Archive for the ‘Media’ Category

Missed opportunities at Downton

31 October 2011

I suspect I’m not the only person who having done post-graduate research who then shudders at the prospect of a new popular cultural representation of the time and place they studied.  As it turns out, I have quite enjoyed Downton Abbey – more so the first series than the second, but that is mainly down to better plots than the historical mistakes.

It would be all too easy to carp on about these mistakes (the most obvious ones being the bizarre timings of the start and end of the war); instead I thought that I would run through a few storylines I’ve thought of this evening that I think would have been more interesting than, or at least differently interesting to, those they chose. If I ever wrote a fictional book, film or play about the war it would probably involve one or more of these plots ideas.

  • The Earl forces young men in his employ to enlist in 1914 or face the sack and is racked with guilt for it when several are killed (apparently 30 of their staff died, but only one is ever mentioned by name).
  • The Earl (also) becomes a member of the local Military Service Tribunal and thus has to decide the fates of men who do not want to enlist, possibly including (but please, please, not exclusively) Conscientious Objectors. Again potential for guilt, but also a chance to portray the difficulties of deciding one man’s case against another’s.
  • A member of staff or the family is seriously wounded in a way that actually leaves a physical trace – e.g. loss of limbs, or facial disfigurement that the family struggle to deal with (the P. Gordon character almost did thisbut seems to have disappeared again). There is a French film called The Officers’ Ward that deals with this well.
  • One of the daughters becomes a nurse and doesn’t still live at home!
  • One of the maids who go on about leaving service actually does and she works in munitions or something.
  • A character is lauded as a hero (perhaps after winning the VC) but knows in his heart that he did not deserve it.
  • A central character goes missing and doesn’t suddenly turn up at the end of the episode. (Surely tension should be part of a drama!) Or a character is ‘missing presumed dead’ and the family seek information about it. My Boy Jack depicted this very well (along with the guilt of a pro-war father who suffers bereavement – Rudyard Kipling) so maybe that wasn’t allowed, but they could certainly have been missing for longer.
  • German prisoners of war come to work on the farm land to make up for the loss of labour. Good opportunity to let loose some of the visceral anti-German feeling many Britons felt but none of the characters seem capable of; they could also warm to the Germans, or at least come to accept them (as people did). Also an opportunity for a really controversial will-she-won’t-she romantic interlude for one of the daughters.
  • A significant character is suspected of being a spy. Perhaps Mary after her prewar escapade with a man from one of the enemy powers, or maybe the Irish driver because he is clearly anti-British (after 1916) and a bit of a rebel. Or maybe Carson, overheard saying peculiar things on the telephone.

I’m sure there are others, but I think that will do for now, otherwise I risk running into the territory of seriously geeky. Suffice to say, they missed out on a bunch of interesting plots.


We don’t need to talk about Winston

30 March 2011

I discovered recently that my great-grandfather Richard Berwick Hope played on his school cricket team with the great sportsman C.B. Fry.  He (Hope) also turns out to have been a contemporary of Winston Churchill at Sandhurst (he features on the list at the back of this book on Churchill).

These things got me thinking about what my ancestor might have thought as he saw these two contemporaries of his become world-famous figures, particularly Churchill since Hope lived through the Second World War and even into Churchill’s peacetime period as prime minister.  Part of me wonders what he made of his class-mate’s rise to Home Secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty, Minister of Munitions, Chancellor of the Exchequer, First Lord of the Admiralty (again) and Prime Minister.

These idle thoughts butted up against a general feeling I’ve had for a while that Churchill’s image as national hero really needs more grounding in real life. There seems to be a sense that because Churchill did or said something it must be right.  This is rubbish.  He did and said a lot of things, many of which were stupid and many more of which were reflections of his time rather than some innate truth.

This is not to say that he should not be regarded as a national hero – I think he should, it is hard to imagine that any of the alternative prime ministers in 1940 would have been so firm and inspirational.  He was the person that the nation needed in 1940… but he is not the person the nation needs now. He was inspirational at his nation’s hour of great need, but is he really someone to be recalled whenever it suits?

Two examples occur to me of the use of Churchill’s name in political arguments.  One by Baroness Warsi and one by the BNP.

Sayeeda Warsi recently quoted Churchill to support her argument against the Alternative Vote system:

Let me tell you what’s wrong with AV. ‘It is the stupidest, the least scientific and the most unreal’ voting system. It means that elections ‘will be determined by the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates.’ Conference, not my words – the words of Winston Churchill eighty years ago.

She also used the Churchill quotations in an article for the Sun today, to back up her line that AV will assist the BNP.  I’m sure it is heartening for Conservatives and Sun readers to hear that Churchill felt this way about AV, but (even aside from the misleading point about extremism) it really is not helpful.

It might do them some good to remember that this is the same Churchill who told the nation that a Labour government would need a “Gestapo” to implement their policies.  It was also Churchill who returned the nation to the Gold Standard in the 1920s, helping to bring on the General Strike. I wonder whether Baroness Warsi thinks that her Cabinet colleagues and the nation as a whole should follow his lead back to the Gold Standard.

Churchill also refused to speak to Lady Astor when she was elected because: “I find a woman’s intrusion into the House of Commons as embarrassing as if she bursts into my bedroom when I had nothing with which to defend myself, not even a sponge.”  One can’t help but wonder what he would have made of the appearance of a woman of Pakistani descent in a Tory Cabinet!

Even more despicable in the tub-thumping Churchill-worship was Nick Griffin when he appeared on Newsnight and used Churchill to back up his point of view. He claimed that Churchill would have been a BNP member, to which various people made valid arguments about the fight that Churchill put up in the name of democracy.

In some ways, Griffin was correct, though: Churchill would have agreed with some of the BNP’s policies, such as on non-white immigration to the UK. This is not because their position is inherently right and British, but because Churchill was a man of the nineteenth century with a Victorian sense of racial superiority.  His views were out of date by the time of his death, and are even more so now.  Churchill was also an imperialist, while the BNP think that we should not be involved in wars overseas. Judged by today’s standards, Churchill was indeed very right wing. That is why we shouldn’t take as gospel the words of the ageing wartime prime minister… because he was a man of his time. That is part of what gave him his rhetorical ability, but it makes him a bad role model in many other ways.

We should respect Churchill, but accept his faults. His leadership in the Second World War was imperfect but it was important – if not vital – to the survival of a democratic Britain and of the Western Front against Nazism. His record on domestic matters is less impressive and his views were those of a man of his time.  This should not mean that we hark back to those views as inviolable ‘British’ views, or that he was right (or wrong) about everything, or that we dismiss him out of hand. Churchill was important, but he must be understood in context not put on a pedestal and worshipped.

Please, stop quoting him as if he was some great infallible arbiter of political debates… he was not.

Tahrir Square, London?

3 March 2011

Like most people with a computer and in interest in events beyond the end of my road, I’ve been following the uprisings, protests and nascent revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa.  A lot of interesting things have been said about the protests there, notably in two excellent Plant Money podcasts (the word excellent should always precede the words Planet Money podcast) on the economic power of the Egyptian military and its reluctance to shoot on its customers (the people) and on the differences between the diverse Egyptian economy and the rentier state of Libya.

Slightly less informative, but at least vaguely thought-provoking, is a piece by Laurie Penny under the title ‘Is it crass to compare the protests in London, Cairo and Wisconsin?’, with the equally stunning subtitle ‘The difference between Tahrir Square and Parliament Square is one of scale, but not of substance.’

In a way, she is right. There is inequality, there is a feeling that the government is not doing the will of the people.  Also, there has been no clear leader of the protests in either country – there’s no 2011 Scargill (certainly not Aaron Porter).  Actually, some of these points come from another piece:

It would, of course, be absurd to compare the oppression suffered by Egyptians to the grievances against which [these anti-government protestors here] direct their wrath, but the dynamics of both movements can be compared relative to their own societies.

The most striking similarity is both are leaderless movements, and that makes it very difficult for conventional politicians to understand or deal with them. Individual figures in both movements have been sources of inspiration, but in neither case has that individual taken upon himself to become the spokesman for the group or the individual empowered to speak for it or to act as its negotiator.

Oh, I should probably mention that this was from a piece entitled ‘Twins: Tahrir Square and the Tea Party’ on an opinions page of USA Today.

I’m not saying this to equate the UK student/anti-cuts protests to the tea party per se.  They are protesting for wildly different things.  The point is that they are similar and those US protestors (no less than in Wisconsin, where the protest is more like the student sit-ins in the UK) probably feel solidarity with those in Egypt.

The reason that they are similar is that they are modern protests. They have used the internet, they have no specific leaders, they have broadly by-passed traditional political party structures – the Republicans are riskily trying to incorporate the energy of the tea party movement but the movement is not strictly Republican in itself, the UK protesters are from a range of groups that include many in the Labour camp but it is not akin to the Labour party (indeed there would be protests at the levels of cuts Labour would have had to make too).

The are also similar in some respects because of their place within the current economic crisis, as Laurie Penny notes – the difficulty of getting work, and of getting by, are behind all three, albeit with vastly differing specific circumstances, grievances and responses in the US, the UK and Egypt.

But they are not the same, because of these specific circumstances.  In Egypt, there has been a repressive regime that stole elections when it deigned to hold them.  It was a brutal regime, as another blogger has expressed far more vehemently than I have. Whatever you think of the UK ‘police state’, control orders (which are used on 5 or 6 people), and the Coalition Government (which was formed entirely in line with our constitution, if very quickly by international standards), these are not the same as the pressures, the corruption and the ‘state of emergency’ that have kept Egyptian protest bottled up for decades and led it to explode this year.

Solidarity does not mean that two (or three) movements are the same. People should take heart from the efforts of Egyptian protestors and be humbled by it as an example of largely-peaceful protest on a vast scale.  We do not know what will come of their efforts yet, the military are still in charge and will not want significant change.  As to the UK, we will have protests again, probably within weeks outside some town hall in London or elsewhere.  Their argument is not less valid because it is not the same as those in Tahrir Square, but it is not the same.

Charlie Gilmour is a moron

16 December 2010

It seems an obvious thing to say, but I’ll say it anyway: Charlie Gilmour is a moron.  In the protests last week, the expensively-educated moronic son of a pop star was photographed dangling from one of the flags on the Cenotaph.

My feeling that he is a contemptuous buffoon are not because he can afford an expensive education but was protesting against fees for future graduates – that is fair enough, people should protest for the good of other people. It is not even that annoying that he dangled from that flag; in fact, I’m surprised the Cenotaph doesn’t get caught up in riots more often, given where it is; anyway, it’s not like he tipped it over or wrote swear-words on it. I think he was foolish for doing it, especially so visibly and, frankly, while having such a famous Dad.

What seemed more idiotic to me was his response:

“I would like to express my deepest apologies for the terrible insult to the thousands of people who died bravely for our country that my actions represented,” … “I feel nothing but shame. My intention was not to attack or defile the Cenotaph. Running along with a crowd of people who had just been violently repelled by the police, I got caught up in the spirit of the moment.”

Expression of shame, fair enough – that was expected. But re-read the second half and then look at the photo:

Apparently he was caught up in the spirit of the moment in a crowd of people who had just been repelled by the police.  Except that there is no crowd and the spirit seems to be relative calm; the only person nearby is actually completely ignoring the moron dangling from the flag.

What a load of cobblers, Charlie.  Nice of the Grauniad to reproduce his statement unquestioningly, though. Cheers.

Anyway, like I said… moron.

I name thee… Tory!

6 December 2010

There are many things about the way that politics is covered in the press that are quite irritating; worse they are often misleading, so that people see only the bright light of the headline rather than the actual detail of the debate or statement to which it refers.  One of these is Tory-hunting, by which I mean the desparate hunt by journalists and others to find things to make the Tories sounds like the ‘Nasty Party’ or recall the Thatcher Years.  There is a directly opposite and almost equal tendency to search for evidence of ‘Old Labour’ ‘tax and spend’ or fiscal irresponsibility in New Labour and what-is-it-now? Labour.  I say this is a media thing, but that’s not quite true, actually it is something politicians join in with, which is equally annoying.

Anyway, here are some recent examples:

The UK Film Council is being closed down.  If you believe (or indeed are) Colin Firth, the Coalition/Tories want to stop funding British film. Mike Leigh strongly inferred the change it was akin to the scrapping the NHS (although to be fair he may have been referring to the suddenness as much as the scale of the change). The UKFC is closing, but funding for films is not going to stop; the BFI is taking on the role. Given that the last goverment were attempting to merge the two bodies, it is not exactly a gross miscarriage to merge their functions in one body (although of course no one knows quite how well it will work in practice).

IDS: two of Iain Duncan Smith’s statements have been leapt upon this year.  First he had the gall to tell people that there might be jobs they could do that they would have to travel to rather than simply looking in their towns.  He suggested that maybe people might have to travel for an hour (like many do in London) to get to work… and get this, he said they might have to “get on a bus”.  You see, it’s just like Norman Tebbit’s “on your bike” comment, isn’t it?  Isn’t he evil? There are problems with what he said, of course, the cost and unreliability of travel being just two among them. But the media reaction ignored the simple truth at the core of it, that lots of people travel to work.

The second ‘evil’ IDS statement:

“We created over four million jobs in those 13 years and … 70% of those net jobs were taken by people from overseas because people in this county weren’t capable or able to take those jobs.”

According to the Guardian, this meant that ‘its a sin that people fail to take up work’.  To others, he was saying that unemployment itself was a sin. Actually, what he said was the it was wrong that those without work were not capable of taking up these jobs; to put it another way, that they had not been trained sufficiently/correctly while out of work.  At least that’s my take on it.  He said it badly; sin was certainly the wrong word to use.  Nonetheless, it was a statement that the failure to deal with unemployment was bad, not that the state of unemployment was inherently sinful.

Margaret Thatcher Milk Snatcher.  This tory-hunting is not a recent trend.  Before becoming Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher was the education secretary who withdrew free milk at school from children aged 8-11. For this she became “Maggie Thatcher, Milk Snatcher”.  As John Redwood points out, though, free milk for those in school from 11-18 was cut by a Labour government, and for 5,6 and 7 year-olds by a subsequent Labour administration. They, of course, were not milk snatchers!  The subsequent lack of reintroduction of free milk for over 5s since 1979 suggests that neither party is all that bothered by the matter. People just like the rhyme.

I could go on, but it is worth pointing out again that this is not simply the preserve of the left attacking the Tories. The image that Labour have had to try to live down is one of fiscal irresponsibility, against the party’s unfortunate track record of devaluation of the pound. New Labour were attacked as a party of tax and spend, recalling ‘Old Labour’, even after adopting Conservative fiscal policies in 1997.  Whatever the cupability of Gordon Brown in the financial crash, the current Coalition trick has been to explain the deficit and cuts as being due to Brown’s ‘reckless spending’ since 1997.  Occasionally people like to point out that Brown’s spending plans were accepted by the Tories up to 2007, but to little avail so far.

Alan Johnson summed up the damage done to Labour’s image recently:

He is quick to agree that Labour’s economic credibility is in pieces. “We lost it. That’s the truth of the matter. We’ve lost it to such an extent that when we do polling, the 13 years of what we did — low interest rates, inflation under control, the highest level of employment in our history, paying down debt — all that’s been turned into 13 years of overspending and debt. The Conservatives have been so effective at getting out this mantra that when we poll the public we’re back to where we were in the tortuous days pre-1997. On economic credibility, we are in a really worrying position.”

The arguments are not completely baseless, Tories are more likely that Labour members/ministers to want to cut things and to say unacceptable things about those out of work or on benefits. And of course they are making very deep cuts in public spending (at the same time, Labour would have cut substantially and it was Nick Clegg who said, well before the election, that ‘savage cuts‘ were needed).

And Labour do spend more; also Brown liked to hide spending in PFI debt, while banking of ever-continuing growth and failing to rein in the excesses of the market and proerty bubble.

If we were to boil the two parties down to their core differences, we can see where these criticisms come from and why the parties have acted the way of have done in their last few years in opposition (respectively). Essentially, the Tories put economic growth (and hopefully stability) first – the idea being that increased growth will improve life in Britain, for them and their investor/business-owning friends, and for those who will be employed by them (in theory at least).  Labour put social factors first, figuring that it is more important to make sure that everyone can find a job and be in a decent situation now, rather than waiting for future growth.

In 1992, the Conservatives lost any semblance of fiscal responsibility, swiftly followed by the New Labour reassurances that the economy would be safe in their hands.  When the the supposedly-banished bust turned up at the end of the boom years, Labour lost that credibility again (as Johnson said).

A powerful legacy of the 1980s for the Tories is the image that they do not care about anyone but themselves and their middle- and upper-class friends. What David Cameron made a great effort to do in opposition and with the coalition’s stress on ‘fairness’, was to reassure the public that they really did care.  Not for nothing does the phrase ‘compassionate conservative’ exist; we don’t need the phrase ‘compassionate Labour’.  It seems incredibly unlikely that the cuts (or rather halting of public spending increase and consolidation into specific ring-fenced departments) are going to be ‘fair’.  Benefits and public services are inherently used more by people who can’t afford any alternative, or who would be worse off having to do so.  The poll figures suggest that the image of caring Tories is already on the way out, Labour have slipped ahead a couple of times recently despite not really having any policies of their own.

So, there are reasons for the simplistic headlines, but they are often misleading.  Much better to read the actual story or statement rather than say ‘evil old Tories’ or ‘reckless old Labour’ in response to a tedious soundbite.

Everybody hates Tony

23 September 2010

Tony Blair has been in the news a lot recently with TV appearances, his book and the abandoned book tour.  Given the reception given in the media and by angry anti-Blairites, it is hardly surprising that many people assume that the book is all ‘self-serving and dishonest‘ – this is the wording of the question not a spontaneous statement and the poll was taken the day that the book came out (37% agreed with that statement, 31% didn’t know).

Alex Massie has written a piece for Foreign Policy entitled ‘Everybody hates Tony: How Britain’s golden boy lost his luster’, which describes the remarkable shift in opinion since 2003 to the point that “Blair’s name is mud on the eastern side of the Atlantic. The former prime minister has been entirely disowned.” Although he rightly points out that the visceral Blair-hatred is a minority sport, he still makes out as if the ex-PM is universally disliked. Polling data show, though, that he is divisive rather than hated and disowned.

A recent Yougov/Sun poll* shows that opinion on Blair is largely unchanged since he left office in 2007. People’s opinions of his premiership were recorded as follows (this is a shortened form of the stated responses):

Very Good (VG): fallen from 11% in 2007 to 10% in Sept 2010

Fairly Good (FG): 38% to 37%

Fairly Poor (FP): 28% to 21%

Very Poor (VP): 18% to 25%

In total, then, 47% think he was a good PM and 46% that he was poor (2007: 49% and 46%). What the figures says to me is that he is slightly less popular than in 2007, but that those who disapprove have got angrier since 2007. The 7% increase in 2010’s ‘very poor’ presumably coming from the ‘fairly poor’ column in 2007. Blair has not been completely disowned.  He is not popular or broadly hated, he divides opinion.

The idea that Labour voters hate him is also not borne out, despite the current Labour leadership contenders trying to distance themselves from Blair.  Figures for Labour voters were 22% VG, 58% FG, 11% FP and 7%VP; that is to say that 80% of Labour voters think that he was a good PM. Of course, this does not mean they want a Blairite leader now, but that they think that ‘he had many successes’ or ‘his successes outnumbered his failures’. Meanwhile 70% of Conservatives saw him as FP or VP, which is hardly surprising. Massie’s comment that the Guardian-reading Left-ish ‘chattering classes’ are the most anti-Blair are certainly accurate, but he neglects the evidence that many people, especially Labour voters still feel he did a good job.

Further evidence that he is divisive rather than hated comes from the Yougov question over who was the ‘Best’ and ‘Worst’ post-1945 PM to serve for more than 5 years. Margaret Thatcher topped both polls with 36% best and 31% worst, while Blair came a close second at 20% and 25%. (The others were Wilson, Attlee, Macmillan and Major; over 20% didn’t know in each poll). Again there was a party split between Thatcher and Blair, but their placement clearly shows that they occupy a much greater and more complex position in the public mind than other prime ministers.

Interestingly, given that the anger against Blair is widely seen as based on his policy of war in Iraq, the poll shows that more people (in all age groups over 25 years, but especially the over 60s) felt that his immigration policy was a greater mistake (62%) than the war in Iraq (54%). A poll in 2007 showed the same result (58% to 55%).

Yougov’s poll trackers also suggest that disapproval of Blair did not come as a result of the failure to find WMD in Iraq (as Massie states), but it was already there in February 2003 – suggesting that the feeling grew over the Iraq debacle well before the war began. A BBC graph shows opinion dipping in early 2000 and late 2002. Yougov stats show dissatisfaction with him fluctuating between 57% and 63% in 2003 (the BBC graph shows a wartime blip, the ‘rally round the flag’ is a widly-recognised response to wars), and in 2004, 2005 and 2006.

The BBC graph (using MORI polling):

No doubt Iraq was the cause of this solid body of dislike, but it came during the build-up to the war and was only confirmed by the growing evidence of Blair’s misleading of the public (and it was not unprecedented). Today, poll questions on the evidence for a rightness of war are phrased to acknowledge the dodgy grounds for war.  Even at the time a narrow majority of people felt that Blair was handling the situation badly (see stats quoted in this amusing attempt to show how great Blair was).

Contrary to the impression sometimes given in the press and on TV – and by noisy protesters – most people do not think that Blair is a war criminal.  He has not been completely disowned by his former-voters, even if they would not necessarily trust him (or people seen to be like him) again.  He is, however, a hugely divisive figure – apparently nearing a par with Margaret Thatcher – on both his domestic and foreign policy legacy.

* The report of the yougov poll states different figures than the data they provide on pdf, and didn’t terms, which is rather confusing.  My figures come from the pdf, not their report.

Keith Park, art and fascism

14 August 2010

A google search for ‘Keith Park statue’ brings up, of course the website for the campaign to have a statue of this Hero of the Battle of Britain erected in London.  Before that, though, the top result is this piece of gibbering, irritating  rubbish from a Guardian art writer.

In a nutshell, Jonathan Jones hates the statue and all that it represents.  In being a figurative statue it highlights the stupid divide between ‘proper’ and ‘modern’ art, apparently.  In representing Sir Keith Park, it is actually ‘a fascist icon […], brooding over the heart of London’ – and therefore a symbol of all that ‘the Few’ fought against.

I don’t know enough about art to fault Jones on the quality of the statue.  His attack on the fact that it is figurative seems a little bizarre when he is criticising the divide in British art. He says that ‘Modern art was called into being by modern life, and as we hurtle into the future there is no sign of its pertinence diminishing.’ Be that as it may, the Fourth Plinth is there for contemporary art, not specifically modern art (which I take to mean it is for chronologically modern, not aesthetically ‘modernist’ or what have you). I don’t think that the Park statue is the best thing that has been on there – the HMS Victory in a bottle is very good. However, the art there is supposed to make a point, and not always an artistic point (much as that might surprise an art critic) – the point in this case being that if Dowding, Harris, Slim, et al, deserve statues, so does Keith Park.  You don’t have to be as angered by modern ignorance of 1940 as Clive James is to see that it is a valid argument, even if you disagree over whether a new statue is needed, or is aesthetically pleasing.

More worrying for me is his attitude towards the history. I don’t think many people want to see the plinth permanently taken up by a military figure. We do, though, have a history of building statues to people who played a pivotal role in the nation’s history – especially to save us from tyranny. It is also a very recent history – Slim’s statue was erected in 1990, Harris’s (amid public protest) in 1992 and Alanbrooke‘s in 1994.  Since then we have had some collective monuments – including the Battle of Britain Monument on the Victoria Embankment and the dreadful Women of World War Two one on Whitehall.  Are these fascist icons?

What Jones seems to miss, or simply not understand, is that fascism revolves around the worship of the collective – a homogeneous whole that does not accept dissent or outsiders in its midst. It is an idea that requires a dynamic leader, but which is based in ideas of a (non-pluralist) collective.  Monuments celebrating individual play a role in this, but really they should be attempting to inspire action, which the Park statue does not.  The Edith Cavell one perhaps comes closest, with the message ‘Patriotism is not enough.’  No, really, a collective monument that celebrates action is what we need if we want a fascist icon. Not the Cenotaph then, that is to the ‘glorious dead’ and doesn’t inspire action, only memory and mourning – the Women of WW2 one remembers action but does not depict it.  Actually, the Battle of Britain memorial is much more appropriate:

It depicts movement and shows the idealised fit young male, all very Junger-esque.  Indeed, the whole idea of ‘the Few’ and its retrospective idealisation is much more in line with ‘fascism’ than a statue of one of its leaders looking rather meditative is.

In fact, the word that Jones is looking for is ‘nationalist’, not fascist.  The two are not synonyms, much as some might have you think – including the BNP with their ‘nationalist’ name and fascist ideology. But then, of course, it doesn’t make such good copy – and ‘the Few’ were weren’t fighting against nationalism, they were fighting for the survival of their own nation, or rather nations. Fascism is one of those words that journalists like to use for ideas (especially anything so right-wing as celebrating a war hero, apparently) to which they object.  In this case, and I suspect many others, it is simply sloppy and inaccurate.

Voting and young soldiers

5 April 2010

Today, the BBC News website reports that the think tank Demos has reported in favour of lowering the UK voting to 16 (from 18). I am undecided on the issue (but erring towards opposition to a change) and am interested to hear a clinching argument either way. In amongst the arguments in the report is this passage (in the report’s defence, this is the only mention of soldiers, the BBC chose to focus on the issue):

Being able to join the armed forces at 16 is just one example of an age-differentiated right that lends support to an argument for lowering the voting age to 16. The ‘Votes at 16’ coalition states that some 4560 16 and 17 year olds were serving in the armed forces as of April 2007. Of the first 100 British soldiers to be killed in the ongoing war in Iraq, at least six were too young to have ever cast a vote in a general election.

At first, of course, this seems a striking anomaly: soldiers able to fight and die for their country but not to vote?  The implication is that they were underage when they were serving in Iraq and were killed. This conclusion is reasserted by the report’s author, who states (to the BBC) that

“They are able to take a bullet for their country before they are old enough to cast a ballot for who governs it.”

Clearly, this is unacceptable – in 2003 the Government signed a UN protocol banning the use of under-18s in a war zone (it later admitted that some had been sent ‘by mistake’ to Iraq and Afghanistan). That those in the armed forces can be recruited under the age of 18 is an interesting and potentially worrying, but separate, issue.  The fact is that Government policy and international law stipulate that those in war zones must be over 18.  All those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan were at least 18 at the time that they died. If there had been an election while they were there, they could have voted.

The fact is that there will always be people who are of age but were unable to vote in the last election: anyone born after May 1987 at the moment, i.e. anyone under 23.  Should we withdraw all soldiers from the front line if they haven’t yet had the chance to vote? There have been several men killed in Afghanistan who would not have been able to vote in 2005 even if the voting age had been 16.

Naturally, I do not wish to denigrate the service of those who have fought and died in our modern wars.  Nor, I hope, do the authors of the Demos report (which names the men) or BBC news story, but the fact is that they are making a spurious point about voting age, based on the deaths of servicemen.

The Representation of the People Act, 1918 (which extended the vote to all men over 21 and women over 30) made servicemen aged 19 or over eligible to vote while they were serving. In that case, the difference between the age of voting and the age of military service at the front was large – 18, 19 and 20-year-olds being able (or rather compelled) to serve at the front. Hence those who were serving were given the vote (I’m not sure of the situation in 1939-45. Voting age was lowered to 18 in 1969).

There are strong arguments for voting reform in the fact that thousands of under 18s are in the armed forces, and millions more are in the tax-paying work force (see the pdf 16 reasons for votes at 16). Service in the firing line is not one of them.

p.s. on the subject of the Iraq War Dead, I saw Steve McQueen’s Queen and Country at the portrait gallery yesterday and was again struck by its simplicity and power.