One thing that has struck me very forcibly as the events of the last ten days have washed over us all in a tsunami of misery, is the knowledge that many of us have been played, and now, in the aftermath of this referendum we are being hung out to dry. We are the marionettes in the theatre of politics. History shows, and last week confirms that we are repeatedly being sacrificed by those in power for their own self-interest and gain.
Politicians are required to be public servants, but in this last week, more than ever before, they are relentlessly and systematically being exposed as only interested in serving themselves, whether it be for more money, or more power, or to further an ideology they believe in more than the people they are mandated to help.
Over the last seven months, as I found myself plunged into a pell mell study of what our government has done and is doing to our health service, I felt it. Over the last five years as I watched schools go under the cosh in the name of educational reform that takes us nearer and nearer to the model of Dickensian ragged schools and further away from giving children any real understanding of the power of what education can do to liberate them, I felt it. As I sat in a meeting about mental health provision last month and learned that there are only ten beds for child and adolescent mental health cases available across my local area, which includes three counties, I felt it.
Yet, strangely, it was history that brought it home to me viscerally.
On Friday, as people commemorated the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, through the poignant We Are Here project, I knew it for certain.
As I watched the footage of the silent soldiers, sitting on town square steps, standing in railway stations, standing by memorials to the fallen, handing out cards with their names on to the passers by, I thought about how little separates us and them, and how little we have learned in the intervening century.
In her memoir about WWI, Youth At The Gate, Ursula Bloom writes:
‘It is difficult today to picture the 1910-1914 period, for then it was a bigoted world, the era of the autocratic individual, when today it has become the age of the masses. Society was carefully sectioned, all part of the imperial honeycomb. We were sons and daughters of an empire which we believed to be impregnable, and perhaps it was going to be the greatest shock of all to discover that – like other empires it could fall.’
She writes of the initial enthusiasm for the war they believed would be over by Christmas and their belief that ‘nobody could beat Britain’.
That’s what I think about now, when I hear all this talk of putting the ‘great’ back into Great Britain, when I am repeatedly told how powerful we are, and how much other countries need us.
I hear her words. I hear the disillusionment in her voice. I think about the fact that of course we won the war, but at what cost to ordinary people?
And I think about the fact that had we been left to our own devices, alone, without help from our allies, that we might have been commemorating something very different on Friday.
I think about Geoff Dyer’s brilliant book, The Missing of the Somme. I think about his belief that WWI was already being shaped by those in power as a memorial to those who died, right from its inception. That those millions of ordinary men were dead to our government before they even got on a troop ship. Dyer talks about the government pre-ordering millions of stretchers and coffins. They were corpses from the moment they signed up.
This then, was the cost of war, a war that was fought by two nations intent only on one upmanship, on proving one was more powerful than the other in a tit for tat game that led to the death of millions and the wreckage of their families in the aftermath of war.
Dyer talks about the language of sacrifice that shrouds our stories of WWI, and it seems so noble. Except that when you look at what they were sacrificed for, it merely seems futile and wasteful, particularly given what would come just a few short years later.
I think about the propaganda from the media and the politicians around the referendum. I think about the ‘patriotic’ fervour that has been stirred up. I think about people who talk about how we must ‘fight’ to separate ourselves from Europe, how we must all expect to sacrifice in the short term for the sake of the long term good, and I think about what happened one hundred years ago on those muddy fields and I weep.
I think about the boss of Wetherspoons pubs, Tim Martin. A man who poured hundreds of thousands of pounds of his own money into funding the leave campaign. His business has lost £30 million in the last week. Interviewed in the papers over the weekend, he has said that he is not really bothered by these losses, because of what he stands to gain in the long term. I think about politicians telling us how we will weather this storm if we stop panicking and look to the future. I think about how it’s much easier to weather a storm when you don’t really notice £30 million in losses. I think about how it’s much easier to be positive when whatever happens you are assured of a future in which you rule, rather than serve. I think it is much easier when you are independently wealthy, and you do listen to experts and can afford to ride the vagaries of the stock market and come out of anything on the winning side. I think it is much easier as long as you hold ordinary people in contempt. I think it is much easier as long as money is the only thing that matters to you.
And then I think of all those people who believed in the golden dawn of a new empire that Brexit sold them, and who are becoming increasingly disillusioned by the day. I think of the ordinary people, the cannon fodder, who were and are the acceptable sacrifice in this particular battle. I think of their losses. I think of the houses, the jobs, the university funding, the careers that are winking out in front of people’s eyes. I think of those who believed they could gamble this future because they had nothing to lose, and what they will think this time next year about that loss, and that future. I think of the racist hate crime, up by 500% in ten days. I think of the fear of the future, and the uncertain times we live in, steered by nobody, to nowhere. I think of those people who do not have stock brokers, or a financial cushion to break their fall. I think of George Osborne getting back on his podium and telling us that we must tighten our belts again, that we must face more austerity in order to reap the rewards later, and I wonder how for how many of those people later will be too late.
I thought about all this on Friday, and I wept.