Newsnotes 2010 12

Notes On The News

by Gwydion M Williams

Re-Chain the Beasts of Finance

Gordon Brown is Wise After The Event

Student Protests [in Britain over Student Loans]

They’ve Never Had It So Good [British Workers Worse Off]

The North Atlantic Crisis [‘Global’ Financial Crisis]

Embracing Your Politics [Protests in China, and John Wilkes]


Brazil Civilises Its Slums

Korea: A Struggle to the Death?

Poppies and Selective Memories [War Dead and Imperialism]


Re-Chain the Beasts of Finance

Money is a set of agreed social relationships. The crisis of 2008 threatened to destroy those relationships, which meant a bail-out was unavoidable. But thirty years of liberalisation have meant that people with a lot of money can move it round the world in seconds, can bail out of any economy if they see their profits are at risk or their loans in danger of default. So in each individual economy, ordinary people have to pay more taxes and get worse services, just to keep a small number of rich people confident that they won’t be doing much suffering.

Globalisation was always very selective. Money and consumer products were allowed to flow across the boundaries of nation-states. People are not allowed to ‘follow the money’ except where they are found useful.

Money was under much more social control in the critical years of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, when the NATO countries and their Far Eastern allies won the key battle of economic growth against the Soviet Block. But from the 1980s, Western governments removed all of the safety measures that had been put in place after the Great Depression of the 1930s. Several financial crises occurred and were solved by a round of government spending. Most notably that of 1987, which was maybe the last key incident in the Cold War and which saw no demands that the Western public should accept austerity.

Things changed after the Soviet collapse. Although the key advantage was won during the era of ‘Mixed Economy’, it was re-written as a victory of capitalism over socialism. This in turn was used to justify the further weakening of successful economic controls of the era of ‘Mixed Economy’.

All of this was justified in the name of Freedom, seen as a metaphysical entity existing beyond human control. And mysteriously not including the sorts of choices and opportunities that did not suit the emerging Overclass, rich people socially detached from the society that generated their wealth. Restrictions on the Overclass were denounced as an intolerable restriction on Freedom.

Modern societies allow very large areas of freedom, far larger than any past societies, including those of Classic Capitalism in the 19th centuries. All societies puts curbs on personal freedom when innocents may be hurt. Anyone can ride a bicycle because they can’t do much damage and will maybe come off worse if they hit a pedestrian. You need a licence and a strict test to drive a car, because cars are lethal. Much stricter controls to pilot a passenger aircraft, because the amount of damage a pilot can do is horrendous.

Economic crashes do a lot more damage, but people in the West have been persuaded to remove the useful checks that used to limit them and curb speculation. This seemed likely to change after the massive crisis of 2008, when it became clear that the markets could not operate without state support. But then somehow the blame was shifted. In Britain, MPs fiddling a few thousands in expenses became much more important than financiers walking off with millions or tens of millions and leaving chaos behind them.

The current round of popular protest has been against the cuts rather than for a massive re-regulation of banking and finance. This makes it futile, because once the voids in the financial system have been created, there is no choice but to fill them or risk a much worse crisis.

Any change will need to be done carefully, and be global in scope. A single society can’t dare to ask the very rich to take their fare share of the burden, because they can simply shift their official base to somewhere that makes no such demands. We need a whole new system, binding everywhere that wants to do business on a global scale. Abolish the legal fictions that allow corporations to pretend they are based somewhere where they simply have a name-plate. Prevent them from forming complex chains of companies that avoid tax by manoeuvres that are accepted as legal, even though it results in rich people paying a lower effective rate of tax than ordinary people.


Gordon Brown is Wise After The Event

Most books by recently retired politicians are waste paper. But Gordon Brown may be an exception. Not that I expect him to tell anything like the truth. But he is sounding very radical now that he isn’t required to do anything about it.

“A new and largely unregulated global financial system developed in the 20 years before the crisis and, in a risk-laden world in which excessive financial remuneration was at the expense of the equity capital that banks needed, we had created a wholly new economic phenomenon: capitalism without capital.

“If I had said in 1990 that global flows of money, which were then around $0.6tn (£382bn) a day, would double as the world economy grew, people might have believed me, but if I had said these flows would rise by more than 2,000%, few would have thought it possible. In fact something much bigger happened: a 6,600% increase in global financial flows, so that by April 2010 these were flows of $4tn a day.

“Submerged beneath the surface was an unseen, unregulated shadow banking network that grew in volume to become more than half the entire system, and operated far outside normal rules and procedures.

“Those practices then spread to the mainstream banks, and soon everybody knew the priority was, in the famous words of Citibank boss Chuck Prince, ‘to keep dancing’ as long as the music was playing.

“The reason governments had to step in during October 2008 was not because government action had itself caused the problem but because the music stopped. It was one of those moments when markets did not automatically come to a safe equilibrium in the manner the familiar old textbooks suggest.

“There are good reasons for this, some of which serious neoliberal thinkers happily accept, but which have been wilfully obscured in some of the less serious domestic political debates.

“Global marketplace conditions combined on the eve of the financial crisis to create what Alan Greenspan [former chairman of the US federal reserve] has since called a ‘fundamental flaw in the edifice of market economics’.

“While Alan had thought that the risk of reputation damage would ensure that bank executives retained some sense of business ethics, he later admitted that he was thinking back to the old world of business partnerships. He, like the rest of us, had not fully appreciated that moral norms were not constraining the behaviour of those competing across complex and interlocked global entities that covered both shadow and formal banking systems.

“We were misled

“In September 2008, like almost everyone else, I was surprised by the news of Lehman’s problems and the rapid sequence of events that followed. For a century and more Lehman was a brokerage firm. It did not for the most part use its balance sheet to acquire assets for its own investment. But in 2005, Lehman committed its own capital to buying commercial real estate, leveraged lending, and private equity-like investments.

“Lehman funded its plan through the short-term ‘repo’ markets, in other words by borrowing millions of dollars each day from counterparties just to be able to do business. Of course that meant that the moment counterparties to repurchase agreements were to lose confidence in Lehman, Lehman would be unable to fund itself or to continue to operate.

“We now know that, on three separate occasions, Lehman admitted to themselves their concern that the total capital ratio would fall below the 10% regulatory requirement. But throughout 2008 Lehman continued to claim that it had sufficient liquidity to weather any foreseeable economic downturn. The Valukas report [into Lehman’s collapse] describes a board obsessed with growth, surrounded by executives who said openly that they did not want to hear ‘too much detail’ about the risks they might face in case it held them back from making the high-risk deals on which the biggest bonuses depend.

“The Lehman case reveals that right at the heart of the world’s biggest banks was a culture of unethical financial practices that were, right up to boardroom level, connived at, condoned and rewarded. It was nothing short of chronic recklessness powered by unchecked greed. I was furious to discover that other major banks too were recklessly using their customers’ own money to speculate.” [F]

Brown might have won the election if he had sounded like this at the time, blaming the bankers for behaving much worse than bankers had ever behaved before. So why didn’t he speak when it actually mattered. Was he scared of going head-to-head with such powers?

Still, it is good to have one’s suspicions confirmed. To be told by an insider that the once-revered Alan Greenspan was surprised to find modern bankers being just as greedy and selfish as his mentor Ayn Rand had urged them to be.

Though I doubted they needed Ayn Rand to teach them that. It was part of the general ‘Coolheart’ culture that has spread since the 1960s. Which cleared away a moribund Christian consensus, but has yet to put anything coherent in its place. The New Right flourished in the absence of anything else that sounded both coherent and modern. Sounded as if it could cope, but in fact it can not.


Student Protests [in Britain over Student Loans]

It was fun, but it wasn’t politics. Smashing up a building housing the Tory Party headquarters was a natural reaction, it was also maybe walking into a trap. The Liberal Democrat headquarters were protected, why was the Tory place overlooked? Or could it be that Tories are solid for the cuts and might figure that an attack on them would do no harm?

Really, riots by small numbers of determined individuals achieve nothing. If they managed to behead the Secretary of State for Education and parade his head on a pike, that might please the perpetrators but would hardly help the overall cause.

On a later demonstration there was an interesting incident:

“The picture of schoolgirls peacefully stopping attacks on a police van during this week’s student demonstrations sends out a powerful message of hope and defiance…

“They are conscious of what they look like – angelic spirits of 1968. Their school ties are knotted around their heads as if dressing up as the Woodstock generation for a classroom history play, but this act of street theatre is for real. Some who were at the student protests this week accuse police of deliberately leaving a solitary van in the middle of the ‘kettled’ crowd to invite trouble and provide incriminating media images of an out-of-control mob attacking it. Whatever, the schoolgirls who brought attacks on the police vehicle to an end by standing around it with linked hands in flower-power poses understood the power of images better than their elders.

“For this picture tells a lot, very quickly. It tells us the menace of violence is real as anger grows among groups directly afflicted by the coalition’s cuts. Yet it also reveals that most protesters are peaceful, idealistic, with a sense of history and of the gravity of their actions. Most of all it tells us how amazingly young many of them are.”[A]

If there were enough people ready to make sacrifices over Student Fees, they could try non-violent direct action. Organise groups of seven who would lie down at a zebra crossing at a time of their own choosing, blocking busy traffic, and then letting themselves be carted away peacefully. This was the sort of thing that advanced the Afro-American cause in its early days. When a later generation turned to various sorts of violence, they correctly said that it was in line with US traditions. Mistaken in thinking that this made it a good thing: the history of the USA shows that violent protestors tend to be outnumbered and outgunned and to lose whatever public sympathy they may have started out with.

Successful non-violence would depend on there being thousands ready to do it. I’ve no idea if they can be found.


They’ve Never Had It So Good [British Workers Worse Off]

When former government advisor Lord Young claimed the majority of Britons had never had it so good, he was talking nonsense. For the ‘working mainstream’, life has got much more uncertain since the crisis of 2008. They may have gained a little on mortgages, but most of them are now scared of losing their job. Scared of not being able to get another decent job if they lose the job they have.

Lord Young was able to view it all quite casually:

“He said: ‘Now, I don’t remember in [20]07 being short of money or the government being short of money.

“‘So, you know, I have a feeling and a hope that when this goes through, people will wonder what all the fuss was about.

“‘Of course, there will be people who complain, but these are people who think they have a right for the state to support them.'” [B]

Lord Young was the son of a businessman, trained as a solicitor but then had a successful career as an executive before advancing to the top ranks as a loyal supporter of Thatcher. It’s all been very nice for him, just not so nice for the rest of the country.

The majority of top Tories are from vastly secure backgrounds, part of the richest 1% who have done nicely under Thatcher. The Tory Party used to be concerned with social stability: now they ignore it and do their best to give business people whatever they want. They don’t accept that business can push for things that will damage everyone’s interests in the long run, and often in the short run too.

They have also failed to restore Britain’s standing in the world. Contrary to the standard story, Britain’s relative position has been declining for the last 150 years, though the decline became most visible after World War Two. Britain acquired its Empire when it was the world’s leading manufacturing power, but this dominance peaked in the 1840s. For most of the Victorian era, the actual basis of Britain’s world dominance was being lost as other countries industrialised. It was all hollow under that Victorian pomp and glitter.

Thatcher gave the appearance of a restoration, but a restoration of what? She managed to damage Western Europe, where France and Germany had overtaken Britain but then ran into crisis. But as they ran into crisis, Japan rose, and as Japan and the Asian Tigers fell into crisis, China rose. The world is changing but the Tories do not know it.

In terms of political philosophy, the modern New Right stands practically alone in supposing that money is not socially destructive. If disasters appear to follow in their wake, their super-factual wisdom tells them that this is someone else’s fault.

They have sold themselves as bringers of ’empowerment’. But they are not there to empower ordinary people. They prefer to empower what they’d class as ‘extraordinary people’, which mostly means wheeler-dealers and the existing elite. An Overclass that is doing fine, even though the societies they dominate are losing their relative position


The North Atlantic Crisis [‘Global’ Financial Crisis]

A lot of commentators are talking about a crisis as China threatens to replace the USA. And all of them are talking nonsense. The USA has been committed to a world hegemony since the 1940s, seeking to impose its own pattern all round the globe. China has shown no ambitions beyond recovering what it regards as its proper territory, mostly islands with which China has a strong historic link. In the wider world, China seems content to rise as part of a crowd, as the largest component of loose alliances like ‘BRIC’ (Brazil, Russia, Republic of India, China) or BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, Republic of India, China)

China correctly feels that it is in a strong position:

“The leaders of the G20 group of rich and developing nations met in Seoul this week for what might reasonably be described as their first post-crisis summit. But it also had the feeling of the first post-Western summit. China, the world’s second richest nation and its rising power, believes that the financial crisis was actually a ‘North Atlantic crisis’. Now that the worst of it is over, Beijing sees little reason to swallow the medicine for someone else’s sickness. The summit therefore broke up – none too amicably – without really addressing the trade imbalances that were one of the root causes of the crisis, or America’s worry that Beijing is gaining an unfair advantage by artificially keeping its currency weak. Instead, China flexed its muscles and got what it wanted: a watered-down statement that will not force it to change course. If President Obama hoped that the G20 would burnish his image as a world statesman after the disaster of the midterm elections, those hopes were disappointed.” [C]

This is not just a Chinese view:

“Asia Pacific banks have navigated the crisis better than their US or European counterparts, and emerged in robust shape, two of the region’s bank CEOs told the Credit Suisse Asian Investment Conference today.

“Addressing a panel on Global Financial Regulation, Standard Chartered Bank’s Asia CEO Jaspal Singh Bindra and Commonwealth Bank of Australia CEO Ralph Norris also noted that while global regulatory reform was necessary, it should avoid unfairly impacting on Asian financial institutions.

“The two bank bosses noted that the Asian banks avoided the bank nationalizations and bailouts that became commonplace in the U.S. and Europe during the height of the financial crisis. This should be reflected in any global regulatory reform, which should not take an excessive toll on banks in the Asia Pacific, they said.

“Much of the discussion in the panel focused on the preparation of the Basel III guidelines, and in particular those relating to the definitions of capital, leverage ratios and liquidity ratios.

“‘I think we all agree that it’s in our interests to make sure we have a well-managed financial system, and banks do need to reform,’ said Mr. Bindra. ‘Excessive risk-taking should be both defined and discouraged. That was the prime cause of the challenges we faced in the last two years.’

“Mr. Bindra pointed out that Asian banks were very well-capitalized, but said he feared that new regulations could still disadvantage them. ‘Under the new definition of common equity, they will need to add substantial amounts of capital. In some ways, that will be punitive for Asian banks given their size and single-region focus. There will be an unfair impact on Asian banks to start with.’

“Mr. Norris said it would be unfair for Asian banks to suffer from a regulatory reaction to the crisis. ‘We do term this crisis a global financial crisis, but in reality it was more like a North Atlantic crisis,’ he commented. Both panellists praised the strength of macro-prudential regulation in Asia, which Mr. Norris said had partly been a product of Asia’s experience during the crisis of 1997-1998.” [D]

The crisis of 1997-98 hit Russia and the Asian Tigers, the people who thought the West was on their side. China nowadays is open only compared to what it was under Mao – and Mao was faced with a hostile USA that supported the rump Kuomintang regime on Taiwan as the ‘real China’ up until the early 1970s, boycotting China and denying it a UN seat. China’s opening still makes it much more closed and protected than Western Europe was in its Mixed Economy era between the end of World War Two and the rise of Thatcher and Reagan. China must have felt vindicated then and even more definitely vindicated after the crisis of 2008, which hasn’t hurt them significantly.


Embracing Your Politics [Protests in China, and John Wilkes]

Western commentators predicted a good future for China from the First Opium War (1839) down to the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949. After which they predicted immanent disaster, and are still doing so.

“China’s development model must change if it is going to continue prospering. Its leaders need to spread the economic advances from wealthier cities to the neglected countryside, from advanced coastal regions to the less-developed inland, and from manufacturing and industrial investment to consumer demand and service-producing industries. China will also have to shift income and wealth formation from companies to consumers by adopting a more flexible exchange rate, and allowing the development of market-determined interest rates. It will have to lift wages and extend social security and healthcare. And it will have to reform state-owned enterprises to allow them to divert profits back to households via the payment of dividends…

“The key issue, though, is not awareness of the need for change, but whether the Communist party has the will for it. It’s estimated that the country already experiences up to 100,000 incidents of unrest each year, in what sociologist Yu Jianrong calls ‘spontaneous venting incidents’ over wages, social conditions, corruption and injustice. Transformational economic and political change will be even more disruptive and potentially unpopular.” [E]

100,000 incidents of unrest sounds alarming – until you remember what a big place China is. The current population is 1.3 billion, so that makes one incident per year per 13,000 inhabitants. The equivalent for the UK would be just over 4600 incidents of unrest, which would sound quite ordinary if someone claimed it.

Prime Minister David Cameron took a cautious line during his recent visit to China, being mostly there to help British business. But he did say something about China ’embracing democracy and freedom’. I hope the Chinese will research the actual history of the British political system before changing their own. The English parliament became dominant in the 1680s, being already a very old institution that most ruling-class Britons accepted as part of the system. British politics did not become democratic until two centuries later, a very limited democracy for 60% of adult males living in the British Isles after the Reform Act of 1884.

Talking of ’embracing democracy reminds me of a story from the highly corrupt British parliament of the 18th century. John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich was a government minister and also a dedicated gambler – it is said that the ‘sandwich’ was named after him when he demanded something he could eat using just one hand while gambling with the other. As a politician, one of his major concerns was John Wilkes, editor of The North Briton. Wilkes was the Wikileaks of his day, a man who pushed back the boundaries of press freedom well beyond the previous norm. On one occasion Sandwich said to Wilkes: ‘Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of the pox.’ Wilkes replied: ‘That depends, sir, on whether I embrace your politics or your mistress.’

Wilkes was good at smart replies. When he was canvassing, one elector said “I’d sooner vote for the Devil”. And Wilkes replied “Ah, but your friend is not a candidate”. The devil as conceived in 18th century Britain would not have been out of place as a candidate, except he’d presumably have had trouble with the oath, which required MPs to affirm an allegiance to Christianity till 1858. Both Sandwich and Wilkes are believed to have been members of Sir Francis Dashwood’s Hellfire Club

There is an interesting sequel. Wilkes had used anti-Scottish prejudice, ignoring the need to integrate the Scots into the developing United Kingdom. But in the Gordon Riots of 1778, he faced another sort of prejudice, an English Protestant mob enraged at limited tolerance being offered to Roman Catholics. This was all mixed up with popular democracy: the rioters were mostly supporters of the new USA in the American War of Independence, and it was widely believed that Catholics were being offered more tolerance so that more of them could be recruited to suppress the American rebellion. Still, it was something much too democratic for Wilkes, who probably hadn’t understood the real nature of the forces he was unleashing. He commanded troops who confronted the rioters and fired at them, effectively ending his role as a radical leaders.

An interesting extra – the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln was John Wilkes Booth, named after the original Wilkes and a distant relative, if you believe the Wikipedia (and it is plagued by spoofs, sad to say).



My view of the Wikileaks is similar to my view of the Taliban. I don’t like them and in the long run they might be enemies. But right now they are doing a lot of damage to US global power, which is a good thing. It’s a pity the same work isn’t being done by better people, but that is the current political reality.

The principle of leaking is foolish. Normal politics cannot be conducted if every casual remark gets reported all round the world. Libertarian ideas or anarchist ideas would work fine if everyone had much the same thoughts and wanted much the same things. They fail because this has never been the case, and becomes less and less true as civilisation develops. A tribe can manage without much government because tribal culture ensures that every tribal member thinks in much the same way, with dissenters mobbed and expelled. This can never work once several different types of people have to try living together.

Some of the stuff that Wikileaks has leaked deserves it, but not all. There has been justified criticism of the leaking of a US cable about things the USA considers vital. These include an anti-snake venom factory in Australia and an insulin plant in Denmark. Also key places in the Russian gas pipelines to Western Europe and places where trans-Atlantic cables make landfall. [G] This is information that would allow a few determined operators to harm a lot of ordinary people, it makes no sense to reveal it.

It will not hurt genuinely authoritarian regimes, which can use state power as they see fit and probably get majority public support for it. Damage to such regimes was promised as a consequence of the Internet. I always saw the promise as foolish, and it has indeed proved false. Just how many innocents suffered remains unknown: authoritarian regimes are usually very good at keeping their secrets.

There is also some suspicion about what Wikileaks really is. I started by comparing it to the Taliban, I will end by reminding everyone that the Taliban were originally built up to serve US interests, as were Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Is it another remarkable case of ‘Blowback’, an attack on the secret sponsors by a power originally built up to be useful against enemies?


Brazil Civilises Its Slums

‘Cruelty to Drug Gangsters’ isn’t a charge that would bother many people. Rio de Janeiro’s poorer districts have long been plagued by gangster violence, poor people killing each other and mostly not bothering the rich. Some of the gangsters took a little of their inspiration from Brazil’s failed Urban Guerrilla movement, but basically they were exploiters of their own people. It probably suited the authoritarian right to have poor people killing each other, assuming they could not be entirely controlled. But now with the left in power nationally, and with Brazil getting ready for the World Cup in 2014 and Olympic Games in 2016, something had to be done.

“More than two thousand heavily armed police operatives swept into Rio’s most notorious shantytown today following a week of explosive confrontations that have left at least 50 people dead.

“The operation, unprecedented in the city’s history, began at around 8am and focused on the Complexo do Alemao, a gigantic network of slums that is the HQ of Rio’s Red Command drug faction and houses around 70,000 impoverished residents.

“According to police the favela had been ‘conquered’ by around 9.30am, with drug traffickers offering little resistance.

“Gang members reportedly attempted to flee the 2,600 police and army operatives through the favela’s sewage system or by disguising themselves as Bible-carrying evangelical preachers.

“They left behind ‘mansions’ filled with wide-screen televisions, swimming pools and a sauna. In the home of Pezao, one of the area’s top traffickers, police found a giant poster of the Canadian singer Justin Bieber.

“Around 10 tonnes of marijuana were seized along with a small arsenal of assault rifles and a missile. At least three suspected drug traffickers died in confrontations with police operatives while several gang members handed themselves in at special ‘surrender centres’ that opened around the slum.”

The film City of God is said to give a good impression of what actual gang rule was like, its corrupt and self-destructive nature. The film gave rise to a series called City of Men, available on DVD, showing what it did to a poor community. Almost anything would be better than that.

I don’t suppose the current operations will cure crime. But they are a massive intimidation that should produce a more cautious breed of gangster, people who will keep a lower profile and not bother sporting events. It is definite progress.


Korea: A Struggle to the Death?

The bottom line on the Korean Peninsula is that the USA and South Korea are out to overthrow North Korea. China would like to ease North Korea into more moderate politics, and might be willing to accept some sort of unification, but probably nothing rapid or drastic.

Never forget, China has limited influence on North Korea, which was on the Soviet side in the long Sino-Soviet dispute up until the Soviet Union collapsed.

North Korea has excellent reason to suppose that the USA is ‘out to get them’ regardless of what they do. Anything short of complete surrender would be useless, and the example of Russia in the post-Soviet era is not likely to encourage them. But also they seem to have figured that they can safely get warlike, because the West does not want another expensive war while still trying to extract itself from Iraq and Afghanistan.

If the West had treated the Soviet Bloc decently after their collapse, they might have won over some of the other hold-outs. As things are, a lot of them are worse off economically than they were in 1991. And in the latest crisis, a country as popular and well-connected as Ireland is being treated quite badly.

North Korea has excellent reasons to think that compromise is useless and they might as well take a strong line. I’m not at all fond of that regime, but I assume that it is tough and will not go down quietly. It probably can’t hit Europe or the USA, but it could probably lob enough nuclear weapons to wreck South Korea and Japan. For the benefit of those who are likely to view it selfishly, what do you think that would do to the global economy?

It would be wiser to seek compromise and to admit that North Korea is unlikely to change soon. But it also may be that political rivalries in both South Korea and the USA will encourage politicians to talk tough for the benefit of the voters.


Poppies and Selective Memories [War Dead and Imperialism]

Back in the 1960s, most people in Britain thought we wore poppies in memory of the tragedy of World War One. There was a certain consensus that it had been a bad and foolish war, unlike World War Two which was the fault of Hitler.

Over the years things changed. The Soviet collapse could have been the basis for an era of peace. Instead it was used as an opportunity for NATO to seek global domination. Poppy Day has become part of that.

“A group of veterans from conflicts including the Falklands and Northern Ireland have complained of the increasing glitz and glamour of the annual poppy appeal and of it being hijacked to marshal public support behind current campaigns.

“In a letter in tomorrow’s Guardian, the veterans argue that the original aim of the appeal as a sombre commemoration of the war dead and the horrors of conflict was in danger of being lost amid the marketing spin and tub-thumping political aims.

“‘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,’ they write.” [J]

The event got celebrated anyway. The BBC even had a special page listing all of the conflicts that the poppy commemorates – UK war dead from 1914 to 2010, and on into the future, presumable. Individual conflicts were listed, but not always accurately. Thus on the Korean War, they say

“Britain responded to the United Nations’ call to send military assistance to the Republic of Korea following an invasion across the 38th parallel by the North Korean Peoples’ Army. After initial battlefield successes, the North Koreans were beaten back by a multi-national force to the area of the 38th parallel despite assistance from China. Some 100,000 British men and women served in the region during the conflict.” [K]

Actually the multi-national force conquered most of North Korea and ignored Chinese warnings not to get too close to the border. China then sent in a large army and inflicted a massive defeat on the British and US forces, pushing them back to something close to the former border, where the front stabilised.

A much worse omission is the Irish War of Independence, which is just not there. British troops were involved all along, beginning with the IRA’s 1916 uprising and all through the war of 1919-21, after Ireland returned a clear majority of MPs supporting Irish independence and the British government refused to accept it. It is an embarrassing remembrance, certainly, but several hundred British troops died there, along with armed police and ‘Black-and-Tans’.

The whole handling of that war was irrational, as it happens. The leaders of the 1916 uprising were shot, on the basis that they were armed rebels. But when World War One ended, the surviving insurgents were let out again, conceding that they had actually been soldiers in the war just ended. It wasn’t very rational nor a very smart move: among their number was Michael Collins, who emerged as the most effective fighter.



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