Monday, 4 August 2014

Remembering stuff

As part of the saturation commemoration of the centenary of Britain's declaration of war against Germany, LBC Radio has asked the main party leaders at Westminster to pen a letter to the Unknown Soldier. The results can be read and (if you have the stomach for it) heard here.

Ed Miliband's contribution to this exercise encapsulates much of what irritates me in modern politics.

It starts with the greeting 'Dear Friend'. Really? The Unknown Soldier is Miliband's friend? Even though the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition doesn't know who this dead man was, they're still friends?

Miliband goes on to make nervously sure he's ticked all the correct boxes, mentioning troops from 'across the world - from the Indian sub-continent to Africa, from Australia to the Caribbean'. Though you'll notice he manages to avoid saying what all these troops had in common, presumably because he doesn't want to use the word 'Empire'.

And it wasn't just men. There were women on the Western Front too. Indeed the only person named in the message is Edith Cavell. There's even room in a five-paragraph letter to get in a mention of football.

(You can tell he's not really at Tony Blair's level, though; Blair would have managed to get in a reference to those executed for 'cowardice'.)

Finally, we get the lessons that we should learn from the First World War: it's 'a reminder of the brutality of conflict' and a 'warning to those in power to avoid entering into war unless it is absolutely necessary'.

Well, obviously. And let's be entirely fair: Miliband has long said that the invasion of Iraq was wrong, and the greatest achievement of his time as leader has been to prevent Britain - and thereby America - from a military engagement in Syria. (Why he doesn't make more of this, I have no idea.)

But how are we to know whether a war is 'absolutely necessary'? One way to judge Miliband's political thinking might be if he told us whether he thinks the First World War was necessary.

Unfortunately he doesn't have time for that, because his entire attention is on a touchy-feely embrace of the past that focuses on individual experiences (preferably of those who can be categorised as being representative of an oppressed group).

This, of course, is the media treatment of history, and Miliband is merely responding to a challenge laid down by a media organisation. Which is fine. In broad terms, I think the media are entirely justified in their approach. It's probably true that most of the public aren't much interested in the big themes of history, and there's nothing wrong with an account of the past that centres on empathy rather than interpretation.

But Miliband's not just a member of the public. He also (presumably) still thinks he's a potential prime minister. And as such, I expect something a bit more insightful from him. Something that hints at an awareness of the geopolitical implications of 1914-18, for example.

The same mindset is evident in most of his words and actions, in, for example, the way that Labour's main economic attack on the government is that David Cameron doen't 'get' the economic reality experienced by 'hard working families' and 'the most vulnerable in our society'. A potential prime minister should aspire to being more than a sympathetic ear in times of trouble.

Behind this is a real problem, that the media's handling of history is mirrored in its coverage - on our behalf - of current conflicts. The obsession is with getting footage and accounts of the victims of war. All of which tell us nothing more than what we already knew: war is bloody, horrible and destructive. The coverage has an impact, though. Show enough of the suffering and the call will come that something must be done. And we blindly rush in to support the overthrow of governments with little thought of who or what will take their place. Whilst paying sentimental tribute to our 'heroes' in uniform.

Maybe I'm being unfair to Miliband. After all, there was that stand on Syria. And he's far from being alone in Westminster, Broadcasting House or the country more widely. But I want more from him than Blairite emotionalism. I want an alternative, which is supposed to be his job.

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