When more is less

23 December 2010

I know this is the traditional time of year for lists of top things of the year (I will probably try to write some over the next week), but this is a list of things that annoy me.  Not a radical move for a blog, I know, but they are collectively something I’ve thought about for a while. It struck me that in many ways the music industry cons and shams the fans of bands – again no great surprise, but it is sad how many credible and thoughtful bands do it, especially when it is done under the pretence of giving more when actually they are giving less (or taking more for a small return).  I’m sure there are more examples, but I’ll stick to three:

3. Greatest hits plus an exclusive new track

I suspect that itunes has pretty much killed off this phenomenon, but it was rife about ten years ago. Bands would release their ‘greatest hits’ (or a retrospective album at least), usually while they were still releasing records, and would include a song or two that had not been on previous singles or albums. Clearly this song was not a greatest hit!  This might seem unsurprising in the case of, say, Gold by Steps, but when the band was one with fans who are completists it is pretty shoddy. The bands were basically telling these fans, ‘OK, I know you’ve already bought all our albums/records already, but if you’re a real fan you’ll also buy this because it has another song on it’.  Notable irritating examples of this are Pulp’s Hits and A Secret History by The Divine Comedy. On the positive side, both were released as extended albums with extra videos (Pulp) or genuinely obscure recordings (TDC), which makes up for the con of the extra track to some extent.

2. Extra dates added due to phenomenal public demand.

Your favourite band is playing a gig in a few months! At a great venue, maybe smaller than you expected… you’d better rush and buy a ticket before they all sell out!  Now they’re sold out.  Hang on, there’s a another date at the same venue added due to public demand… and another date.

Surely the tour manager realised there would be such a rush for tickets, didn’t they? Yes, of course they did.  It is just a marketing ploy to generate a rush to buy tickets for the gig that was announced first.  As with the ‘bonus’ tracks, this is something one might expect to be done for big pop acts but not, for example, for Godspeed You Black Emperor. Having announced one London date, which sold very quickly (hardly surpringly given their extended hiatus and frankly awesome live shows), the promoters suddenly announced two extra shows on the next two nights. Personally this was irritating since the first gig (which I went to) was the day after the ATP/Bowlie 2 festival, but more generally it was really unexpected of (or on behalf of) an avowedly anti-capitalist band. Not that it has all that much to do with capitalism how their gigs are announced, but it just didn’t seem fitting.

I am a fan of seeing bands in smallish venues; generally I’d rather a band did 3 nights in a smaller venue than one in a huge arena. But it does seem massively dishonest to announce that the extra dates at the smaller venue are due to extra demand, rather than simply a marketing ploy. When gigs genuinely sell out unexpectedly, they are moved to bigger venues (for example, some Leeds gigs used to be moved from the Cockpit to the Blank Canvas) or are simply sold out. Extra dates at large and decent venues are rarely just sitting there for the taking, nor are tours usually planned with the bands lazing about in London around the time of their gig.  Why not just say, This band is great and loads of people want to see them so we’re putting them on for 2 or 3 nights? People would still go.

1. Encore

The band have played their set, but the crowd want more.  What should they do?  Go out and play some more for their adoring public?  Of course… but what’s this, they’re playing the famous single, the one that half the people here have come to hear!  Anyone would think they had planned to be called back onstage to play some more.

Encores at rock and pop gigs are the clearest example of audiences being given less under the guise of being given more.  The band goes off stage at about 10.45 for three or four minutes before coming back out and playing a few more songs in time to end at the 11 o’clock curfew.  Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if they had just stayed onstage for those minutes and kept on playing through to 11?  That way the crowd would get more songs.

There are levels of goodness and shoddiness of encore.  The worst kind are the ones where the most eagerly awaited songs are played in the encore – or even two encores. Step forward Radiohead and collect your prize for shoddy treatment of your fans under the guise of extra tracks. Two encores, really Thom?

Better than this is the encore where the singer comes out and does and acoustic track, or the band play an unusual live track (Idlewild doing ‘Chandelier’ or Belle & Sebastian doing ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ for example) or perhaps play a request or two, having done all the obvious tracks already. These can be quite entertaining and can justifiably be separated from the rest of the set.  They are also things that wouldn’t have been missed from the set if they hadn’t happened, they are slightly special.

The best kind of encore is the genuine, unexpected encore.  From memory I can only think of two of these that I’ve seen from signed artists.  One was at ATP/Bowlie 2 a few weeks ago, when Edwyn Collins played an encore at the end of his set.  I can’t be certain, but the fact that mid-afternoon sets usually don’t do encores at ATP and the amount of time it took him to get off stage and back on again make me think this was genuinely unexpected.  His set was one of the festival’s highlights for me, and for many others by the sounds of it. The other was Seafood (anyone remember them?) played at the Twist in Colchester on the tour for their first album.  Having played their set, they disappeared up the stairs to the backstage area, but after about five minutes of crazed cheering from the crowd one of the band members came down to see if these people (most of whom hadn’t heard them before) really did want them back on stage. They did.  Seafood came out to play, but had to admit that they had already played all of their songs, so they played one of them again. They seemed pretty pleased, and so were we – it was a genuine encore, driven by unexpected support from the crowd.

I can understand that encores are simply part of the show at most gigs, planned into the set to allow fans to show their appreciation and for bands to appear to be giving them more of what they want.  Really, though, it makes more sense to just play through; Alfie did this at a few gigs of theirs that I saw. Whether it was from a conviction that encores were a sham or from fear of not being called back onstage I couldn’t say, but it made me think about the stupdity of the practice of encores as a standard part of the set. Also, I don’t know whether it is just the gigs I’ve been going to, but the process of encoring (?) a band seems to have become more of a chore for audiences – unless a gig has been amazing the applause is often a little half-hearted while the band are off stage and only picks up again when the singer returns. Surely better for us all if you just play all the songs you’re going to play, without a big gap.


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.

An Education

8 December 2010

I was going to write a whole bunch, possibly multiple posts, about the proposed Higher Education reforms, ahead of tomorrows vote on increasing the cap on the ‘variable fees’ brought in in 2003 (aka ‘top-up fees’). I’ve been thinking a lot about the subject, but feel like there are a few particularly pertinent things so I’ll stick to them.

Private or public

What the coalition are proposing is a massive change in the philosophy of higher education, a part-privatisation – a change from publicly-funded but private institutions to being private bodies with government assistance for research and for teachingexpensive/strategically-important subjects.  They are not simply saying that graduates (who will pay the fees, not students) should pay more, but that it should be through their choice of courses and universities that directs the funding for teaching, rather than block grants from the state.  This does not mean a massive cut in funding for teaching, per se, but it is a market-led version that is not (contrary to some government statements) what the Labour government were going for in 2003.  Fundamentally, if one accepts that this student-led investment in teaching is a good thing then the proposals are fairly good – give or take flaws that will hopefully be ironed out, and of course the fees question. The measures to widen participation are a welcome addition (even if cutting Education Maintenance Allowances acts directly and oddly contrary to that ambition), as is the removal of up-front fees for some part-time students.


In terms of fees there are three big questions: Who benefits from higher education? Who should pay for it? And how should they pay?

Individual benefits:

It has been estimated that undergraduates cost (on average) £7000 per year to teach. Graduates currently pay £3,290 per year of their degree (they pay afterwards, hence graduates not students); it has been estimated that this year’s intake will leave with an average debt of £25,000 from the fees, loans and other costs of a three-year course.

There has been much talk of a ‘graduate premium’, said to average 23%, varying from 13% for history to 30% for physics and chemistry and more for medicine and law. These statistics (from a 2005 report – link) translate to a pre-tax premium of £89,630 for history, over £186,000 for physics and chemistry and £128,000 overall.  Since then, the average has apparently reached about £150,000; the Browne Report, the post-tax premium is given as £100,000 (or rather $158,074)

Nationwide benefits:

The higher education budget is £14bn per year; this is 0.85% of GDP, below the OECD average of 1.03% (2006 statistics).

Universities UK estimate that higher education contributed 2.3% to UK GDP in 2007/8, and that the sector generated £59bn of ‘output’.  The average return to the state on its investment in HE is said to be about 12.1% (compared to the graduate’s 23%).

So, who benefits?  Clearly, the greatest benefit is to students/graduates themselves, but there is a national benefit in terms of income and job-creation from the sector as a whole as well as from an educated workforce.

Who should pay?

There is a strong argument that funding from general taxation is fair, not only in getting rid of fees, but also because even the graduates with the lowest ‘graduate premium’ will pay more than the cost of their fees in income tax according to the life-income modelling. The post-tax premium for history (the lowest premium and the subject I studied) of £65,471, which suggests that £24,159 is paid in tax by these graduates that would not be paid those leaving school at 18 with A-levels. The statistics for physics and chemistry are around £55,000 and for all subjects (average) around £36,000. It seems incredibly unlikely that there is any widespread public support for free education though – it worked when 10-15% of young people went to uni, but not for 40-50%.  It is hard to know for sure, though, since pollsters don’t even bother asking.

The opposite end of the scale is for the full rate to be paid by the student, either up-front or (as, roughly, in the new proposals) by graduates.  Of these, the government plan is clearly better, since it does not charge students up-front.

An in-between idea would be to keep fees roughly where they are but make the payment system fairer.  Or to allow an increase in fees (to, say, £5000) but not to cut teaching funding, so that the extra money could be spend on improving education!  Imagine that! This would surely be a better plan, it would keep a balance of national-individual cost in proportion to benefits (around 70-30 to the graduate) and put more money into education.  If the £3300-5000 bracket were to be treated like the proposed £6000-9000 fee bracket, it might even be useful for widening participation.

Another alternative, although where it sits is unclear, is a graduate tax. Apparently Alan Johnson has this week been won round the the idea, which his leader Ediband has been keen on for ages.  It is now HM Opposition’s policy.  I say policy, what I actually mean is talking point. There is no policy there, just a phrase and a vague commitment to a 2% tax on income over a 20-year period. It is unclear what the target amount to recoup is going to be, would it reflect average fees of £3000, £5000, or more?

But wait a minute, a tax on income (presumably meaning over a certain amount) for a certain period to pay off fees, so that those who earn more pay more back… that sounds rather like the government’s proposal. Both are systems of graduate repayment that are in proportion to earnings and will stop below a certain rate (it is not a mortgage, your degree will not be at risk if you stop payment).  The fundamental difference is that in the government system there is a specified (albeit increased) end figure for repayment; with a graduate tax, that is not the case. Which is less discouraging, the knowledge that one will be repaying a large but specific debt or the knowledge that you will be paying an unknown amount, possibly subject to changes by later governments wanting more money? I have a feeling that the former is more off-putting, but there are not a world apart. Again, the debate would be easier if there was actually a policy against which to compare Willetts’ scheme.

Lack of proper debate

In all the anger over fee rises and teaching-funding cuts (often talked about as if they were unrelated rather than one making up for the other), there has been little real debate about alternatives – let alone about the fundamentals of why and whether we want so many graduates and the benefits to the state vs the benefits to the individual.  The complete lack of a plan from Labour does not help matters at all.

The worst part of the lack of debate is the speed with which the reforms are being pushed through.  In order to start the new scheme in 2012, the fee increase/variable-rate does have to be decided now (to allow decisions and prospectus-writing at universities) – Mr Willetts is right about that. But surely, surely, it is better to wait until the system can be debated as a whole, rather than pushing through the funding issue now – thereby making the remainder a foregone conclusion even before the White Paper is produced.  Willetts says that the wider reforms (and CSR-dicatated cuts in spending) will happen whichever way the vote goes tomorrow – this seems to have given him licence to tie the entire issue up without proper debate. Why not wait until 2013 for the reforms – produce a White Paper on the whole package in the Spring and debate it properly? Sadly, it is almost certain to go through.  Even if you think the change is a good idea, the speed and manner of the current debate and changes is worrying.

Anyway, those are my hastily-written thoughts on the matter. I wish that the Labour amendment to delay the fees vote until the White Paper had come out had passed, it it did not.  I hope that my MP (Bob Russell, Lib Dem) will vote against the fee increase tomorrow. I don’t think that fees should go up to £6000-9000 per year, although some other bits of the general policy are good (participation, etc).  What I do want is a proper debate on the subject and on the policy as a whole.  I fear I will be disappointed.

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.

Remembrance: War Memorials

11 November 2010

Today, 11th November 2010, is the 92nd anniversary of the end of the First World War, the most deadly conflict in British history.  It is also the day I submitted my DPhil Thesis, which deals with why civilians continued to support the war in spite of the hardships and loss of life.  This post is the last of three about commemoration and remembrance.

At 11 o’clock this morning, I attended a short remembrance ceremony next to the war memorial in my college.  Like many across the country, we marked the two-minute silence for the anniversary of the Armistice that ended the First World War. Since 1945, the main official remembrance has been held on the closest Sunday to Armistice Day – i.e. Remembrance Sunday. Despite the revival of the November 11th observance, this Sunday will see the main remembrance events across the country, from Whitehall to village squares.  These events will largely focus around the local (or, in the case of the Cenotaph in Whitehall, national) war memorial.

What exactly are these war memorials for?  What do they tell us?

In his excellent play/film The History Boys, Alan Bennett has one of the teachers delivering this line:

It’s not “lest we forget,” it’s “lest we remember.” That’s what all this is about — the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes’ silence. Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.

In a way, the teacher Mr Irwin is right, war memorials and commemoration are about forgetting.  Since the character is clearly based on a certain Professor Ferguson , it is not too surprising that the case is stated slightly more cynically and iconoclastically than is justified, though. It is not about ignoring the reasons for the war, but about moving on.  The idea of a site and a time in which the memory of the war and the war dead are focused in about both remembering and forgetting.
War memorials and commemoration serve to remind people who might forget about the sacrifices made for the freedoms we enjoy in this country, and the (unfortunately still present) need to provide for those who fought and fight for those freedoms. The also give those (and, more importantly, gave those in the 1920s) who struggle to get on with their lives in the wake of bereavement in war the chance to focus their grief in one location and one day, hopefully leaving them free to live their lives.

What do war memorials tell us? In France, which suffered far greater losses in both world wars, the war memorials are ‘monuments aux morts’ – monuments to the dead – whereas  French historian Annette Becker has suggested that Anglophone ‘war memorials’ are monuments to the war more broadly. Similarly American historian Jay Winter has referred to commemoration as telling the war story in its local, familial and parochial form.

This is not what war memorials as most people would understand them (i.e. war memorial monuments, or ‘useful’ memorials like cottages, playing fields and hospitals) do.  What they do is serve as a ‘surrogate grave’, a focal point for memories of the war years and of the war dead.  They do not tell us much about those years other than that this group of (usually) men did not return.  They do not tell the story of the war, but rather warn that we should not forget it, and express hope that it will not happen again (how depressing it must have been to add a second generation’s names to these monuments after 1945!). The vast majority of war memorials simply list the war dead, some list all who served (and some churches still display their wartime lists of local men who were serving, alongside their memorials to the war dead).  Beyond the death and less commonly the temporary absence of local servicemen, they do not tell the local story in most cases – although exceptions are out there, such as Colchester’s acknowledgement of the civilian war effort.  They also only rarely express what the war was fought over (or at least the wartime narrative of its purpose) – defending ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’ and ‘honour’, and saving Britain from the ravages of a ‘frightful’ foe that had killed thousands of Belgian and French civilians and sent others to labour in Germany.  Our war memorials are monuments to the dead, they tell us of the men who did not return to tell their own war stories or to continue their civilian lives.  Now the war story to most people (particularly the local war story of a town or village) is these men and their deaths.

Does this matter?  Isn’t it right that we should remember these men over those who returned.  In one sense, yes, we should – they were not able to become civilians again and live out their days, so we should remember them.  There are two problems with this though. First, we forget those who fought and returned, many of them wounded physically or mentally. Second, by reducing the public story of the war to the deaths of a handful, a few thousand, or a million dead men from the local village or town or from the British Empire, we lose sight of why they fought and why those deaths were felt – at the time – to be acceptable. Without the sense that the Great War was an existential conflict fought for the future of Britain and of freedom and democracy, it seems incredible that so many lives could be sacrificed. Seeing the war as futile is a justified position, particularly since the 1920s and 30s failed to bring world peace and domestic prosperity and a Second World War followed soon after.  We should not project these ideas back to 1916 or 1918, though. The war had a very real meaning for the people who fought then, one strong enough that enormous sacrifices could be justified to win it.

Remembrance: the War Dead

9 November 2010

This Thursday, 11th November 2010, is the 92nd anniversary of the end of the First World War, the most deadly conflict in British history.  It is also the day I will be submitting my DPhil Thesis, which deals with why civilians continued to support the war in spite of the hardships and loss of life.  This post is the second of three about commemoration and remembrance.

Anthony King (sociologist at Exeter University, not the politics professor Anthony King) appeared on Thinking Allowed in June talking about changes in the way that the war dead of the ‘Afghan War’ (i.e. Op Herrick, the British mission in Afghanistan since 2001) are presented to the public in contrast to earlier wars.  This was based on his research for an article of his (pdf).

The article is interesting, looking at how soldiers are presented as human beings (and family members), as heroes, and as professionals doing their jobs.  It was based on (a fairly small number of) the websites that the MoD puts online whenever a British serviceman or servicewoman is killed.  Among the insights are comments that I definitely agree with about the public display of intimate relations and personal life that has changed in the last 50 years (since the Korean War, which he talks about) or 90 years (since the Great War, which I know about).  Where I question his findings is about the level of attention given to dead soldiers, sailors and airmen, and their treatment as individuals.  He rightly comments that the way that the state presents the war dead has changed substantially, but I think he downplays or ignores very important aspects of the history of commemoration.

First, the rate of casualties is very low by the standards of the ‘big wars’ of the past.  Really, Herrick is not a big war other than in cost and, importantly, public attention.  342 service personnel have died on active service in Afghanistan since 2001, that is roughly three per month – since the deployment to Helmand the number is 329 and the rate is 6.5 per month. In the Falklands, 258 died in three months, in Korea 1,109 died in three years (37 per month, although actually most were in 1950-51).  In the First World War, 582 servicemen from the British Empire died every day! This is a major part of the reason that the dead of those earlier wars (and especially the Great War) were not given the national and personal treatment that modern war dead are – there would have been nothing else in the newspapers! Added to which, the internet provides an unprecedented arena for the public display of commemoration and appreciation of the war dead, one in which people can take in as much or as little as they wish, without the information crowding out other news.

Second, the dead of the Great War were treated as individuals with personalities in the public notification of their deaths. It is true that national notification came only in lists of casualties (he talks specifically about lists of Korean War casualties), but this was not the only medium for them to be displayed. I have written before about the fallacy that British casualty figures were withheld from the public. The prime medium for this was the local press – local communities were much more important to life in 1918 than in 2008. As well as published casualty figures and ‘war shrines’, there were various ways in which the war dead (and, indeed, other casualties) were reported in local newspapers: King talks about the use of photos and personal details on the MoD page (his examples include the pages for Michael Smith and ‘Tony’ Downes). The passages from comrades and superiors are very similar to those written to families in 1914-18, many of which were reproduced in the local press. Photographs and personal details were also published  locally  during the Great War (see examples on this website). Although often the reports were short (as quoted on this web page) some were longer (see A.B. Machray on this page) . There were also attempts to make a permanent record: local, like the “King’s Book of York Fallen Heroes” at York Minster, with information about 1441 men associated with the town and photos of all but 19 ; and national, such as Du Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour (see an example entry).

The prevalence of local notification and dissemination of information about war casualties shows how important these men’s identities were to those who mourned them and in their local communities.  Rather than presenting the way that men are remembered on the MoD website now as especially novel, I would say that they reflect three main changes: 1, the much lower number and rate of British war deaths in Afghanistan compared to other wars; 2, the increasing importance of individuals and their lives (and deaths) in modern Britain; 3, the increased levels of intimacy in what can be (and is) told in the press; and 4, a change from local identification with the war dead to a national one. Where in 1916, one might read of a the death of a man who went to the local school or worked for a local business, now one reads of people who have similar tastes, interests and concerns to civilians of the same generation, another way of identifying with the dead and bringing their loss home to civilians.  It is important to be aware of the costs of war, both in general terms and in the personal losses suffered by all sides (one change has been increased, but obviously not equal, attention paid to civilian war deaths in war zones).  In terms of the local war dead they did this in the First World War through local newspapers, we do it now nationally through the internet.

Remembrance: Poppies

7 November 2010

This Thursday, 11th November 2010 is the 92nd anniversary of the end of the First World War, the most deadly conflict in British history.  It is also the day I will be submitting my DPhil Thesis, which deals with why civilians continued to support the war in spite of the hardships and loss of life.  This post is the first of three about commemoration and remembrance.

The British Legion’s Poppy campaign has been in the news again this year. Yet again, there has been criticism of Jon Snow, who has rightly proclaimed that part of the freedom for which the World Wars were fought is the freedom to wear his poppy when and where he chooses.  His choice of the word ‘fascism’ in relation to the idea that all (especially on TV) must wear poppies was perhaps a little extreme, but then perhaps not – it really should be up to the individual as he says. (See this piece in the Guardian for reasoned commentary on the matter).

Beyond the poppy-enforcement campaign, there has also been criticism from veterans about the style and aims of the poppy appeal. Some veterans of Britain’s wars since the 1960s have written this letter to the Guardian:

The Poppy Appeal is once again subverting Armistice Day. A day that should be about peace and remembrance is turned into a month-long drum roll of support for current wars. This year’s campaign has been launched with showbiz hype. The true horror and futility of war is forgotten and ignored.

The public are being urged to wear a poppy in support of “our Heroes”. There is nothing heroic about being blown up in a vehicle. There is nothing heroic about being shot in an ambush and there is nothing heroic about fighting in an unnecessary conflict.

Remembrance should be marked with the sentiment “Never Again”.

They certainly have a point, the ‘showbiz hype’ for the launch of the campaign (apparently this year is was launched by the Saturdays singing and some aerobatics (not by the Saturdays) in Colchester – can’t say I noticed either) has very little to do with the horror and futility of war.  Equally, it is indeed hardly ‘heroic’ to be blown up.

On the other hand, though, the whole point is to raise awareness and money for the British Legion and charitable efforts to support veterans.  Would it not be just as insulting not to bother with any kind of launch?  If charities want to raised awareness, don’t they need to take on modern marketing strategies (the poppy was very much in the mould of wartime and prewar charity campaigns, such as flag days). Quite how elderly men and women (or local cadets) selling poppies from a cardboard box does more to highlight the horror and futility of war (the latter surely a matter of opinion) is not clear. In fact, I think this years posters with an amputee and the message ‘It only takes a second to put on a poppy’ are quite effective. Amputees tend not to make the cause of their wounds look sexy and exciting, and these posters will been seen by more people than the showbiz launch.

The British Legion state that their campaign is apolitical and is designed to support the veterans and widows of Britain’s wars, not to promote support for those wars. Fundamentally, this will always be a matter of opinion. Does the campaign accept that wars happen and deal with the consequences, or does it give the government the message that it is okay to launch wars because the BL will pick up the pieces (in this country at least) afterwards? Quite possibly it does both.  Should the campaign and prominent fundraising stop in an attempt to stop the wars?  This line of thought is rather circular, and is (in part) the critique behind the White Poppy for peace.

The glitzy launch for the Poppy Appeal does seem rather crass to me, but then it is for a good cause and is only once a year (and I hadn’t really noticed until reading about it today).  Back in the early post-WW1 years, it was not clear what 11 November should be – there were Balls on Armistice Day at the Albert Hall and drunkenness among ex-servicemen, but these were forced out by the perceived needs of the bereaved for a more sober (literally and metaphorically) reflection of the nation’s losses.  I would like to think that the showbiz launches of poppy appeals recall this, but they do not – they are part of the charity campaign, not celebrations of hard-won peace and freedom.

People will always disagree about the aims and methods of the Poppy Appeal, as with anything to do with wars, and indeed welfare provision.  That people feel strongly enough to argue about it is a good sign, although the enforcement of poppy-wearing is antithetical to what British soldiers have fought most of the major wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries for.

(Anyone interested in the early histories of Armistice Day and the British Legion should read Adrian Gregory’s The Silence of Memory, Niall Barr’s The Poppy and the Lion and Deborah Cohen’s The War Come Home)

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.

Learning to bear losses

12 August 2010

Earlier this summer, the Prime Minister commented that the nation should expect a spike in casualty numbers as the summer ‘fighting season’ begins, just as Sir Jock Stirrup said last summer in the build-up to operation Panther’s Claw. These are perfectly sensible comments, the number of casualties does increase in the summer in Afghanistan – and, of course, when coalition troops carry out offensive operations.

One such statement at the start of this year struck me as very reminiscent of warnings about casualties in the First World War.  Bob Ainsworth, warning of casualties in Operation Moshtarak, said that

“Of course casualties are something we have to come to expect when we’re involved in these operations and people have had that brought home to them. This is not a safe environment and it doesn’t matter how much kit and equipment we provide for them, we cannot entirely make these operations risk-free…We shouldn’t deny or pretend to people that we can provide security and that casualties are not a very real risk on these kind of operations and people have to be prepared for that.”

Compare that with this memo, issued to the press in 1916:

Together with patience, the nation must be taught to bear losses. No amount of skill on the part of the higher commanders, no training, however good, on the part of officers and men, no superiority, however great, of arms and ammunition, will enable victories to be won without the sacrifice of men’s lives. […] The aim for which the war is being waged is the destruction of German militarism. Three years of war and the loss of one-tenth of the manhood of the nation is not too great a price to pay in such a cause.

The writer was the new commander-in-chief of the army in France and Flanders, Douglas Haig.  These days, Haig is seen as the quintessential callous butcher of the Western Front.  This comment can be read as a heartless disregard for the lives of his men, suggesting that 2 million war deaths would not be too high a price.  Actually, though, it is a recognition – like Ainsworth’s – of the need to link the costs of war to its aims and scale. The war’s are of vastly different scales (Britain’s losses of Afghanistan being similar to those of a small town in 1914-18), but reaction to war deaths is still vitally important.

Work by American academics looking at public opinion have concluded that support for wars is affected by ‘elite cues‘ (whether those politicians/parties with whom one agrees with on other issues support the war), identifiable objectives (or reasons for fighting) and perceived likelihood of success. In their view, casualties are less important – they add to disillusionment if these other factors are lacking.

In the Great War, great losses were largely accepted because the aims were seen as just and important – the defence of the nation and men’s homes and families from an apparently barbarous enemy. The idea that people did not know the level of casualties (repeated, for example, by Walter Lippman) is, frankly, rubbish – at least in terms of the UK.  Lists of the dead were published in national and local press, as were total national casualty figures from 1916. While people believed in eventual (or imminent) accepted the reasons for the war – basically national defence – people continued to support the war.

In Afghanistan, by contrast, it is far from clear to most people why our troops are there. A recent yougov poll for Chatham House showed division between staying the course, coming out in a year or two and withdrawing immediately.  In Iraq, of course, support was partial from the start.

Wars cost lives. It’s an inescapable truth.  The public can cope with it if they think that the war is just and winnable.  If those key beliefs are lost, public support for the war falls away and casualties bring opposition to the war.