What Does The Poppy Represent?

Today is Remembrance Sunday and you know what that means, you had better be wearing a British Legion red poppy or you’re a loony lefty traitor worse than Jeremy Corbyn meeting with the IRA and Hezbollah. The poppy has become so ingrained in the culture in the UK that it makes the news if anyone in the public eye, especially politicians, are seen in public without one on the run up to Remembrance Day and opens them to criticisms of hating either the UK or the soldiers that died in muddy fields to defend the country. Historically the poppy was a symbol of remembrance for the soldiers that died in the First World War and was quickly adopted by the Royal British Legion in 1921 but what this symbol represents has skewed slightly in the years since then, and now that this meaning has been overtaken this has influenced a desire to show respect and remembrance in other ways.

The inspiration for using the poppy as a symbol of remembrance can be traced back to the poem “In Flanders Fields”  that was written by Canadian physician John McCrae on the 3rd of May 1915, the day after he witnessed the death of his friend. The poem refers to the poppy’s growing amongst the graves of war victims in Belgium and is from the point of view of the fallen soldiers. Moina Michael, a volunteer working with the American YMCA Overseas War Secretaries Organization, was so inspired by the poem that she published her own entitled “We Shall Keep the Faith” in 1918. Afterwards she vowed to always wear a poppy in respect of those that fought in and assisted with the war effort and she would go on to campaign to have the poppy adopted as a national symbol in America, this was successful and by 1920 the National American Legion adopted the flower as their official symbol of remembrance. 

A key figure in bringing the poppy to the other allied nations was Madame Guerin. Noted at the time as one of the greatest of all war speakers she would raise funds for the ‘Food for France’ organisation as well as separately for French widows and orphans, veterans and the American Red Cross. The poppy was first linked to her when she was tasked by the French government with travelling to the US to found the American branch of the ‘American-Franco Children’s League’  in an effort to raise funds to help orphans in the war torn regions of France. This organisation used the poppy as its emblem, and she would start holding poppy days in which she would distribute paper poppies in exchange for donations. Her work would take her to Canada, Newfoundland and eventually to the UK in 1921. Here she approached the British Legion and explained her plans to have an ‘Inter-Allied Poppy Day’. They were sceptical at first but came around to the idea after Madame Guerin paid for the British Legions poppies herself, vastly helping the extremely poor organisation at the time. The rest is history, the poppies were incredibly popular in 1921 and so from 1922 onwards British veterans made Remembrance Poppies at The Poppy Factory to be sold every year to fund the British Legion. Madame Guerin was very rarely mentioned in the British press and when they did nod to the original makers of the poppy, they usually referred to them as French “peasants”, further obscuring her incredibly important contributions to the poppy movement.

As well as for remembrance of military personnel, the yearly poppy appeal is to raise funds for charity that supports both previous and current personnel of the armed forces. As stated on the British Legion website – 

‘We are the country’s largest Armed Forces charity, with 235,000 members, 110,000 volunteers and a network of partners and charities; helping us give support wherever and whenever it’s needed.’

This has caused some to feel uncomfortable with what the poppy has come to represent. The poppy appeal is directly sponsored by companies that profit from war such as BAE Systems and it has built a highly charged nationalist aura around the wearing of the poppy. It’s not only for remembrance of those lost due to wars it is to show how much you support the troops. An appeal to protect those who were victims of their own state’s militarism into a jingoist competition to show who loves their country most. For those critical of the way the army has been deployed over the last few decades this can make the symbol of the poppy a bit of a mixed legacy, and difficult to weld with your own political views. . 

In 2010 a group of Army Veterans sent an open letter in which they complained that the Poppy Appeal had become ‘excessive’ and ‘garish’. They said it was being used to gather support for military campaigns and to pressure people into wearing them. A few years later the same group held a separate remembrance service by walking to The Cenotaph with a banner that read “Never Again” and laid a wreath of white poppies to acknowledge not only the military cost of war but the civilian cost. They wore t-shirts brandished with the phrase “War is Organised Murder” on them, in an action far closer to the true, original meaning of the poppy. This is a quote from Harry Patch, the last survivor of the First World War. 

The white poppy has been used since the 30’s as an alternative symbol of remembrance for all victims of war and to reject the glorification of militarism and its consequences. Nowadays in the UK the Peace Pledge Union distributes white poppies and holds an alternative remembrance service called the ‘National Alternative Remembrance Ceremony’. As they state on their website – 

‘White poppies commemorate all victims of all wars, including wars that are still being fought. This includes people of all nationalities. It includes both civilians and members of armed forces. Today over 90% of people killed in warfare are civilians.’

With the red poppy becoming a symbol for support for the harmful military industrial complex, having alternative ways to show respect to those that have lost their lives due to conflict are especially important. The last justifiable war that the UK has taken part in was the fight against fascism in the Second World War, most subsequent involvement in wars have been about power or money. As a society we should reject the endless wars that serve the interests of the rich.

To support the peace pledge union and find out how to get involved check out their website here.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

A Short History of Policing

As a result of the ongoing civil unrest in the United States, brought about by the consistent and repeated police brutality on flagrant display in the past few weeks, the Overton window has shifted dramatically and now we have police abolition being discussed seriously by those in power. Places like Minnesota- the city at the heart of the recent reaction against police violence following the murder of George Floyd- recently unanimously voted to replace their police service with a community led model. The project is currently in the early phases, the motion giving a year to research and engage with the community to develop the idea. With the suddenly very real possibility that we might- perhaps sooner than expected- be witnessing the belated end of a particularly grim and militaristic chapter in policing, I thought it worthwhile to give an account of the history of policing.

Let’s take a look at where the institutions of policing and legalism originated from. Strangely, these are two separate histories; the oldest known codified legal code being the Sumerian Code of Ur-Nammu originated around 2100 BC, while the earliest recorded instance of what could arguably be called a police force did not develop until around a thousand years later, in ancient China as part of the prefecture system. So what happened in the time between inventing a legal system and a police force? Laws were enforced, often brutally, by whatever petty king ruled over you at that time and because of this the legal tradition of early civilisation matched the barked orders a king would give in his court. As a result, most of the laws in the Code of Ur-Nammu would be more at home in the old testament than in the high court; crimes like theft and murder are swiftly dealt with via execution; punishments are dealt out for adultery and sorcery, and finally a good chunk is devoted to when and when it’s not okay to sow another man’s field. These laws would not have been enforced by anything like police, instead the king would enforce them by right of having a local monopoly on violence, with weaker warlords agreeing to enforce them in their own lands as part of working for their king, and the priest caste making themselves useful by dealing with the complex issues of divorce and witchcraft. 

While this might sound like an ideal system, as these kingdoms grew in size, and the king was no longer able to personally hand out justice on the end of a spear, these warlords began to employ other men with spears to make sure their laws were enforced further and further from the capital. In Egypt the policing had a very militaristic structure. Policing often involved enforcing borders, protecting caravans and suppressing slaves. Not exactly dealing out justice for the common man but more so keeping the increasingly complex economy running. The guards of temples however would go on to take an increasingly more civil role; instead of just being men with spears that reported to the Pharaoh, they would be taken into the religious structure as priests. These guard-priests would be responsible for handling religious law by conducting arrests and acting as judges in the Pharaoh’s name.

In the Jin state of early China, bureaucrats would appoint prefects to investigate crimes and enforce the law in their jurisdiction, this is where things start to look a bit more recognisable as a precursor to the modern police force. Prefects were appointed by the state, reported to the local magistrate, had limited authority and served until dismissed, obligations which differentiate them significantly from the warlord-enforcers of earlier periods.

Much like in Egypt, where the early judges would get their authority from the Pharaoh, these prefects drew their legal power from the Emperor, who had appointed the governor, who had appointed the bureaucrats, who had appointed the prefect. It was this trickle down of authority that defined early policing. But what if your society didn’t have a king?

Both Rome and Athens decided they didn’t like kings, and politely yet firmly asked their kings to leave the city. This however left the people of these cities with a conundrum: all legal authority was handed down by a king, so what do we do now without one? Well, in deciding new laws Rome invented the senate, originally made up of the aristocratic families that had done the firm but polite asking earlier, who took on the responsibility of making new laws. In Athens, they decided that anyone could propose a new law and everyone would get to vote on it, and by everyone I mean adult men, who weren’t slaves, or women and weren’t considered metic (someone who’s family had lived in Athens for multiple generations but weren’t quiet Athenian enough to have a vote). 

Now that the boring legal stuff was decided, who would do the policing? Both cities had experimented with a police force but these had quickly devolved into gangs, loyal to whoever paid them. This wasn’t so much of an issue when the king was the one doing the paying- everyone was already meant to be loyal to him. Instead, whoever was willing to put up the money could have roving gangs meting out “justice” in the city. People quickly decided this was a bad idea. So what did they do? Athens came up with the interesting, and incredibly amoral idea of purchasing 300 slaves that were collectively owned by the Athenian state. These men would be responsible for arrests and guarding important events, as well as preventing riots. The investigation part of police work however fell to the average citizen, if you wanted to take someone to court over something you had to prove it yourself. 

Rome went a different path. After overthrowing their last king, Roman culture underwent a bit of an obsession with legalism; where other cultures would brag about their kings, or in the case of Athens define themselves by democracy, the Romans decided they were the superior culture due to their rule of law. Legal ceremonies took on almost religious significance, and in a few instances like designating the legal boundary of the city, actual religious significance. Lawyers like Cicero would go on to become celebrities and statesmen. So how did this city obsesses with law decide to form its police force? Well, it didn’t. The laws inside Rome weren’t enforced by any separate group of privileged nobles or state owned slaves, but instead every citizen made sure the rule of law was upheld. This sounds like a system doomed to fail, and it eventually did, after a few hundred years. Eventually, the Roman republic gave way to the Roman empire, and Augustus established the Vigiles, a mix of police, firefighter and town watch, bringing with them the end of Rome’s experiment with legalism without a police force. 

Now that we’ve taken a look at the early history of policing and legalism let’s move on to take a look at the institutions in the UK that gave rise to modern policing. 

After the Act of Union, Glasgow had started to grow rich by being the main link to the Americas: sugar, cotton and about half the empire’s tobacco flowed through the city. With all this wealth going about, things started to go missing- a crate here, a box there. Eventually the leakage brought about the attention of the Tobacco lords. In the late 1770s the city of Glasgow had been experimenting with its own police force, and in 1800 the Glasgow Police act was officially passed by the government, establishing the City of Glasgow Police. While it began small, only 8 officers assembling for the first time at the Trongate on a cold November’s day, this group would go on to set the mould for what modern policing would become. The philosophy of this group of men was different than what had come before; rather than just react to crime like town guards had done in the past, the new name of the game wasn’t simply to catch criminals, but to actively prevent crime. Another important tenet was non-lethality, which saw these men armed with a lantern and a long stick as opposed to a pistol or sword. If things got rough the idea was people left with bruises not bullet wounds. Finally each officer was given a badge with a numbered ID, a distinctive uniform and a 24 hour rotating rota. 

The success of the Glasgow model would not go unnoticed by the rest of the Empire. Soon other towns in Scotland had adopted a similar force to patrol 24 hours a day, and by 1822 Ireland would go onto found its own police force, the Royal Irish Constabulary. 

London was having similar troubles to Glasgow in the late 1790s, a bustling port with no one to watch over it resulting in a leakage of stock. The merchants of the capital were fuming, and decided to form groups like the Thames River Police. Much like in Glasgow these proved incredibly successful in protecting shipping cargo, however this was not to last. Soon, London was in the thrall of the industrial revolution, and the city, which was already massive, began to expand even faster as people from the countryside migrated for work. Robert Peel, home secretary at that time decided now was the time to reform all the volunteer and private police forces into something modern and capable of maintaining order in the city. Metropolitan Police Act was passed in 1829 and this force would take on a lot of what had made the Glasgow City Police a success, there was a focus on visibility to deter crime, and because of the cities distaste for the French Model, which was heavily militarised, the Met had a big focus on being civilians policing civilians. This model eventually spread throughout the empire and commonwealth, influencing policing across the world, from Hong Kong to Delhi to Vancouver. 

Across the pond in America, however, policing grew out of a different tradition. The early colonies had a police force that was organised around elected officials called sheriffs, who would then raise a volunteer militia from within the community to police the community. This all sounds rather idyllic- democratic accountability, community focused recruitment- so what went wrong? Well, the modern American police force is not descended from this volunteer group. Instead the men that would be the foundation for policing in America were slave catchers. Places like Carolina heavily depended on slavery to maintain their economy and out of fear of a slave rebellion the men of wealth created groups like the Charleston Guard and Watch. Salaried professional police that had a distinctive uniform, these figures laid the foundation of police work in America. These men were given a strict chain of command, sole authority for policing in their jurisdiction and given the right to use force as they deemed fit. They also took on the lessons from the UK about preventative policing, but with a focus on preventing slave uprisings rather than petty crime. Their role was more similar to the ancient’s way of executing authority and population control rather than anything worth praising. 

Looking at the history of policing it seems its historic role is at odds with how we imagine the role of policing today. Instead of being about protecting people the ancients, like in Egypt, used policing as a method of population control and a way of exerting central authority into places the Pharaohs could not reach themselves. Further we can see that the idea of legalism hasn’t always been married to a police force, in both Athens and Rome the existence of a police force was seen not only as unneeded to enforce law and order but also as anathema to democracy. In modern policing’s foundation we also see a divorce from the ideal that policing is about protecting and serving the public. Instead these early forces were formed by the wealthy classes to stop their property going missing, and in the case of America, that property was sometimes people. Next time we’ll take a look at how a modern society could function without a police force. 

Coronavirus And The Neoliberal Agenda

Not gonna lie, it’s been a pretty bad few weeks.

The COVID-19 pandemic has escalated rapidly, and we’ve all watched as world leaders and scientists frantically scramble to get a foothold on the management of this global crisis. From the initial outbreak in Wuhan, China, to Europe being declared the epicentre of the pandemic by The WHO, the response by governments world-wide has been varied in both strategy and (with some speculation) effectiveness. While China and South Korea continue to report fewer cases day by day as their focussed efforts take effect, European countries have been seemingly paralyzed into inaction, with much less drastic measures being taken, often much later than health experts are recommending. 

But what exactly are the actions that countries like China and South Korea have taken in response to this crisis, and why are we in Europe- and particularly the UK- not following their example?

In this article we won’t recap the details of how COVID-19 developed, or speculate on how it may develop, or tell you to wash your hands again (seriously though, do it); we’re looking instead at the varied response strategies by governments and what they tell us about the western hegemony, which for the last forty-odd years has been characterised by its own disease of the soul- neoliberalism.

The term neoliberalism refers to a set of economic principles which- to varying degrees in different countries- serve as the fundamental characteristics of a capitalist economy; the freer the market, the freer the people; governments should not interfere with markets; a free market is the best mechanism for the distribution of resources; public life should largely mimic the private sector, and often should subsidise its operations- i.e. markets are better equipped to deal with the operation and functioning of everyday life, including travel, infrastructure and healthcare. Under neoliberalism, all of the above are privatised. Under neoliberalism, the market is God.

In the UK, the rise of neoliberalism as the dominant ideology is most associated with the Thatcher era of British politics, which was characterised by the deregulation and privatisation of industry on a massive scale, widening economic disparity and the hollowing out of the public sphere as a result of major tax reductions. While Labour opposed these policies, by the time Tony Blair’s New Labour came to power in 1997 this battle was largely conceded, and little has been done to reverse the havoc wreaked ever since.

In fact, so thoroughly has the ideology of neoliberalism taken root in our society that its callous machinations, for many, appear simply as the result of unavoidable material shortcomings and a Wheel of Fortune without prejudice: there just isn’t enough to go around and that’s life.

The truth of the matter is that scarcity is often artificial, and is a political choice. Economic saving in the short term comes at the expense of improving lives in the long term; conscious efforts are made to “balance the books” instead of preparing for an eventual crisis, which works well enough when things are ticking along as normal- but there is always, always a coming crisis. Around every ten years our global economic system collapses in on itself and neoliberalism is left trying to maintain an economic system that booms and busts like clockwork, all the while imposing a social system where people are left to fend for themselves whenever the music stops.

The UK’s approach to Covid is a stunning and shocking example of this policy put into practice. Despite being able to look into our own future by simply watching events unfolding in the rest of Europe and Asia, we have instead frittered away precious time hand-wringing over tax-avoiding multinationals going under and delaying lockdown measures. The UK lockdown- such that it is- began on the 23rd of March, a full two weeks after Italy went into full lockdown following their failed partial lockdown strategy which had begun on the 21st February. The lockdown in Wuhan had come on 23rd January, and at the end of that month the first two cases of coronavirus were reported in the UK. Warnings by nations ahead of us in the outbreak cycle continued to fall on deaf ears.

While it might seem that this inaction is only the result of some misplaced sense of British exceptionalism (and no doubt these delusions were at play), the truth of it is that modelling and data gathering about an eventual pandemic has been underway a lot longer than the Covid-19 outbreak. In 2016 the government carried out “Exercise Cygnus”- essentially a practice run to see how the UK would cope if a flu epidemic hit- and the results were terrifying. Within the NHS, local authorities and every government department taking part in the drill, massive service failures were found to exist. The exercise showed that the NHS was already stretched to breaking point, and would not be able to properly supply protective gear to its staff, never mind dealing with any surge in service use. 

What is the neoliberal answer to such a report? Suppression. The report, until very recently did not see the light of day. Deeming its contents “too terrifying” for the general public, the government instead chose informed inaction. When actually hit with this nightmare scenario- of which the government wilfully and knowingly left the UK underprepared- the official government policy was to seek out “Herd immunity”, where the disease would “burn through the population all in one go”, as the PM had put it, and infect 60% of the population. A policy that would have left hundreds of thousands dead, even with low fatality estimates of 1.5%.

Neoliberalism is the pursuit of profit over people, and hundred of thousands dead is acceptable collateral to people so committed in preserving the status quo that they would rather you die than risk business interests being put down the priority list. 

Why is it then that China and South Korea have coped better? At the start of this China and South Korea were respectively the first and second worst hit nations by this pandemic. South Korea, for its part, didn’t even enforce a lock down; instead they made testing easy, accessible and available on a massive scale. Anyone who tested positive had their contacts traced, were asked what venues they had gone to and who they met. Anyone they had met was tested as well and anywhere they went was closed for two weeks and sanitised. Testing was also made quick and simple, with tests in the hospital quickly being replaced and moved to drive ins and single person booths. An app was also released nationwide that let people volunteer information about where they had visited if they tested positive for Covid-19, this let people make informed decisions about where to go, and what venues to keep open, limiting the impact this had on day to day life in South Korea. 

In China the policy instead embraced self isolation, social distancing and a focus on hand and respiratory hygiene. Transport services were limited, schools were moved online and local services such as food delivery services were supported. The Chinese government, supported by the World Health Organisation also made an effort to provide education on infection prevention and controls, and is looking into ways to integrate these practices into day to day life, with a long term aim of preventing something like this happening again. The Chinese government also took a very direct role in encouraging people to focus on their own health in the coming days, and to put it in the words of Dr Gauden Galea, the WHO representative to China “Staying healthy over the next phase of COVID-19 is everybody’s business.” 

One difficulty however in discussing China’s response to the outbreak is that, funnily enough, there isn’t one Chinese response. Despite often being accused of authoritarianism and over centralisation, the Chinese government’s approach has been one of deferring to local authorities on policy; the more stringent lockdown in Wuhan has been in contrast to the response in Shanghai or Chengdu, where the local authorities have focused on the availability of health education and hygiene products. The WHO have also provided a big support to people in China, with their educational materials on social media, according to their own numbers, reaching 1 billion people. 

In summary, the response in South Korea has been one of an active government making testing available, as well as helping people coordinate around the pandemic without requiring a complete lockdown and China has instead focused on deferring local responses, supported by social distancing, moving services online when able, making education on the matter easily available and taking advice from international organisations like the WHO. The UK’s response was ignoring reports of service failures and until very recently, inaction.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has had praise heaped upon him across the media and public discourse for lending just a shred of credibility to the Tories despite their cruel ineptitude, and for producing a budget which, at least in theory, will support the vast swathes of people now finding themselves in precarious economic circumstances, although there remains questions about whether these measures go far enough. With increased spending and support being announced and with the crisis itself being such an overwhelming situation, it can be tempting to absolve leaders of past actions and instead focus on the positive steps being taken in the here and now. But we would all do well to remember that these are the same people who, through their negligence have cost hundreds, if not thousands of lives, and have left us without the social infrastructure to deal with the present crisis as a consequence of years of austerity. 

This new found generosity will not last. Dominic Cummings deflecting questions around NHS pay rises is evidence enough for any who need it that this sudden change in values is on a strictly temporary basis, unless we demand manifest change.

(Collaboration by Ryan Wilson and Alex Osbourne)

University Strikes: Staff and Students against Management

Across the country, both in Scotland and the rest of the UK, universities are being hit by a 14-day strike, with staff at over 74 universities taking part and thousands joining in support, both workers and students. Universities state they will attempt to keep services unaffected by the industrial action but this statement is looking increasingly hollow as classes are cancelled, and with many students actively supporting the strikers, the universities are increasingly looking like the weaker side. 

The University and College Union, the group that organised this wave of industrial action are taking issue with the way in which treatment of staff is continuing to deteriorate. Increasingly, consultation has set into the industry, with an increase in zero-hour contracts, an unresolved gender pay gap and worsening contract terms. The straw that broke the camel’s back for a lot of staff appears to have been changes to pension schemes meaning staff were paying more without the University increasing payments into the pot in kind. 

This will be the third time that uni staff have gone on strike, the last time happening just before Christmas and negotiations are still not landing at a reasonable result. During this time however support from students, according to the BBC is around 47% among students Keeping in mind this might be the third time some of these students have gone through a strike nearly one in two students still supporting the strike is both surprising and good news for staff. The strikes have also got the support from some politicians, notably including Labour leader candidate Rebecca long Bailey and Labour education shadow secretary Angela Rayner. Support from other parties is a bit quieter, not surprising since in previous strikes in Scotland SNP cuts were directly called out as a reason for industrial action, with Staff and union members warning as early as September last year about SNP policy making strike action more, not less likely. 

Support in Glasgow’s institutes remains high, and many students continuing to join staff at picket lines. The reasons behind the Scottish strikes are a little different than the strikes taking place elsewhere in the UK; as mentioned earlier, the cuts to education in Scotland were a driving cause, as was a reduction in real wages, with union representatives saying that some lecturers have had a reduction in pay of 20% over the last decade. 

One interesting form of protest that has emerged during these strikes is that staff are simply following their contracts to the letter without carrying out any of the additional duties they were doing outside of the role they were hired for. The effectiveness of this strategy is shocking, and cuts to the heart of the issue of casualisation in education. The fact that these institutes are crawling to a halt simply because people are only doing what they are paid to do exemplifies how much of a burden is being pushed on to staff without compensation. By forcing employees to burn the wick at both ends without even fairly compensating them for the additional work they are relied upon for, it was only a matter of time before workers took to defending their livelihoods against a deal that is tightening the screws on them. 

Although students continue to show their support, this has not been without consequences. Some universities have dealt students suspensions and expulsions for supporting staff, aiming to drive a wedge between teachers and students. This policy has put people’s educations at risk and at Stirling University, students that supported the strikes earlier last year were threatened with homelessness as they would be banned from university accommodation. The fact that university management is treating the support for staff with such an iron fist, threatening teenagers with homelessness is deeply chilling. The idea that universities are a place that young people can grow, learn but also develop a voice is not lining up with the reality, where you can now be kicked out on the streets for piping up. 

As the strike continues it’s important we all pay attention to what is going on: our centres of education are putting the squeeze on educators and support staff, and at the same time dealing out draconian punishments to dissenters. If you’re able I would ask you to support the strike in any way you can, or else the next generation will be taught about the world from underpaid, overworked educators and reminded constantly to keep their mouths shut.