This year, as part of the commemorations (they wanted to say celebrations, but couldn’t pluck up the brass neck), we are to be asked by our government to hark back 100 years to remember the start of the first world war. In order to get us in the mood and generate the right atmosphere, they’ve spent many months creating the realistic conditions. They’ve reduced real wages almost back to the value they held in 1914; they’ve reduced the amount of “red tape” that was stopping those poor, unfortunate employers from indiscriminately sacking people and flouting health & safety; they’ve given the rich a whopping tax break and they’ve stopped those scrounging, poor, disadvantaged and disabled so-and-so’s from claiming benefits, leaving them in the hands of food banks. I also have to admire the realistic finishing touches: the window tax – sorry, bedroom tax – sorry, spare room subsidy and the loan sharks – I mean pay-day loan companies. And, genius, three men were charged with, wait for it, “stealing” food from a supermarket waste bin. The supermarket, who had not called the police, quite rightly refused to press charges. However, the interesting fact here is that the Crown Prosecution Service chose not to charge the men with, say, burglary or theft, but the Vagrancy Act of 1824 (they stopped short of cutting off their hands or transporting them to Australia).
No effort has been spared then, to engender the realism required for our four-year celebration – whoops I said it once but I think I got away with it, sorry, commemoration. In fact, it’s tempting to think that this nostalgia roller-coaster of nationalistic jingoism is an elaborate attempt to divert our gaze from just how vicious and intense this effort has been, but the government wouldn’t be so cunningly sly, would they? And while we’re wallowing in our sepia-tinged 1914 memories, it’s worth considering some Edwardian facts of life.
- At the time, Britain was imposing itself around the world, keeping lots of plates spinning and generally occupying and interfering in the running of numerous countries. There was a lot of sabre-rattling happening and Britain was making sure that hers was one of the loudest. Indeed a school of thought exists, that this posturing and chest-puffing between empires, coupled with the unprecedented worldwide stockpile of armaments was the true cause of a war which was just looking for an excuse to start. It could have been anything; it just happened to be Gavrillo Princip’s starting pistol in Saraejvo.
- At home, there was no job stability for the working class. People were exploited by ruthless employers; they were working long hours for low pay and in conditions that were appalling and downright dangerous.
- Working people had little or no access to the legal system and could not claim legal aid
- The best education was available providing you could pay.
- The best health care was available providing you could pay.
- The poor and disabled were an underclass. As late as 1930 Julian Huxley, chairman of the Eugenics society wrote, “What are we going to do? Every defective man, woman and child is a burden. Every defective is an extra body for the nation to feed and clothe, but produces little or nothing in return.”
Britain was pursuing an expansive foreign policy then, whilst at home, it’s own human beings were valued only in terms of profit. Ring any bells? Every point in the list from 1914, 100 years ago, is valid today, yet the government will have you believe this is a civilized country. Expect the next 18 months to be a nostalgia-fest of how great ‘our country’ is to sweep us along to the election. You’ll be told at every opportunity in between the war hysteria that, ‘the country’ has turned the corner; ‘the country’ is in growth; ‘the country’ this, ‘the country that’; anything to divert your gaze from what they are doing to people – what they’re doing to you.
The NHS is being prepared for total privatisation, care for the elderly is decimated, our children are being charged £27,000 to educate themselves – a birthright in my day, fire stations are closing, coastguard stations are closing, libraries are closing, the terminally ill are being told to find a job, people will be forced to work ’til they’re 70, young people will be forced to work for nothing. Nixon bugged one office and was impeached; our government is spying on all of us and laughs in our faces, whilst they order water cannon in case any of us take exception to our treatment. At least we can still find the money to keep three wars on the go at once and cut taxes for the rich.
If this was going on in another country, this government would call it a banana republic and keep a straight face. In 2015 they are going to ask us to vote for them again, in their words, “to finish the job.” The scary part is, with our record at the polls it might well happen.