Staying in a bed and breakfast for a poetry conference this weekend, I did something I very rarely do, and watched TV. As I tucked into my morning fry-up it was there on the wall, the sound respectably inaudible. Nevertheless, I got the picture. It is Remembrance Sunday on the Andrew Marr show and we start with the news. Shots of a 5000 year old city, exploding in smoke (War is difficult isn’t it?). Graphics of quotes from US statements about terrorists (but war is righteous), shots of radical preacher complete with beard (war is necessary). Brave spies, un-hostaged returning to the US to be greeted by their tearful family. The Berlin Wall, 25 years on. Isn’t freedom great?
Of course everyone we see is wearing a poppy. Graham Norton was once disciplined for wearing a red ribbon in support of AIDS sufferers, but over the last decade, the BBC’s official diktat has been that all people who appear in front of camera in the month of November MUST display that badge in order to honour the glorious sacrifice of brave men and women who preserved our freedom of conscience.
Andrew Marr was chairing the debate. He has published a history of Britain and is what passes for a ‘public intellectual’ in this country. First, there was a discussion with some journalists over the Sunday papers. What does the media think that the media is saying? And one woman (Sheila Hancock, actor) was actually wearing a white poppy! The first time I have ever seen one on national TV. Obviously, she had to wear a red one too, though it seemed that she was trying to overshadow the red with the white.
This kind of panel is how ‘balanced debate’ works in British mainstream media. One moderate liberal (with oversized, ceramic poppy), one standard right winger (standard red poppy) and an occasional outsider speaking some sense (white poppy) who will be shouted over, patronised and put down. This is not actually how you have a debate. This was well pointed out in Ann Dummett’s excellent book ‘A Portrait of English Racism’ in 1973:
“Discussion programmes on TV are usually fruitless. It is not possible to have a discussion that advances knowledge where the people involved are too far apart to agree on anything at all and … each speaker .. is liable to be interrupted before reaching the point of his [sic] argument.”
Truly balanced public service TV would be an hour of left wing broadcasting, followed by an hour of right wing broadcasting with a whole load of other stuff in between. Instead we have what the Blair government insisted was called being ‘neutral’.
I went upstairs to my room. With the fascinated horror of a car crash witness, I watched (and listened this time) to Andrew Marr interviewing General Sir Nicholas Houghton. They began with the question of whether we should celebrate the 1914-18 war in which 37 million people were killed and whose main achievements were the ending of European world power and the creation of Hitlerism. This, of course, was not how they framed it. In this 100-years-since-1914, we all knew there would be a torrent of WW1 revisionist histories and their public supporters – Michael Gove taking the lead. But, actually, I expected worse. At the end of 2013, I was at talks where historians were saying things like, ‘we can’t let the establishment rewrite history. We must remember the 1st world war’s army mutinies, the killing of the deserters, the protests and riots over the state’s contemporary attempt to celebrate the armistice.’
What I did not predict was that the establishment would admit defeat from the beginning. They cannot really win a serious historical argument on the point. So, asks Marr, quoting Gove and the ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ line, have we “undermined what an important war it was. Do you feel in any sense that we have underplayed… that we now mock the first world war too much?” In effect: Do you, General, think that the Generals were generally portrayed in a bad light? Well, says, the General, we cannot take the “actions of that time out of context” and indulge “hobbyist history”. Instead of engaging in a conflict that they cannot hope to win, they retreat and declare that the other side are not playing a fair game. There is a conspiracy in our national debate (says BBC2 Sunday morning TV) to ‘undermine’ the First World War’s ‘importance’. No actual explanation of what that importance was – how would they actually defend it against any serious historian?
If that was serving up Houghton with a nice, easy tap-in, Marr’s other questions were, if anything, even more generous. He asks him about the terrorist threat to the remembrance services, to which Houghton can wax lyrical-Churchillian about how we should not ‘succumb to any sense that there is a terrorist threat there that is at all going to stop the British way of life. I cannot think of another day when the British people would want to do what absolutely comes naturally to them.”
Easy territory so far. So Marr continues in this sycophantic vein, telling us that “the armed forces hadn’t the political backing they deserved. Do you agree with that?” And when Houghton huffily states his absolute loyalty to his political masters, Marr clarifies that he meant no harm by that question: “I mean by that the money, the resources, the kit”. At which point the British army general has the less than difficult task of telling us how important it is to equip the British army.
So it is a ‘part of the British way of life’ to join these poppy parades. All who do not are of course ‘un-British’. The knee-jerk patriotism is called ‘natural’ as if those years of patriotic discourse drumming in ideas of ‘our glorious dead’, ‘British freedom’ and ‘sacrifice’ have never happened but it is simply that this ‘natural’ attitude emerges spontaneously inside all who are born within this sceptred isle. But ask a different question and you’ll get a different answer. Do you think that political and military leaders have any concern for the lives of the men and women they send into battle beyond their ‘utility’ (a word Houghton used more than once) in defending the interests of the establishment? Do you think they ever have done? Witness Wellington’s “scum of the earth” description of his army. Witness Churchill’s “rum, sodomy and the lash” answer to the question of the traditions of the British navy.
Yet, Houghton is allowed to get away with an outrageous rewriting of recent history: “The prime strategic purpose has been achieved: denying Afghanistan as a safe haven for terrorism such that the streets of the UK are safer. And indeed, in the last 13, 14 years there has not been a single international terrorist attack launched from that country.” And how many were there before that? Can he mean the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon? 1. Those attacks did not kill anyone on the ‘British streets’ as the juxtaposition implies. 2. The hijacked aeroplanes were internal flights and thus launched not from Afghanistan, but from the USA. 3. Since the war on Afghanistan, the number of terrorist attacks in the world has increased, including of course the 2005 bombs in London.
You might expect a general to talk like this but what amazed me was how cravenly complicit Marr was as an interviewer. 20,000 Afghan people have died since 2001. We would hope that our journalists might mention this fact. Although Marr sombrely remembers the “hundreds” of British troops who have been killed, he sees no reason to bring up what even Western stooge Harmid Kazai decried during his years as president, i.e., how “Civilian deaths and arbitrary decisions to search people’s houses have reached an unacceptable level and Afghans cannot put up with it any longer.” There is no equivalent of Karzai’s plea to the international forces: “We are very sorry when the international coalition force and NATO soldiers lose their lives or are injured. It pains us. But Afghans are human beings, too.” Houghton admits that the they were unclear about the purpose of the war in Iraq though now they have learned from their mistakes and are recruiting Gulf state forces to challenge the evil etc etc. Let’s take a moment here. The Chief of Staff says he was unsure on the purpose of the war he was leading and Marr lets him get away with it! No mention of Libya, described by William Hague as a “tremendous succes story”: so successful in fact that the British have had to pull out their embassy because the country is too unsafe. Every country where they have tried regime change is locked in violent struggle, with thousands of lives lost. Compare Tunisia – geopolitically unimportant to the West and left relatively alone, doing relatively ok. Compare Egypt which, until the army stepped in to remove the Brotherhood (doomed to be removed by election or popular protest anyway) was on the slow road towards democracy without the help of the West who had backed Mubarak right up until they saw no other option. Weapons ‘liberated’ from Gadhafi’s stores have fuelled conflicts across North and West Africa. And still they expect us to support their ‘war on terror’.
The Peace Pledge Union’s white poppy is an excellent way to show that you care about the loss of life in war and the tragedy it causes without having to give money to the Royal British Legion, who as well as helping veterans, are (it should be remembered) part of the army, provide equipment for the army and whose ‘Poppyrocks Ball’ was this year sponsored by Lockhead Martin and BAE systems.
At least we can all celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall in a time when our Intelligence Security Committee (ISC)’s enquiry into British involvement in torture and rendition is being conducted by a committee where “the prime minister holds an absolute veto over its membership, the evidence which it is allowed to examine, and the information which it is allowed to publish”. We can be proud that our state media is free from political interference, prosperity is shared by all the people of the ‘free world’ and no one is imprisoned or tortured without trial.
P.S was pleased to see that one footballer has chosen not to wear a poppy on his shirt. Wigan Athletic’s James McClean wrote this letter to his club chairman, defending the charges against of him of being “a war monger, or anti-British, or a terrorist”:
if the Poppy was a symbol only for the lost souls of World War I and II I would wear one. …for me to wear a poppy would be as much a gesture of disrespect for the innocent people who lost their lives in the Troubles – and Bloody Sunday especially – as I have in the past been accused of disrespecting the victims of WWI and WWII.
 “it is important to recognise that many of the new analyses emerging challenge existing Left-wing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders. Instead, they help us to understand that, for all our mistakes as a nation, Britain’s role in the world has also been marked by nobility and courage.” Michael Gove, Daily Mail, 2 Jan 2014
 Letter to the ISC committee signed by Reprieve, Amnesty International, Liberty, Cage, Rights Watch UK, Freedom From Torture, Redress, Justice and the legal charity the Aire Centre. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/08/british-torture-inquiry-boycotted-rights-groups