country? Probably not. If the British establishment’s reaction to the attacks on the Danish cartoons are anything to go by, we couldn’t even rely on wholehearted condemnation from the Conservative Party.

Not that it would ever happen here anyway. Satire directed against Islam has long been taboo in Britain. With the honourable exception of the Freethinker, while newspapers across Europe showed solidarity with Denmark, no British publication printed the Danish cartoons. With artists and comedians scared to even mention Islam, the likelihood of anybody in this country doing something offensive enough to warrant a molotov cocktail is very remote.

Update: This outbreak of fanaticism has woken MediaWatchWatch up. Good to see him back.

Are the Ottomans to blame for Europe’s poor South-East?

Once again, Greece is teetering on the brink, threatening to topple over and take some European banks, and possibly some other European countries, with it. The fear of this contagion has brought Greece’s problems to worldwide attention but the country’s fiscal problems are nothing new. While many countries experienced soaring debt after the financial crisis, Greece was already in a mess well before 2007. According to the IMF, the country’s pre-crisis debt was already 105% of GDP. Endemic tax evasion and a state which continued to spend as if it was collecting all the tax it was owed meant that the country racked up ever-increasing levels of debt.

Why has Greece been in such a mess for so long? Dimitris Georgakopoulos from Greece’s finance ministry has a simple explanation. It’s all the Ottomans’ fault. Corruption and cheating became a way of life under the 400 year rule of the Muslim conquerors.

An eccentric view? Perhaps, but he’s not alone in blaming the Ottomans for Greece’s problems. This piece from Nikos Retsos pulls no punches:

Most Greeks don’t know how this happened. And most Greeks feel content to blame their fellow citizens, but not themselves! They still have not understood that their backwardness was the result of the occupation of Greece by the Ottoman Empire for 368 years. And during those years, the Greeks were infected with the Turkish bazaar ethic of life, in which making as much money as possible from naive and good natured customers, and bragging about their ability to fool them afterward at the coffee shop, became the typical way of life for tradesmen and business people. Many Greeks are not ashamed to argue that the way to success is: “Grab to eat, and steal to possess!” Those attitudes of nowadays do not originate in Ancient Greece; the Ottoman Turks dumped them in Greece, and the Greeks adopted them!

Pauline Hager’s 2010 novel “Giorgi’s Greek Tragedy” made a similar claim. The publisher’s note made it clear where the blame for Greece’s poverty and corruption lies:

Today, Greek families pay over 1,500 euros per year in bribes. A surgeon in a state hospital expects additional euros from a family to perform surgery, in addition to what the state pays him. Tax collectors are notorious for collecting additional euros from citizens to assure them their taxes are properly recorded, and so it goes in all aspects of daily living. The bribery rampant in modern Greece is a carry-over from Ottoman rule.

Could there be anything in this? Surely the woes of a modern state can’t be blamed on a conquest 400 years ago. Isn’t this just a form of buck-passing?

Then I remembered a conversation I had with some Bulgarian academics and journalists, over several beers, on a warm evening in Plovidiv’s old square. These were people of a broadly liberal persuasion; cosmopolitan, well-travelled and cautiously pro-EU. Yet they, too, felt that the Ottoman occupation had damaged their country. As one of them explained to me:

You have to remember that we had no Renaissance and no Enlightenment. The flowering of thought and ideas and the innovation that went with it were closed to us. We did not have our Renaissance until the nineteenth century.

In his view, by closing Bulgaria off from European ideas and social movements, the Ottoman occupation was at least partially to blame for the country’s proverty.

This prompted me to do some digging. Are the former Ottoman provinces worse off than other European countries?

It’s a crude measure, perhaps, but look at the per capita GDP of the EU countries that were outside the communist bloc. Taking the IMF figures from just before the financial crisis, the former Ottoman provinces of Cyprus and Greece have the third and fourth lowest per capita GDP.

Country Per Capita GDP 2007 (USD)
Luxembourg 107,099.26
Ireland 59,820.87
Denmark 57,171.43
Sweden 50,558.90
Netherlands 47,838.63
Finland 46,468.58
United Kingdom 46,118.06
Austria 44,913.74
Belgium 43,053.66
France 41,939.06
Germany 40,570.06
Italy 35,839.68
Spain 32,468.29
Cyprus 28,043.83
Greece 28,008.98
Portugal 21,820.43
Malta 18,425.23

Among the former communist countries, the difference is even more pronounced. You can almost trace the boundary of the Ottoman Empire in about 1700 by those above and below the five-figure per capita GDP line. Even in former Yugoslavia, the old Austrian provinces (Croatia and Slovenia) are markedly richer than the former Ottoman ones.

Country Per Capita GDP 2007 (USD)
Slovenia 23,577.74
Czech Republic 16,935.14
Estonia 16,160.24
Slovak Republic 13,936.67
Hungary 13,699.30
Croatia 13,210.90
Latvia 12,622.47
Lithuania 11,582.13
Poland 11,157.27
Romania 7,921.82
Bulgaria 5,512.28
Serbia 5,336.10
Macedonia 4,252.33
Bosnia and Herzegovina 3,888.09
Albania 3,393.46

Like Greece, the other former Ottoman provinces have tax evasion problems too. Romania and Bulgaria are rated as the the worst in the EU and Serbia’s illegal economy is estimated at round 40% of GDP.

Now of course this could all be coincidence. I’ve been around long enough not to infer cause and effect from a few simple statistics. It could be that these figures just reflect Europe’s North-South split as well as its East-West one and that the Balkan countries happen to be on the wrong side of both.

My knowledge of Balkan history is fairly rudimentary. I can tell you who conquered whom and roughly when, but the finer details of how the Ottomans ran their empire is beyond me. I’d be fascinated to hear from someone who actually knows about this stuff, to tell me whether this is a complete red herring or whether there is, as many seem to believe, some truth in the claim that the poverty and corruption of the Balkans is a legacy of Ottoman rule.

After all, we take it as read that 50 years of communist rule set back development in Eastern Europe. Could it be true that 300 years of Ottoman rule was just as damaging for the Balkans and Greece?

Don’t waste a good crisis

I never finished Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine. I accidentally left it in a hotel room in a Balkan capital after leaving to catch an early flight. At some point I will get another copy and read the rest of it.

Going by two-thirds or so that I did read, some of Klein’s arguments were over-stated. The chapter about Britain and the Falklands, for example, was a little far-fetched. But the basic claim of the book, that governments and corporations use crises as a cover to do what they have always wanted to do, is difficult to argue with.

We are already seeing it here. There is no evidence that handing over state activities to private sector bureaucracies, or the oddly named social enterprises, will save any public money at all. Most probably, it will lead to lower standards. Less for less, not more for less. Yet the government is determined to push such measures through. All that will happen is that private sector rent-seekers will get to cream off yet more taxpayers’ money.

The re-organisation of the NHS is perhaps the most glaring example of this. Outside the government, almost no-one belives that the proposed re-structure will save any money. Manchester Business School calculates that it will cost an extra £3bn on top of the current NHS budget. You don’t need to be a left-winger to think that the plans are crazy. Even Civitas reckons that they will cost a fortune. The most likely outcome, again, will be easy pickings for the ‘private commissioning advisors‘ – another transfer of public spending to the private sector.

All this is being done under the cloak of ‘reducing the deficit’ – it’s all necessary to get the country out of its financial mess, we are told, yet there is no evidence that dismantling public services and selling them off to the private sector will save us a bean and quite a lot of evidence to suggest that it will cost us more.

The same is true of employment law. We need to scrap employment protection to enable employers to create jobs and boost the economy, says the government. But there is no evidence that employment protection is impeding job creation. Some research even indicates too little protection damages the economy. The uncertainty that would come with the abolition of unfair dismissal laws would not do much for consumer confidence either.

But that’s not really the point. Getting rid of employment legislation and handing over chunks of the state to the private sector is something the Conservatives have wanted to do for years. The financial crisis just provides them with an excuse. Don’t expect the numbers to add up because they won’t.

And now the grandees of the Eurozone are at it too. As Frances Coppola says, the package put together to ‘save the Euro’ will do very little to address the fiscal problems of Greece or Italy. What it will do, though, is integrate the countries of the Eurozone far more closely than anything hitherto proposed and certainly more closely than any scenario put to the Eurozone’s voters. There are still those in Brussels who yearn for ever closer union. They have always wanted an excuse to pull the countries of Europe closer together.  When the Soviets went and dismantled their empire, the external threat, and with it the fear that drove integration, was removed. Now the Euro crisis has come along and filled the gap.

Now that everyone is scared again, fewer people question the assertion that integration is the only way. It is unlikely to solve the Eurozone’s problems but it does give some powerful people the excuse to do what they had always wanted to do.

A good crisis provides ideal cover for politicians and other elites to drive through the changes that they have long wanted to make. When people are scared, confused and in shock, they don’t ask too many questions.

Selling of public services, trashing and redesigning the NHS and abolishing employment protection will not help us to reduce the deficit. Closer political integration is unlikely to help the Eurozone much either. But the fear brought about by the financial crisis mutes much of the dissent. By the time we find out that we’ve been had, it will be too late.

The Tories – right-wing in the wrong places

I’ve been saying for years that the Tories are never right-wing about the things I want them to be right-wing about and Labour are never left-wing about the things I want them to be left-wing about.

It was said, I think by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, though I can’t find the quote, that the last two decades saw the economic triumph of the right and the cultural triumph of the left. It’s almost as though a tacit deal was done. “You can have equality and diversity laws, political correctness, curbs on police powers and progressive teaching if we can have a casualised labour market, castrated unions, low regulation and outsourcing.” Both Labour and the Conservatives have embraced the economic liberalism of the right and the social liberalism of the left, albeit to slightly different degrees. The casualties have been traditional Toryism and old working class Labourism, both of which have been quietly abandoned. The tacit deal also means that both parties collude on what is not said. “We won’t mention hanging and flogging if you don’t bang on about nationalisation or high tax. And we’ll both tone it down on immigration.”

Ed West has noticed some of this too. “The Conservatives are only Right-wing when no one wants them to be,” he complains. He is referring to the suggestion by government adviser and venture capitalist Adrian Beecroft that unfair dismissal laws should be abolished. In may ways, this report epitomises the Conservatives’ drift to that blend of social and economic liberalism, now reinforced by their alliance with the Lib Dems.

Read it carefully and you will notice that, while unfair dismissal is to be abolished, discrimination law will not be touched. This would effectively remove protection from white men (unless they happened to be a minority in the place where they worked) while maintaining it from women and ethnic minorities. What would be left of our employment law would say that it is OK to sack anyone, for whatever reason, unless the reason is due to sex, race religion or disability. You don’t need much imagination to see what the effect of such a law would be.

“What is it with the Conservatives?” asks Ed West:

They seem to be Right-wing only where no one wants them to be Right-wing. Theirs is a conservatism that cares nothing about British sovereignty, marriage, natural justice, defending the borders, law and order or the armed forces, but that cares deeply about reducing the rights of British workers.

I’m reminded of Ian Fletcher’s question, “Is capitalism conservative any more?” He concluded that it isn’t. Our conservative party now is certainly more capitalist than conservative. The economic triumph of the right sees employment protection weakened. The cultural triumph of the left insists that an equality and diversity gloss is put upon it by maintaining discrimination laws. Adrian Beecroft’s proposal is thoroughly modern politics.