Like many people, I don’t usually really think much about Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day. I observed the ritual and the silence but without actually thinking about war, commitment and sacrifice. Today’s two minute silence was different.
Recently I uncovered a document of my maternal grandfather’s service in the British Army during the Second World War, particularly that covering an inquiry into his health and subsequent medical discharge. The document gives a profound insight into the officer class, and their opinion on the men for whom they had responsibility.
Shortly after the outbreak of war, my granddad was conscripted as a sapper, a class of soldier whose jobs could range from digging ditches or breaking enemy things for tactical reasons. He was in his early thirties. He spent some time breaking things before he received a chest wound in action. After treatment for his wounds, rather than being discharged he was sent to work as a manual labourer at a depot at Scapa Flow. Here the conditions for ordinary servicemen were tough. My granddad, who had grown up barefoot on the banks of the Tyne in the worst area of Tyne Dock was used to tough, but while living in an unheated tin shed at Scapa Flow he contracted tuberculosis. He faced more treatment, losing some lung function in the process.
After a break to visit his family in South Shields, he was again returned to Scapa Flow. Despite the time away, he found that living conditions had not improved, and whilst working on moving provisions discovered that officers enjoyed a very different and better life. Feeling his health again deteriorate in the cold and wet living conditions, my granddad then committed a terrible crime.
A board of officers reviewed his complaint and an inquiry was held. Statements from officers and doctors were collected and entered onto the document. One doctor defined my grandad in his statement as a ‘borderline malingerer’. One of his officers, who my granddad barely knew, classified him as a ‘barrack room lawyer’.
The board found that as no other men had complained there was no case to answer, but rather than censure my granddad recommended that he be discharged on medical grounds. After several weeks of light duty with a different squad he was sent home to his family for good.
My grandad never spoke about this. He never considered himself or his war service as anything special. When he was asked if he wanted to become a Chelsea Pensioner he turned it down. The uniform life was not for him. What he was left with was the feeling that justice demanded that ordinary people deserve better lives, in a society where everyone helps each other, not reliant on doffing a cap to a patronising elite for charity. He was no socialist, but like many others he voted for his aspirations for a better Britain, and helped usher in one of the greatest governments this country has ever seen. A post-war government that went to war on poverty, sickness and ignorance.
On Sunday I saw David Cameron at the Cenotaph do his solemn look for the cameras. Cameron and his peers are from the same strata of society as those officers who looked down on my grandad and considered this rough-talking tough northern man as little more than an awkward oik. I thought about that solemn look in the two minute silence today. On the face of a man who is doing everything he can to undo what my grandad and his generation helped build.
No mock solemnity, no matter how well acted, can hide that David Cameron and the Tories are betraying the memories of those, like my granda, who came back from war, and with their families, rebuilt Britain.
Emma Lewell-Buck just can’t help it. In today’s Shields Gazette she decried the emptiness of David Cameron’s tough words on the Calais migrants issue, without any suggestion of what she or Labour would do to resolve the problem.
Presumably no one has told her yet.
What irked me most was that the article showed a complete lack of empathy; not just in her own words, but in the visitor comments below the article. The people in Calais are hoping for a better life; a job, opportunity, a chance for freedom, or a haven from persecution, violence or death.
So I commented:
It says everything about the pathetic state of Labour that the South Shields MP jumps on the anti immigrant bandwagon to keep the Labour leadership happy and at the same time attempt to appeal to BNP and UKIP voters. It is reassuring though that people like Emma Lewell-Buck and most of the commenters below are in the minority (particularly the charming den ‘final solution’ patton) and that most British people are actually decent, empathetic human beings.
To put it in perspective, we have a population of over 60 million, but there are around 3,000 migrants in Calais. We are also one of the wealthiest countries in the world so not only can we afford to support these people in difficulty, we should. Sadly Emma Lewell-Buck is part of a political-economic system which prefers to maintain the status quo which makes the poor poorer and the rich richer, and rather use these people in trouble as an opportunity for cheap political point scoring rather than actually improving lives.
Maybe we can’t help everyone. But we should try, and for an MP, it should embody the reason they went for the job in the first place: to help people.
Anything else is a betrayal to Labour voters, and what were once Labour principles.
Over at the Shields Gazette, South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck slaps herself on the back for courageously voting for whatever lobby fodder are told to vote for. And what could be more core Labour voter friendly than a soft soap early day motion that makes all the right NHS noises?
The Tories and Lib Dems may be holding the axe to the neck of the NHS, but Labour brought it to its knees. Before the Tory reorganisation, Labour saddled the NHS with its very own reorganisation, the Private Finance Initiative. PFI has landed NHS trusts with decades long debts worth billions. On top of that, Labour obligated trusts to offer services to private providers, even if the NHS services were better value for money. Even without the Con-Dem slashing, a Labour government would have meant cuts to NHS services.
Labour put profits before people.
If Labour is serious about saving the NHS, then cancellation of PFI debt must be at the top of the wish list. Next would be to put the NHS at the heart of a British constitution to stop future governments using the NHS as a political and profit football.
But it won’t happen. Labour is as wedded to dismantling public services and handing them to the circling privatisation vultures as the Tories, Lib Dems and Ukip.
So the family of nations of the UK will remain together. For now. We have been handed an opportunity to build a new, better UK – for all of us. Cameron’s offer of pseudo devo city regions should be ignored as a cynical attempt to silence calls for regional and national devolution under a federal government, with a model which will pit city against city, each competing for scraps from Westminster’s table.
Scotland has lead the way and the debate has shown there is a desire for a better, fairer and more representative democracy. This isn’t the end of Scottish independence, it should be seen as an opportunity for all the parts of the UK to campaign together for more local democratic self determination.
Despite the inevitable posturing over the result, Westminster is running scared. They know we have the power to make changes for the better. After yesterday, we know it too.
And that’s why we need to keep them worried.
I had prepared a blog post on what next after today’s Scottish Independence Referendum, whichever way the vote goes. But Caroline Lucas has pretty much hit the nailed it at Left Foot Forward with her open letter to the three party leaders – I recommend reading it.
Whoever wins (I hope by a significant majority) there is some optimism to take away from the campaigns in the run up to the referendum. Not from the party leaders or the celebrity political names like Sheridan and Galloway, but from people on the street engaged with their politics, other people, and their own future. If you’ve visited Scotland in the last few months you can’t have missed the Yes and No posters on walls, in house windows, on fences in fields and by the road. People have been talking to each other. True, there has been some negativity from both sides and I have witnessed naked nationalism and outright dishonesty, but in the main people have been good natured, and most importantly, positive and with a real optimism for the future.
For too long optimism has been missing from political discourse, hidden behind cynicism and the personal ambitions of lobby fodder polticians. In the referendum battle we’ve seen people take politics back into their own hands, and they’ve made their way to the polling booths in unprecedented numbers. And the politicians are scared.
I hope this optimism and drive for self determination catches on, and heads south of the border. In a country dominated by political parties that put people before profit, we’ll need it.
Good luck Scotland.
No loaves and fishes from Cameron
After alienating the fundamentalist Church of England wing of the Conservative Party with his support of equal marriage, David Cameron has decided to play to them and place down the Christian card in the run up to the annual celebration of the torture and execution of a literary character. In a vile twisted perception of reality, Cameron pines in the pages of the Church Times for good old Christian values, but moans:
“I sometimes feel not enough is made of our efforts to tackle poverty.”
I don’t quite know what to make of this. Tory ‘efforts to tackle poverty’ have been a naked war on the poor, making poverty worse. The coalition government has been instrumental in making life worse for people on the poverty line, the introduction of the ‘bedroom tax’, punitive welfare sanctions, the vicious cutting of welfare budgets. This has led to a massive increase in food banks, and the emergence of people being admitted into hospital with malnutrition.
Malnutrition; in the 21st Century; in one of the wealthiest nations in the world; in what Cameron considers a ‘Christian country’.
Well, this is the guy who said that “Jesus invented the Big Society 2,000 years ago.” If Jesus invented Cameron’s Big Society, then Dracula invented blood transfusions.
It is true that religious organisations are stepping in to help where they can. The Trussell Trust has reported a massive growth in requests for emergency food:
Cameron is grateful to Christian organisations though:
“I welcome the efforts of all those who help to feed, clothe, and house the poorest in our society. For generations, much of this work has been done by Christians…”
This is because he and his chums are dismantling the welfare state, the fair, secular solution.
Not a Christian country
Cameron said Britain should be “more confident about our status as a Christian country”. This is a myth that is regularly resurrected, and it seems appropriate that Cameron’s done it in the run up to the celebration of the Christian resurrection myth. True, our unelected head of state is also the head of the Church of England. Unelected bishops sit in the House of Lords. For over a thousand years Christianity of one flavour or another has been the dominant religion in Britain, owned massive swathes of land and property, and held power over the lives, deaths and afterlife of British people.
But that doesn’t mean that Britain is a Christian country. Our laws are secular. Our electoral system is secular. Our state machinery is secular. Despite having a state sanctioned church, it’s largely a ceremonial relationship and the UK is probably one of the most secular states in the world.
Religiously, the UK is diverse. For the Prime Minister to suggest that Britain is a Christian country, it implies that any citizen of any religion that isn’t Christian (or of no religion) is somehow not properly British. This attitude skirts the bigotry of the EDL and UKIP, with the sinister finger-pointing of the zealot, who lives in a paranoid world where the non-Christian is an outsider whose is ‘not one of us’. We can see where that kind of thinking can lead today in the Central African Republic, where Muslims are being butchered by the thousands. By Christians. We can see it in Muslim countries where being un-Islamic can put an innocent person in prison or their head on the chopping block. Closer to home, sectarianism in Northern Ireland has kept communities fractured for generations. There are still many in North Ireland who believe that being Protestantism is a core component of Britishness.
Defining a country and it’s citizens by a religious belief is at best pernicious; at worst, murderous.
This is why Britain being a secular country is a good thing. No matter what religious baggage our history brings, a country with secular values ignores arbitrary ‘morals’ born out of iron age superstition and medieval ignorance, and treats everyone equally, irrespective of their religious beliefs.
Three weeks after voting in support of the Coalition government’s ‘annual welfare cap’, South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck rails at the government’s poor performance in administering the Personal Independence Payment, or PIP for short. Our MP raised in Parliament the plight of constituent Sue Martin, who has myalgic encephalomyelitis and has been waiting since July last year to find out if she qualifies for support through PIP to help with her illness. In most scenarios, I would say job well done to our MP.
Sadly, Ms Martin is not alone in struggling with PIP and Disability Living Allowance claims, and will likely be joined in future by many other people struck by debilitating illness, frustrated with an inhumane bureaucratic system and a capped welfare budget pot. This capped welfare budget will mean that different departments within the welfare system will compete with each other for a share of the budget. If one welfare function is over budget, then funds can be taken from one department to top up the other department’s failing budget. It doesn’t sound so bad, until you realise that people’s lives will depend on the political whims of ministers courting media attention and the competing interests of internal party political warfare.
Despite Emma Lewell-Buck’s plea over over PIP and her criticism of the government for ‘letting people down’, she voted for the very bill that could make life worse for people like Sue Martin, and other people who are unfortunate enough to need the safety net of the welfare system.