Call for papers (panel proposal for BISA 2016 conference):

Call for papers (panel proposal for BISA 2016 conference): Popular Culture and International Politics: South-Eastern Europe and the Globe

This panel organised by the British International Studies Association’s South East Europe Working Group for the 2016 BISA Conference in Edinburgh (15-17 June 2016) asks how popular culture research about/from south-east Europe can contribute to a wider research agenda in International Studies. How far can popular culture be said to have shaped, as well as reflected, the politics of south-east Europe, and what insights might current research questions in south-east European cultural studies be able to offer the research agendas around Popular Culture and World Politics, Visual International Relations and related areas?

Contributions to the panel might focus on any of the following areas, or other relevant topics:

  • Construction and contestation of national identities and other layers of collective/geopolitical identity
  • The politics of war memory and collective victimhood
  • ‘Banal nationalism’ and ‘banal militarism’
  • Post-conflict/post-socialist political economies of cultural production
  • International politics of sexuality/gender and popular culture
  • Popular culture and the ‘affective atmospheres’ of politics
  • Celebrity activism and humanitarianism
  • Post-9/11 narratives of international security
  • Transnational processes of racialisation
  • Popular culture, digital media and diaspora as political actors
  • Virality and visuality on social media
  • The global movement of people, capital, technologies and texts
  • Popular culture and the emotions in IR
  • Producing popular-cultural artefacts as an innovative methodology in IR

Please send paper proposals (including a title, a 250-word abstract, a 100-word biography and a contact email to Catherine Baker (, with ‘BISA SEE WG popular culture panel’ in the subject line, by Fri 20 November.


Political musical theatre: Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, Croatian patriotic music and narratives of national regeneration

This post was originally published at Balkanist on 17 January 2015.

For both contenders in the run-off of the Croatian presidential elections, Ivo Josipović and Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, music has played some part in their life stories.

Josipović, a social democrat who became president in 2010, is famously a working composer as well as a politician and lawyer and a former director of the Music Biennale Zagreb, a respected festival of contemporary art music.

The musical link for Grabar-Kitarović, a career diplomat who entered Croatian politics in 2003 as a parliamentary deputy for the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), is more indirect: born in 1968, she owes her unusual first name to the Cajun folk song ‘Colinda’ (an adaptation of a black Creole dance from Louisiana), which was re-recorded by several US and Canadian pop artists in the 1960s before being covered in Croatian by Zdenka Vučković in 1967.

Grabar-Kitarović’s extremely close victory over Josipović on 11 January (receiving 50.7% of the vote to Josipović’s 49.3%) was hailed by HDZ supporters in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, but interpreted by others including Croatia’s own foreign minister Vesna Pusić as a potential ‘return to the nationalism of the 1990s’ which Grabar-Kitarović would have to avoid in order not to destabilize Croatia.

Pusić, the leader of the Croatian People’s Party (HNS) and a core member of the centre-left Kukuriku coalition which has held parliamentary power in Croatia since 2011, has been a consistent critic of the form of nationalism that HDZ’s founder and Croatia’s first president, Franjo Tuđman, represented in the 1990s. The sociology papers on democracy and nationalism that Pusić published during the 1990s set Tuđman and HDZ in the context of what she saw as a broader trend in the politics of post-socialist eastern Europe. Soon after HDZ had attempted to shut down the independent Zagreb radio station Radio 101, for instance, Pusić wrote in a 1998 article for the Journal of Democracy:

All the new rulers in postcommunist Eastern Europe came to power with two slogans emblazoned on their banners. One read “Democracy,” while the other demanded “Justice for the [Croatian, Polish, Romanian, Slovak, or Bulgarian] People.” For the Croatian (as for other) nationalists, this “historical justice” was the real taproot of political legitimacy, and grounded their right to rule. They had no democratic credentials, and no plans to deepen democracy once they came into power. Their emphasis instead was on the claims of nationhood. […]

The HDZ increasingly treats Croatia as a party-state. Leaders have repeatedly emphasized that they regard the HDZ as capable of encompassing the entire political spectrum, thus eliminating any need for political opposition. President Tudjman continues to pour contempt on the opposition, calling it a herd of “grazing cattle” in a 1995 speech. Both he and his party have been high-handed and autocratic enough to alienate a large portion of the populace.

Comparing Pusić’s and Grabar-Kitarović’s views on the politics of the 1990s could hardly give a clearer illustration of how far memories of Tuđman’s politics are divided in Croatia. For Pusić, the decade was a time of political alienation for which Tuđman and his party should be held responsible. Grabar-Kitarović’s victory speeches, meanwhile, implied that national unity was a value that Croats needed to rediscover in order to reunite the country. Giving her official victory speech, surrounded by her campaign team and volunteers, she began in a less specific way that still communicated recognisable keywords of the Croatian right:

Let us start as early as tonight to work for the improvement of our dear Croatian homeland. I would like to thank above all my dear Croatian Democratic Union, with which I have stood even in the hardest times. I will have to leave the party membership now, but my values, the values of the family, the homeland, love towards the homeland, towards our émigrés, of faith and togetherness, that stays in me, and that is how Croatia will move forward. Let us come together, let us be together!

Halfway through, however, the speech took a specifically revivalist turn directly linking her programme with an imagined political unity and with the HDZ’s contemporary interpretation of Tuđman, before turning into one of the most striking moments of political musical theatre that Croatia has witnessed for some time:

We all want a better Croatia. And this contest of ours, this programme of ours, everything we have done before now, everything has led up to our finally being able to focus on what matters to the life of Croatian people in Croatia, to the life of our émigrés, to the life of the Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina. We have all striven for that, and I call on us all to unite, I also call on those who voted for Mr Josipović to be part of our team, to be part of the movement for a better Croatia because there has been enough division. There has been enough!


There has been enough of ‘mine’ and ‘theirs’, ‘ours’ and ‘yours’. You are all mine, my dear Croatian citizens, let us go together. A hard task awaits us. Let us unite, let us unite our patriotism, love and faith in this Croatian homeland of ours, let us get ourselves out of the crisis, let us finish the path we began under the first Croatian president Dr Franjo Tuđman, let us bring Croatia into prosperity.

(Shouts of ‘Franjo, Franjo’!)

This state, this people, can…

(The team begins singing, and she joins in, the patriotic song ‘Zovi, samo zovi’: Call, just call / all the falcons will / give their lives for you)

Thank you for these words of patriotism, of faith in yourself, because a people that does not believe in itself, that does not respect itself, will not respect others either. But let nobody understand this as a threat; loving what is ours meaning that we respect what belongs to others; but let us fight for Croatian national interests because this is Croatia!

(Even readers who don’t speak Croatian are quite welcome to interpret the section of the speech between approximately seven-and-a-half and nine-and-a-half minutes as the closest thing to a Croatian version of Madonna’s performance in Evita that you are likely to see today.)

Later that evening, Grabar-Kitarović visited the camp outside the Ministry for Veterans that a group of disabled Homeland War veterans set up in October to protest the long delays in their health care. Describing it as her ‘first working visit’, she repeated her commitment to the legacy of Tuđman and promised that ‘nobody is going to call the Homeland War a civil war’.

Pusić’s comments on Grabar-Kitarović’s victory suggest that she sees the new president as directly re-evoking the 1990s. So, too, does this graphic that circulated on social media after the victory speech, in a comment on the current political climates of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia as well as Croatia:

The style and language of Grabar-Kitarović’s speech, however, suggest a subtly different dynamic: less a direct evocation of the 1990s, and more a revival of the manner in which the 1990s were already being idealised by politicians and cultural workers in the early/mid 2000s – when the most lasting contributions to nationalist discourse in Croatia were being made by popular musicians.

The ‘Zovi, samo zovi’ moment itself unfolds in a similar way to its use by audiences greeting patriotic musicians such as Miroslav Škoro or Marko Perković Thompson, such as this moment from Thompson’s concert at the Maksimir stadium in Zagreb in June 2007:

As performers and songwriters, Škoro and Thompson both took on activist roles in support of the early 2000s veterans’ movement, against the centre-left president and prime minister (Stipe Mesić and Ivica Račan) who had come to power in 2000, and in defence of the ‘truth’ about the Homeland War, which they (like the early 2000s HDZ and its rivals on the right) believed was being betrayed by Croatian politicians co-operating with the Hague Tribunal over the indictments of Croatian Army officers. Škoro’s 2005 song ‘Svetinja’ (‘Sacred thing’) depicted a Croatian nation beset by internal betrayal, and called for the three values of ‘faith, love and the homeland’ (‘vjera, ljubav, domovina’) to be held sacred:

Thompson has frequently associated himself with a similar triad, ‘God, the family and the homeland’ (‘Bog, obitelj i domovina’), as in this 2007 interview during the promotion of his album Bilo jednom u Hrvatskoj (Once upon a time in Croatia):

The most important things in my life are God, family and homeland, and in fact in that order. Every man who has these values in himself is a rich man.

Thompson has contributed, just as much as HDZ’s own efforts, to memorialising Tuđman as a founder and defender of the nation. For instance, concerts on his 2002 tour (at the height of the protests in support of the indicated generals Ante Gotovina and Mirko Norac) began with a special video commemorating Tuđman’s role in liberating the ‘holy Croatian soil’ (‘Sveto tlo hrvatsko’):

Thompson’s calls for national unity, however, do not extend to those he has viewed as ‘Yugo-communists’ – among them, those who have described him as ‘a fascist’ or ‘a Nazi’ for his use of symbolism associated with the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) during the Second World War. Controversies about Thompson’s views on the NDH have recurred every few years since he became a star in 1992, symbolising  the wider controversy over how contemporary Croatian public memory should treat the past of a state which claimed to express Croatian sovereignty and which persecuted hundreds of thousands of Jews, Serbs, Roma, socialists and homosexuals between 1941 and 1945.

Calling on the nation to ‘unify’ cannot overcome the fact that Thompson remains a divisive figure in Croatian politics and culture and has exacerbated this division through identifying political opponents whom his public statements suggest do not deserve to belong to the nation; but then much the same could be said of Tuđman himself.

Politically and economically, however, the mid-2000s Croatia in which Škoro and Thompson re-idealised Tuđman’s 1990s is not the Croatia in which Grabar-Kitarović, Josipović, the former HDZ official Milan Kujundžić and the young left-wing activist Ivan Vilibor Sinčić contested the 2014 presidential election.

HDZ’s myth of itself as carriers of an infallible tradition of leadership inherited from Tuđman was punctured by the corruption trial of Ivo Sanader, the HDZ prime minister between 2003 and 2009 – all the more reason, perhaps, for a presidential candidate such as Grabar-Kitarović to reach for a consciously re-imagined past.

Meanwhile, new student, environmentalist and anti-austerity movements in Croatia – the milieu from which Sinčić emerged as a surprise third-place presidential candidate in 2014 – had directly articulated critiques of the neoliberal political consensus they held responsible for Croatia’s debt crisis and spiraling rates of unemployment.

Igor Štiks and Srećko Horvat argue that the new Croatian protest movements, and their counterparts in post-Yugoslav successor states, are symptoms of a fundamental democratic deficit in contemporary south-east Europe (and indeed in Europe as a whole):

Post-socialist citizens […] today feel largely excluded from decision-making processes: most elections have turned out to be little more than a re-shuffling of the same political oligarchy with no serious differences in political programmes or rhetoric. Many lost their jobs (during the “privatisation” campaigns) or had their labour conditions worsen and their pensions evaporate; most of the guaranteed social benefits (such as free education and health care) progressively disappeared. In addition to that, citizens are highly indebted, owning money to foreign-owned banks that spread around the Balkans and that control its whole financial sector. After the series of devastating wars across the former Yugoslavia that claimed up to 130,000 deaths in the 1990s, the last decade brought about another wave of impoverishment, this time managed by “euro-compatible” elites ready to implement further neo-liberal reforms portrayed as a necessary part of the EU accession process.

But others, too, have felt equally left behind by the processes through which successive Croatian governments have integrated the state into the European Union – among them the members of the veterans’ movement who welcomed Grabar-Kitarović to their protest camp after her victory; the rural communities that now ‘affirm themselves as “sites of resistance” to urban neoliberalism’, as Michaela Schäuble writes (p. 275) in her recent ethnography of post-war rural Dalmatia; or, indeed, the many Bosnian Croats eligible to vote in Croatia’s elections to whom Grabar-Kitarović also successfully appealed.

After several years without recording new material, Škoro and Thompson both released new albums in 2013–14 containing songs that framed contemporary conditions within the narratives of unity and betrayal they had developed in 2000–7. Miroslav Škoro’s 2013 single ‘Zašto lažu nam u lice’ (‘Why are they lying to our faces?’) revisits his frequent theme of everyday village life but in a context where (the end of its video states) 110,000 people have emigrated from Croatia between 2001 and 2012:

Thompson’s 2013 album Ora et labora (Latin for ‘Work and pray’), meanwhile, emphasised God as an agent of national regeneration (with lyrics for one song written by the Bishop of Šibenik, Ante Ivas), aimed to comment directly on Bosnian politics with another song that aimed to claim areas including the Lašva Valley and Posavina as the historical ‘cradle of Croats’, and for the first time directly incorporated a speech of Tuđman’s (his November 1996 speech accusing ‘Yugo-communist remnants’ of continuing to oppose Croatian freedom and independence) into one of his own songs (framed as a message of defiance against campaigners who had opposed him performing in the Pula Arena).

Love, faith, family, homeland, and even a falcon or two; if Grabar-Kitarović had a bingo card based on the most commonly used phrases in lyrics from the mid-2000s wave of patriotic popular music, it would be pretty much filled in.

Indeed, a few days before the run-off election Thompson wrote Grabar-Kitarović a public letter of support which explicitly attached his defiance of ‘Yugo-communism’ to her campaign (and implicitly challenged Sinčić’s call for voters to abstain), ending with a quotation from his 2007 song ‘Duh ratnika’ (‘The warrior’s ghost’) which had depicted Thompson receiving a message from the ghost of a Croatian soldier who had been killed in the Homeland War:

I call on you all to vote, not just to vote yourselves, but to encourage others to vote as well […] Let us send those remains of Yugo-communism into oblivion and finish what we started in the 1990s.

Let us vote for Mrs Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, separate the wheat from the tares, and begin to realise our dreams.

‘I would give everything to see her, proud and beautiful like in my dreams’

Is Pusić right, then, to be alarmed by Grabar-Kitarović’s rhetoric of national regeneration and the way in which it has been expressed?

For the historian of fascism Roger Griffin, any combination of the call for national renewal and an exclusionary definition of the nation would be a troubling sign. Griffin has argued that the ‘mobilising myth’ of fascist ideology, in Mussolini’s Italy and elsewhere, was a fusion of ‘an organic, illiberal conception of the nation which celebrates the collective energies of the “people”’ and what he terms the myth of ‘palingenesis’, that is, ‘rebirth’ or ‘renewal’:

These two components crystallize in the image of the rejuvenated nation rising phoenix-like from the ashes of the decadent order which has suffocated the true life of the people […] even a relatively unsophisticated analysis of any Fascist text of substance will reveal a recurrent set of images and themes relating either to the condemnation of the decadent, liberal nation of decline, weakness, crisis, anarchy, or to the celebration of the reborn, post-liberal nation of regeneration, strength, stability, order which Fascism aspires to be creating – and very often to the gulf which divides the ‘old’ Italy from the ‘new’. (p. 7)

At a time of systemic and spreading crisis, within political and socio-economic systems that have failed to provide liveable lives to increasing numbers of the population, calls for renewal in themselves are not inherently a fascist theme, or even a right-wing theme; social-democratic versions of the call to work together to rebuild the country on a different basis can equally easily be imagined (consider, for instance, how several recent British film-makers have attempted to turn Labour’s 1945 nationalisation programme, the Dagenham equal pay strikes of 1968 or the solidarity between striking Welsh miners and London gay and lesbian activists during the 1984–5 miners’ strike into symbolic political resources for today), not to mention, of course, calls for solidarity and resistance across national borders, which imply a more radical redefinition of the boundaries of community and citizenship.

Calls for national regeneration imply a narrative about what has gone wrong and how to fix it; it’s on the basis of this narrative that one can evaluate Grabar-Kitarović’s victory speech, or any other. What do they identify as having gone wrong, and – equally importantly – which people or what forces do they hold responsible? And how, finally, do they propose to solve it? Answering these questions can reveal much about how a speaker – or a singer – approaches the matter of who has full rights to belong, and who doesn’t, within the community they claim to address.

Reviving Tuđman’s 1990s through a lens which was already re-idealised in the 2000s has clear advantages for Grabar-Kitarović – indeed, after the Sanader trial, was perhaps the only way that HDZ could win a presidential election in 2014. Tuđman’s unwillingness to concede ground to the opposition outside or even inside HDZ and his own privatisation scandals had already brought on political and economic crises by the mid-1990s; HDZ had little to gain, and much to lose, from reminding voters of the whole decade in its full complexity.

Yet neither could Grabar-Kitarović present herself unproblematically as Sanader’s political heir, despite their shared commitment to integrating Croatia into Euro-Atlantic economic and diplomatic structures.

Was any narrative even left apart from the story of the 1990s along the lines through which it was already being re-imagined in the 2000s? This picture, though illusory, is much more comforting – unless, of course, one is or might be a ‘Yugo-communist’.

Grabar-Kitarović’s public statements during her first week in office have left her in a position where she has appeared to reopen multiple questions, from the constitutional status of Croats in Bosnia to potentially even how Croatia views the status of Vojvodina within Serbia. Coming from a former Assistant Secretary-General for Public Diplomacy at NATO, they lend themselves to being read less as diplomatic gaffes, more as a further form of political theatre. Yet how far her presidency succeeds in improving conditions as she has promised – and who it succeeds in improving conditions for – will depend only partly on the president’s public face and just as much on what happens on the presidency’s back stage.

Goodbye to the Loch Ness Monster?: on British/Scottish ‘unity’ campaigns and a potential Very Near Abroad Indeed

I haven’t had much to say about the Scottish independence referendum. I’ve never lived or worked in Scotland, and my family background has no relevant connections either, so whether a Yes or No outcome would be best for Scotland isn’t a debate I have much to contribute to.

(I’m also conscious that the problem of Too Many People From The Rest Of The UK Deciding What They Think Is Best For Scotland is one reason the idea of an independence referendum ever got this far, whatever happens on Thursday the 18th.)

I have occasionally commented on aspects of the run-up to the referendum which have resonance for political culture in England, where I do live (I grew up in London, and lived in the South-East until I moved to East Yorkshire in 2012) – such as the astonishing proportion of the electorate (97%) who have registered to vote on Thursday, and the anticipated turnout figures that would be much higher than any recent UK general elections. The rest of the UK needs these levels of political participation too, and whatever happens in the referendum, we need to keep asking what will help achieve it.

Then there’s the mess of Westminster’s contributions to the No campaign, which I feel more comfortable expressing disappointment with – can they really have planned to remind Scottish voters with a week to go that you hardly ever see the Prime Minister in Scotland most of the time, and certainly not in any structured way? And is the continued Conservative brinkmanship about British membership of the EU really the most effective way of persuading voters that No is a  less risky choice than Yes?

Something seems to have shifted in English discourse about the referendum since last weekend, when YouGov published the first opinion poll to give the Yes vote a majority. There are good reasons to be cautious about the conclusions of any one poll (see John Curtice’s daily analyses of the various polls’ methods and results, and Patrick McGhee’s comments on making sense of the Don’t Knows), but in terms of general trends, the strong No lead of a year or more ago has now shifted to a much closer and uncertain outcome, which will need to be carefully managed whatever the result.

Let’s Stay Together?

The Yes-majority poll of a week ago does seem to have made the idea that Scotland might become a separate state from the rest of the UK something much more thinkable in England than it has been before. Part of this, of course, will be to do with agenda-setting in the media – television news in particular needs to keep finding new angles on continuing stories – but the practical implications of an independent Scotland for the rest of the UK have shifted from joke to conversation topic over the course of the referendum campaign.

(Though if the idea of an independent Scotland was practically unimaginable in England before, what does that say about the extent to which political discourse in England has appreciated Scottish claims to be a national community?)

A few days ago, the historians Dan Snow and Tom Holland called a ‘unity rally’ to ‘give a voice to everyone who doesn’t have a vote in the referendum to break up Britain’. The rally, under the slogan Let’s Stay Together, will be held in Trafalgar Square on Monday; a similar unity rally in Montréal is often credited with having defeated Quebecois nationalists’ independence campaign in 1995. (It may, of course, have helped that the 1995 rally was in Quebec.)

The voice of this section of the No campaign seems to be quirkily nostalgic (the Spectator journalist Fraser Nelson, inviting readers to the rally, wrote ‘I’m thinking of inviting some subscribers around for a cup of tea in our garden at 4.30pm and we can walk over later’), much like many items in the list of elements of British culture that the novelist Jenny Colgan gave in today’s Observer that she would be sad to lose if Scotland separated from the UK:

It’s my birthright of James Bond. Fish and Chips. Tutti Frutti. Private Eye. Tizer. The Pet Shop Boys. Spit the dog. The Office. The Ladybird Cinderella. Philip Larkin. Flower of Scotland. Windrush. Christopher Hitchens. The Traverse. The Radio 1 roadshow. Mary Poppins. The Tempest. Narnia.

Colgan (who describes her identity as Scottish, British and European) is arguing that the No campaign has failed to communicate with voters on an emotional level – or at least, that the only emotion it has evoked among its arguments about economic detail has been fear. (Tom Holland broadly agreed, tweeting on Sunday: ‘I like being in the same country as @jennycolgan, Glasgow & the Loch Ness Monster, & I really, REALLY don’t want it to change #Indyref‘)

Colgan argues that instead, the Better Together campaign should have been playing on the same emotions that Danny Boyle appealed to in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics:

When Tim Berners-Lee tweeted, during the Olympics ceremony: “this is for everyone” did he not mean us all? From craggy glens to rocky Cornish coves; from tumbling Yorkshire stonewalls to green and boundless Welsh fields, to the Kent hops; from the vast flat plains of netherlandish Norfolk to the grey formal stones of the New Town; echoing through the silent shipyards of those great brothers-in-arms: Glasgow, Liverpool, Belfast?

To me, this reads as a strikingly parochial reinterpretation of the Berners-Lee segment of the opening ceremony – I interpreted Berners-Lee’s ‘everyone’ as global, in line with the director Danny Boyle’s idea for the ceremony to dramatise the message that Britain ‘can be an inspiring beacon for people everywhere’. (The beacon narrative has its own limitations, as I’ve discussed in an article about London 2012 here.)

But the level of intellectual and creative thought that Boyle and his team put into representing the nation at the opening ceremony probably made it inevitable that its symbolic resources would be reused in post-2012 political contention in Britain, even in ways that start putting the components to different purposes – and in a sense, the longer-term ‘meanings’ of the ceremony only emerge through processes like these.

However, offering nostalgia as the reason to keep the United Kingdom together silences much about the British national and imperial past – certainly in Fraser Nelson’s argument last week that the unity rally and its supporters ‘need to tell a different story: about an alliance of countries which, acting as the United Kingdom, has been the greatest force for good that the world has ever known’. A campaign based on this sentiment can hardly give a voice to those for whom the past it evokes has been a source of oppression rather than pleasure.


Although I don’t find Nelson’s narrative or even Colgan’s the most accurate account of how Britain got to be the way it is, I still think something can be gained from thinking about an underlying anxiety they both express: what would happen to day-to-day British culture, to which people from Scotland and representations of Scotland have contributed, if Scotland became an independent state?

Experiences from other cases of secession and fragmentation suggest that social and cultural ties are surprisingly resilient to political break-up. Even with Yugoslavia, a country that was violently destroyed two decades ago, enough cultural contacts and economic relationships have been re-established that one can talk about what Tim Judah called a ‘Yugosphere’, which thrives without any demand for political reintegration. Importantly, this has happened despite intensive efforts by the Slovenian and Croatian states to separate their national cultures from Yugoslavia as far as possible during and after their wars of independence – perhaps a demonstration of the limits of state power over popular culture and everyday life.

The Slovenian sociologist Mitja Velikonja has adopted the phrase ‘ex-home’ from the shelves of Slovenian record stores to describe the relationship between Slovenian culture and ex-Yugoslav culture in general after independence:

In Slovenian music shops, the items (CDs, MCs) are classified not only according to music genres (pop-rock, ethno, jazz, classic music etc.) but also according to the provenance of the music. So, there is Slovenian, ‘domestic’ music (in Slovenian language domača), then ‘foreign’ (tuja) music (predominantly of course from the Anglo-Saxon world); but there is also a curious third category, which is neither ‘ours’ neither ‘theirs’, but between the two: in a paradoxical sense both ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’.

It is classified as ‘ex-home’ music (bivša domača) and it comprises music from the other former-Yugoslav republics. In other words, Croatian, Serbian, Bosniak, Macedonian, and Montenegrin music until and after 1991 still has some kind of special and ambiguous status in our music shops. I think that this tiny and somehow marginal example – not an isolated one – is symptomatic and reveals a very specific attitude of the Slovenes toward the cultural production of the nations with which Slovenes lived for decades in a common state. This cohabitation left not only traces but also stroke roots in Slovenian cultural preferences and also in every-day life in a very specific way.

‘Ex-home’ means more than just ‘not being home any more’; with the Slovenian (and ex-Serbo-Croatian) connotations of the word ‘domestic’, it implies ‘used to be more “home” than it is, but still not “foreign”‘.

Something like that third space – the Very Near Abroad Indeed – would very likely open up if Scotland separated from the UK politically. Indeed, the post-Scottish-independence ‘Britannosphere’ would probably be larger than the ‘Yugosphere’; the trajectory of Scottish independence from Westminster would have been much more peaceful than Slovenia’s independence from Belgrade (Czechoslovakia makes a better comparison than Yugoslavia here), and many more inhabitants of Scotland share their first language with the state they would have left behind. (An ambiguous ‘UK & Ireland’ category already exists as something of a precedent – as if, ‘yes, it’s a different country, but less foreign than those other ones somehow, and let’s just not talk about the history of independence, shall we…’)

Where political separation has the most impact on culture is in the domain of funding and other forms of involvement by the state: in television, for instance, the rest-of-UK BBC would likely deal with questions about its remit that would trouble the commercial broadcasters less. (And we do know that the Scottish independence White Paper envisages a Scottish entry in the Eurovision Song Contest – after which I hope we’d hear a lot less of the argument that neighbourly voting is ‘political’ when Balkan countries do it…) In this sense, the cultural implications of a Scottish Yes would be less uncertain than the financial and citizenship-related matters that would depend on post-independence decisions by the governments of Scotland, Westminster and the EU.

But even the framework of the ‘ex-domestic’ or the Very Near Abroad Indeed is only talking about two layers of identity, each linked with a nation and an (existing or hypothetical) sovereign state: Britishness on the one hand, Scottishness on the other. I’m not certain that Scottish independence would mean Britishness suddenly having to exclude Scottishness from itself whereas it had used to be included; but thinking about the impact of Scottish independence on identities in the rest of the UK shouldn’t be reduced to the level of national identities in any case.

Inhabiting the borderlands

It seems to have taken a Scottish independence referendum to put a UK-wide spotlight on regional identities in the Scottish/English Borders. The Cumbrian MP and former diplomat Rory Stewart has tried to attach the Borders’ fluid history to the No campaign; his new book The Marches, which I haven’t yet read, will argue both that the Borders form a culturally distinct ‘Middleland’ in the British Isles and that the Anglo-Scottish border was a ‘colonial’ imposition under the rule of the Roman authorities who built Hadrian’s Wall.

Stewart is also a co-organiser of the Hands Across The Border campaign, which initially planned a torchlit human chain across the UK to demonstrate the rest of the country’s ’emotional links and solidarity’ with Scotland (for logistical reasons this changed to building a stone cairn in the border town of Gretna; it was unveiled this weekend, though this aerial shot might have been better composed if they’d filled out the ‘N’ of ‘No’…).

The Borders are a region where trying to determine whether people or pasts are English ‘or’ Scottish doesn’t make sense, as the art historian Ysanne Holt remarks in her commentary on recent art installations in Gretna and Berwick-upon-Tweed:

 We all recognise that communication networks forge cultural affiliations for groups and individuals who are not neatly defined by geographical boundaries. In my own growing up, some of this was achieved by the Border Television franchise that stretched across most of Cumbria, the Scottish Borders, Dumfries and Galloway to the Isle of Man, reporting nightly on news and local affairs. All this helped to shape or reinforce a genuinely cross-border community, to the extent that many in Cumbria would claim closer affinity with their Scottish neighbours than with their English ones to the east. The question of felt identities in relation to place, borders and boundaries, real or imagined, permeable or enforced, has a very particular resonance here. […]

[T]o think positively about the future for this region requires what has been termed a “place-based co-operation”, not competition or contested spaces. We need to adopt new ways of inhabiting the “borderlands” and perhaps of practising “borderliness”.

Thinking in terms of locally grounded ‘place-based co-operation’ might also be productive outside the Border region. The latest phase of referendum-talk in England has also raised the question of whether the north, or indeed Yorkshire, would benefit from devolution; a previous attempt, John Prescott’s proposal for a North East Assembly, collapsed in 2004 after voters in the region rejected it by four to one, and planned assemblies for the North-West and Yorkshire/Humber were never put to a vote. Would greater political and economic localism have more appeal today?

As a solution for English regions, the logic of devolution would need to be based on recognising distinctive social and economic features of a region rather than basing administrative boundaries on territorial claims that relate to a particular nation of people – leading to the unanswerable counter-factual question of whether politics in a federated United Kingdom might have meant things not even getting as far as a Scottish referendum on independence in 2014, or whether creating state structures in regions with potential claims to national self-determination would simply in the long run have accelerated separatism.

The result of Thursday’s referendum is probably too close to call, and not something I have a political say about in any case. If the rest of the UK does have to come to terms with a Very Near Abroad Indeed, historians as well as other cultural producers will find themselves adapting the categories they use for making sense of political and social life in the Isles; but there should be scope for doing so regardless of the result.

The power of the catalytic image: Woolwich, Borovo Selo, and the dangers of collective guilt

On the night of 1 May 1991, four Croatian police officers drove into the village of Borovo Selo, near Vukovar in eastern Slavonia, apparently to exchange the Yugoslav flag for a flag of the Republic of Croatia above a barricade that had been set up earlier that day by a recently-formed Serb militia in the village. Two of the four were wounded and captured when the militia fired on them during the raid. The next day, sixty fellow officers from Vinkovci entered Borovo Selo by bus in order to rescue the two men and drove into a pre-planned ambush at the entrance to the village. In the attack that followed, twelve of the Croatian officers were killed and their bodies mutilated. Horrific photographs of the recovered bodies were shown on Croatian television.

The Borovo Selo massacre amplified Croats’ fears of the rebellion against the Croatian authorities that had been growing in strength since the summer of 1990, when groups of Serbs had set up barricades across roads near Knin in another part of the country, Krajina. Armed incidents had already taken place: that Easter, a firefight in the Plitvice national park between Croatian police and rebels commanded by the Knin police chief, Milan Martic, had left one person dead on each side. The spread of violence into eastern Slavonia and the building of the Borovo Selo barricade Selo had come after the future Croatian defence minister, Gojko Susak, had fired rockets into Borovo Selo in what Laura Silber and Allan Little describe as ‘an unprovoked act of aggression’ against the local Serbs (The Death of Yugoslavia, p. 141).

Fear of where the rebellion and the countermeasures against it might lead had been growing since the Krajina barricades and the Plitvice gun battle. Yet even then, the visceral horror of the images from Borovo Selo seemed to change what it was possible to publicly say in Croatia. Journalists referring to the Serbs as ‘terrorists’ or ‘Chetniks’ – the nickname of the Serb royalist army during the Second World War, which had also massacred non-Serbs – became routine. In the field that I research, the entertainment industry, it was after Borovo Selo that the Croatian broadcaster stopped showing Serb musicians, even those such as the pop singer Zdravko Colic who had been acceptable as late as April 1991. After Borovo Selo, automatic suspicion of Serbs as national enemies could much more easily become ingrained common sense.

The video recorded on a smartphone in Woolwich a few minutes after the killing of Lee Rigby, a drummer in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, approaches the horror of the pictures from Borovo Selo. The hands of the man claiming responsibility for the attack are still covered in blood. Both force the viewer to imagine the brutality of the killing; both depict the murder of victims who were killed because they served their state. Both are far beyond what a reader could normally expect to see on the front page of a newspaper in a time of peace.

Although many British newspapers used a still image from the recording on their front pages the day after the murder, The Guardian‘s use of the image was perhaps the most shocking. Filling the front page with the image, as The Guardian often does, the newspaper confronted readers with the photograph and a quotation from the alleged killer’s speech: ‘You people will never be safe.’ When taken up by a national newspaper, even more so by one that considers its editorial identity anti-racist, the words come perilously close to suggesting that a people – however this is going to be defined – is under immediate, planned attack, the same argument that has been put forward by the English Defence League since its formation in 2009.

On the evening of the killing, a remark apparently originating with a Metropolitan Police source that the attackers had been ‘of Muslim appearance’ was repeated by the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson (a comment for which he subsequently apologised). The Home Secretary, Theresa May, referred to the killing as ‘an attack on everybody in the United Kingdom’. The combination of words, images and commentary circulating in the British media in the aftermath of Woolwich, laid over the public ‘common sense’ about terrorist threats in the UK that has been built up throughout the War on Terror and especially since the 7/7 attacks in London, risked turning what was known about the immediate events – the attackers had claimed to have carried out the killing ‘because Muslims are dying every day’ – into a conclusion of collective guilt: Muslims are to blame.

Talking about guilt and aggression in collective terms creates an atmosphere in which the obstacles to someone’s decision to use violence come down. It can suggest that violence in revenge won’t be punished; that it will be condoned; that it will be justified; even, sometimes, that it counts as self-defence. Among the Guardian staff invited by the reader’s editor to comment on whether the front page had been appropriate, one staff member spoke about their fear that the Guardian’s use of the alleged killer’s quote would bring about precisely these results:

As someone with very religious Muslim family members in this country I watch press coverage of events like these closely, and often with a fair amount of fear. My mum, though she is one of the ‘you people’ in Thursday’s headline, lives in fear that she will become one of the ‘you people’ of the EDL’s chants.

In the five days after Woolwich, 71 hate crimes against Muslims were reported to UK police forces, including the attempted firebombing of a mosque in Grimsby (covered, like Hull, by the area of Humberside Police). A hotline operated by Faith Matters and the Tell MAMA Project has received reports of 201 incidents, ‘up from a daily average of four to six’. The EDL mobilised an unclear number of members – possibly 1,000, possibly more – to march through Westminster on Monday, easily outnumbering the anti-fascist counter-protestors who must now regroup before another far-right march from Woolwich to Lewisham on Saturday.

Many things set the killing in Woolwich apart from the massacre in Borovo Selo. In the background to each event are very different histories of discrimination, settlement, and relative power relations within and around the states where they took place. Their short-term backgrounds are very different, too, with a number and severity of incidents in the locality of Borovo Selo before the massacre that had not, thankfully, occurred in Woolwich. The Borovo Selo massacre took place within an ethnopolitical conflict where different authorities were claiming state sovereignty over territory; the far-right appropriation of Woolwich is an expression of anti-immigrant racism.

What connects them is a brutal killing, a horrific image, and what becomes more acceptable to say in public after the killing and the image become known.

In an academic context I would use the idea of the ‘collectivisation’ of threat or even guilt to explain some of the reactions it was possible to hear as news about the killing in Woolwich spread, and the increase in talk about Serb ‘terrorists’ and ‘Chetniks’ after the murders in Borovo Selo. It’s a thought process where members of a collective group, in this case a majority, recognise a threat as directed against the whole majority and coming from the whole of the minority that the killers belonged to rather than the immediate group that carried out the killing – whether the members of the militia who planned the ambush in Borovo Selo or however many people will be found to have arranged the killing of Lee Rigby in Woolwich. And it is dangerous.

I started thinking through these parallels a day or two ago in conversation with bloggers @Puffles2010 and Sam Ambreen, who have both written about how the media’s sensationalisation of the Woolwich killing have increased the fear they feel as non-white people in Britain. Both refer to the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian who was shot dead by police in 2005 who assumed, based on the colour of his skin, that he was one of the suspects for the 21/7 bombing:

[Nick] Robinson’s failure exposes a wider prejudice: the idea that you can judge someone’s religion by the colour of their skin. Once you get into that territory, you get into scenarios that cost Jean Charles de Menezes his life following 7/7. (@Puffles2010)

Jean Charles de Menezes was one of them. If we had any hopes of restitution post 9/11 (not from guilt but from between a rock and a hard place) the events of 7/7 dashed any chance of rebuilding the fearful paranoid Britain we found ourselves in. Menezes was not Muslim or South Asian, or an Arab. He just shared a similar tone of skin. What about his appearance made him look Muslim? Whatever it was, he paid with his life. (Sam Ambreen)

Sam also draws on my initial thoughts in part of a follow-up post she wrote after the EDL march on Monday. These writers, the Guardian staffer quoted by the readers’ editor, and many others, all have immediate reason to be afraid of being seen as part of a collective threat, and to vest those fears not just in the far right but also in the police. Ash Sarkar, in an update reblogged by Laurie Penny, wrote of her shock at seeing personal friends express hatred on Facebook when they heard of the attack:

I’ve seen people call for hanging, torture, extra-judicial killings, locking up/deporting all Muslims and attacks on mosques. These aren’t strangers on Twitter, but people I’ve grown up with: gone to school with, babysat for, and (in one case) kissed.

Hearing accounts like these (which deserve to be heard in full, rather than explained in a voice like mine – which, since I’m white and not a Muslim, can’t personally express the same degree of fear) points to a responsibility on the part of those of us who are being told we are collectively under attack not to contribute to collectivising guilt or threat any further if we reject the frame. The louder and safer the voice, the greater the responsibility.

Challenging hatred and the far right in the atmosphere that has become public with shocking speed since Woolwich seems a harder task, but also much more urgent, than it did before the Woolwich murder. Reading accounts of anti-fascist organising in Britain in the past, such as the Battle of Cable Street against the British Union of Fascists in 1936 or the resistance to the National Front in Lewisham in 1977, one wonders whether today’s movements would be able to organise similar numbers of people for action inherently more dangerous than the A-to-B marches that have characterised mainstream political protest in the 2000s and 2010s. At the same time, and just as urgently, we need to find ways to resist – and avoid replicating – the politics of collective guilt and threat that make direct violence more possible.

Who are the military wives?: The Military Wives Choir(s) and the new British patriotic popular music

After my last blog post on British war memory, where I wrote about how contemporary public commemorative culture seemed to be closing down the range of meanings that Remembrance symbols could have, I wasn’t sure that I’d been entirely fair on the Military Wives. In the original post, I used the Military Wives choir’s performances at commemorative events as evidence of an ‘entertainment/military complex’ in British showbusiness. This is certainly something that the Military Wives have been incorporated into, but at the same time, I don’t think it captures all the reasons why the choir formed, and I don’t think my discussion of them entirely followed the approach I prefer to take: start with the people and their stories, then let’s talk public.

For one thing, rather than talking about ‘the choir’, it would be more accurate for me to talk about ‘the choirs’. The choirmaster Gareth Malone, whose project to prepare a choir of amateur singers to perform at the Royal Albert Hall in 2011 was filmed for a series of the BBC documentary The Choir, in fact formed two choirs at Royal Marines Base Chivenor and another base in Plymouth. (Each series follows Malone forming and rehearsing amateur choirs that reflect a particular social group; other series have featured choirs of schoolchildren, care home residents, NHS staff, postal workers and so on.) The recording artists presented to the public as ‘the Military Wives’, who recorded two albums in 2011 and 2012, are actually an assembly of five choirs – the Chivenor and Plymouth groups plus others from Portsmouth, Catterick and Lympstone, each contributing one or more songs to the album.

Beyond commercial showbusiness, moreover, the idea of a military wives choir with an everyday social function has spread well beyond the bases where the project was filmed. The Military Wives Choirs Foundation, set up by the wife of a soldier based at Catterick, has now developed choirs at more than 50 bases as part of the support services that military spouses on and near bases offer each other:

As military wives and partners we are often on the move, which means being far from friends and family, often at times when we need them most. Our network of choirs is growing across the UK and beyond which means our members can now move easily between choirs when they receive a new posting.

With choirs now in varying stages of development at over 50 locations, wherever women with a military connection are, our choirs are there. So when or wherever you move again, a new choir is there to welcome you in. If there isn’t a choir at your new post, get in touch and we can offer you practical help and support to set one up.

An excerpt from Malone’s autobiography suggests that the televised project publicised an idea that wives in other military communities felt would fill a need:

More and more military wives around the country were contacting me via Facebook and Twitter to say: ‘I’d like to join one of these choirs — where can I go?’

The first person I contacted was Nicky Clarke, a wife at the Catterick Garrison in North Yorkshire, who had written to me a couple of years before to ask me to form a choir there.

It hadn’t been possible at the time, but it was her letter that had inspired the whole project.

Now, I discovered, Nicky had started a choir herself, which was creating a stir of its own. Not only that, but she was passionate about rolling out military choirs across the country. The time, she said, was ripe — and I agreed.

What we see as ‘the Military Wives’ in showbusiness, then, is only part of a network of everyday music-making which has the potential to provide meaningful comfort, solace and solidarity for the women who belong to it, but which largely goes unseen by the producers and members of the public who record, book, watch or buy the music that the national face of the choir(s) has made. At the same time, though, the choir does have a public representation: the producers of records, television shows and public events choose musicians with specific intentions, for the sake of the audiences they appeal to, the images and histories they have, and the narratives that producers consciously or less consciously want to express. If the concept didn’t resonate with widespread discourses that already exist in public, the choir wouldn’t have had the commercial success that it has had.

After their series of The Choir, the Military Wives were signed by Decca. This is a large classical label whose roster includes several British forces bands, among them the Band of the Coldstream Guards, the Royal Air Force Central Band, the Pipes and Drums of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and the RAF Squadronaires, a big band that originated when a number of professional musicians were called up to join the Royal Air Force band in 1939. These long-standing military bands with recording contracts have been joined by newer groups, whose songs are often released as charity singles: in 2009, for instance, the Band and Bugles of The Rifles recorded a version of Love Farewell (a song familiar from the Sharpe dramas about a fictional Napoleonic rifleman) to raise funds for Help for Heroes, after a year in which the regiment had suffered the biggest losses of any regiment in Afghanistan. The Soldiers, formed of two Army musicians and a guardsman who reached the boot camp stage of The X Factor in 2007, similarly released their first single in support of the Army Benevolent Fund. The market that the Military Wives fit into is established.

The first Military Wives single, and perhaps the choir’s showbusiness project as a whole, exists somewhere between the level of personal memory and the level of national cohesion. The singers’ T-shirts in their first video read ‘My Husband Protects Queen & Country… and I Sing for Queen & Country’. Yet the video also includes family photographs; letters between soldiers, wives and children; ‘welcome home’ posters; home videos of troops’ return. Sometimes these include flags or other national symbols; more often, they’re personal and intimate. Incorporating these mementos into a public text, advertised with the encouragement to ‘Buy “Wherever You Are” and support our armed forces’, means that they cannot stay solely personal and intimate; they contribute to a collage that tells a story of who British troops and their wives are and what they do. For the people who have contributed these items, at the time they contributed them, this isn’t a contradiction.

The sound of the new British patriotic popular music is recognisably a genre. Songs are in choral or musical-theatre style; where the arrangement doesn’t involve a military band itself, hints of pipes or snare drums are likely. The thematics of this genre are consistent, too. The songs on the Military Wives’ albums deal with separation and reunion. The lead single of the first album, which became the British Christmas number 1 in 2011, is an original composition; others are cover versions of earlier pop songs (U2’s With Or Without You; Coldplay’s Fix You; Up Where We Belong, used in the final scene of An Officer and a Gentleman where the uniformed naval officer returns to his girlfriend’s workplace and literally sweeps her off her feet) or hymns (Eternal Father, Strong To Save, traditionally sung in prayer for military and civilian sailors). The formula is the same on their second album, Stronger Together, which is likewise a collection of songs by different choirs: choral versions of pop songs such as Richard Marx’s Right Here Waiting (frequently requested on radio by the partners of US soldiers deployed in the First Gulf War), a Christian hymn (the carol In The Bleak Midwinter), plus original singles including the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee song Sing (the most ‘public’-scale, rather than personal-scale, song the choir has performed).

These align with the lyrics of other musicians who are marketed as part of this genre, although the music by serving soldiers seems to deal more directly with the thought of death. The Soldiers’ Coming Home (‘Coming home with pride / coming home with heads held high / coming home from lands afar / coming home to your arms’) begins with an acknowledgement of ‘the wounded and the brave / the ones God couldn’t save’). Love Farewell, the song revived by The Rifles in 2009, depicts a soldier’s thoughts at the moment of parting from a lover:

If I should fall in far-off battle
Bugles roar and rifles rattle
Thoughts fly homeward – words unspoken
Valiant hearts are oft-times broken
Love farewell

Will you go or will you tarry
Will you wait or will you marry
Would this moment last for ever
Kiss me now and leave me never
Love farewell

The possible fate of troops serving overseas is present in the thoughts of military wives, in the knowledge of their listeners, and in the existence of the charities for which their music raises money. It is a silence in their music itself.

The women who constitute the Military Wives choir in its showbusiness engagements are public figures, in a way. Compared to most other groups in showbusiness, it’s difficult to find information about the members as individuals: this hasn’t routinely been part of their publicity, although this Christmas a book of their personal accounts as military wives has been published by HarperCollins. Their significance is in standing for military wives as a collective. What is reproduced here is a powerful public narrative, far older than this choir or indeed these women, on which the practices of the military and the state depend: the male soldier who leaves in order to protect, and the wife who waits. The opening of non-combat military roles to women and the lifting of the ban on homosexuality hasn’t fundamentally changed the position that this dyad has at the heart of the military and public imagination.

Much is missing from the public image that representations of the Military Wives choir present. Missing are the same-gender relationships; the male spouses and the female soldiers; the increasing racial diversity of the military (since the wives and soldiers pictured are predominantly white); the non-Christian and atheist expressions of hope and grief; and, of course, the many instances where the actions of a military husband on deployment or his actions towards his own family have not been the actions of – as the chorus of Wherever You Are describes the soldier – ‘my prince of peace’.

Although it’s possible to call the members of the commercial Military Wives Choir public figures, all military wives are of public importance in another sense. States depend on their emotional labour to confirm the particular masculinities with which they need male soldiers to identify, as Cynthia Enloe argued in her research into the militarisation of women’s lives:

If I could show that the state is so dependent on these people called military wives who are never thought of as serious political actors, I could show two things: one, that states were more fragile than was presumed because look, they were dependent upon a whole group of actors that people didn’t give the time of day to; and two, the state is conscious of that dependence and expends scarce resources to try to control those women. (Enloe and Zalewski 1999: 142)

Incorporating this choir into occasions of state, such as the royal jubilee or the Festival of Remembrance, incorporates military wives as a category into the public life of the nation. While not a glorification of war, the choir’s music most certainly functions as a celebration of military service: opinions will vary as to whether it is possible to celebrate one without necessarily glorifying the other. I hope it would be fair to say that military wives are neither purely victims of war nor purely beneficiaries of it.

Thinking about the Military Wives Choir and its place in contemporary British public life means thinking about several levels of experience. There are the personal experiences of being separated and anxious, and of the practical problems faced by the partners of deployed soldiers. There is the social community that military wives form with other women who can share their worries, and which the wider choirs initiative seems to have been able to strengthen. And there is what the civilian public observe and understand of these activities, largely mediated through showbusiness and commemoration: how far do these meanings relate to the things that have created solidarity between the members of the choir, and how far do they relate to the overarchive narrative of wives waiting for their husbands, which serves to explain a particular gender order and its militarisation?

The choirs initiative as a whole, on the fifty or more bases where it now operates, seems to have functions grounded in its members’ everyday lives that aren’t so visible in the public representation of the commercial choir. I hesitate to talk about a ‘disconnect’ between the activity and the representation, since it isn’t clear to me that the choir members would perceive any such thing. But one thing, perhaps, is a group of women in the same situation, facing common problems as a result of a shared experience, developing a skill, participating in music, and using choir rehearsal as a way to strengthen emotional bonds. It’s another thing to reduce a choir’s members and their vocal craft entirely to one social identity, as the public representation of the Military Wives Choir seems to do; what’s distinctive about them as public performers is no more and no less than the fact that they are military wives. Should commemorative culture change or public interest in the lives of military families decline, showbusiness would be unlikely to stay involved with them very long.

So maybe this is where the disconnect lies: between musicians as individuals and workers, and the public representations that are made using their images and voices. To what extent does the military wives’ choirs initiative help to improve the wellbeing of military partners and children in general, and how much potential does it have to alleviate the damage that the conditions of military service cause to families? And how far is its incorporation into commercial showbusiness able contribute to these objectives in a lasting way? These are the criteria I’m drawn to judge it by, and time will tell whether any of it causes change. But my feeling is that music videos and chart positions don’t tell us everything about the choirs as a whole.

The problem of the poppy: how people and institutions wear symbols of remembrance

I published an updated version of this post (going up to the WW1 centenary) at Balkanist in 2014.

Since 1922, the Royal British Legion (the largest veterans’ organisation in the UK) has been employing disabled veterans to make the Remembrance poppies that it sells as part of its annual charity appeal. I grew up close to the Richmond riverside, where the Poppy Factory sits close to the Royal Star and Garter Home, a hospital for wounded soldiers opened by the British Red Cross  in 1916. In a way, the Poppy Appeal was a local charity. I remember poppies as being just one of many charity appeals that my mum would encourage us to give to during street collections: Oxfam, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, a charity in Kingston named after Princess Alexandra that I helped to shake tins for outside the Bentalls Centre although I have no recollection now of what it did…

My mother hates war and militarism, but usually or always donated to the Poppy Appeal, and to the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund in memory of her dad – my grandfather – who had been an RAF pilot during the Second World War. (I’m using the past tense because, now that I don’t live with her, I couldn’t say whether she still wears a poppy or not.) His war experiences had effects on the family that stayed with her and will stay with her for the whole of her life. I’m not able to say what her reasons were, or what memories might have been going through her mind, when she saw the appeals’ symbols and dropped a coin into the tin. But when I think about poppy-wearing now, whatever approach I want to take has to get past those things I was able to observe about my mother: this symbol had at least some potential to accommodate many experiences, many memories, and many views on war.

Over the weekend, and especially on Sunday morning, most of my Twitter timeline was taken up with different views on wearing and displaying the Remembrance poppy. My thoughts wouldn’t fit easily into 140 characters, so I didn’t have much to say. To many people I follow, the poppy today appears as an uncritical celebration of the UK’s current wars and of a pervasive militarism that has made them possible. Some prefer to wear the white poppy, which was adopted by the Peace Pledge Union in 1933 as an explicit ‘challenge to the continuing drive to war’. The white poppy is much harder to find – in Richmond in the eighties, I’d never seen one – and is explicitly directed against the state-driven meanings that its creators identify in the red poppy:

the question lingers: if the dead are said to have ‘sacrificed’ their lives, then why weren’t the living, who came out of the same danger, being suitably honoured and cared for by the state that sent them into it? The language of Remembrance, in the light of that, looks more like propaganda than passion.

Many people on my timeline talked about friends and relatives who had been harmed by war – some who had chosen to take part and others who had no choice. A number of arguments criticised the idea of the military hero that is part of the public culture of Remembrance: does treating soldiers as heroes by virtue of their service blind us to the crimes that some commit? Do all soldiers, just by choosing to be soldiers, in fact commit a crime? Are there circumstances in which a person choosing not to fight alongside British soldiers, or indeed choosing to fight against them, could also be a hero? Some of the people making these arguments rejected the symbol of the poppy altogether. Some others of them chose to wear it anyway.

But then, when many people display the same symbol, who can tell the varying reasons for displaying it that they may have? Walking down the street, each person may have a different, unique and intimate reason for wearing it; but watching the crowd there is an impression of uniformity, that everyone is expressing belief and commitment to a common cause. The nature of that common cause is in the eye of the observer. You may see nationalism. You may see sadness. You may see imperialism. You may see pacifism. You may see political conformity. The symbol masks the differences, yet perhaps it also leaves space within a crowd for different thoughts about it.

The political anthropologist David Kertzer gives the example of a political rally in Italy in his book Ritual, Politics and Power (1988). A crowd attends, carrying symbols of the political party – in this case, banners and flags. To an observer and even to each other, the common symbols show a crowd that has gathered in support of the party’s values. The performance of togetherness is real, but it tells the observer nothing about each person’s motivation for being there or any person’s interpretation of the party’s programme. In fact, each person in the crowd may have their own understanding of what the rally is and what the party is saying. It’s the symbol that makes the group make sense when it is looked at.

So the poppy, or any similar symbol, is contradictory. On one hand, it has many different meanings, some of which contend with each other. On the other hand, whoever wears a symbol can never fully control how the symbol will be read.


The poppy I remember from the limited sphere of British public life I was aware of in the eighties kept quieter about itself than today’s poppy. Poppy Appeal advertising, in line with the general trend of charity marketing in the West, plays ever more on the emotions of the public: one poster near where I live has the slogan ‘Military families pin their hopes on you’ (which just makes me think: what about the government?) The Royal British Legion’s current slogan, ‘Shoulder to shoulder with those who serve’, evokes for me Tony Blair’s statement about UK/US relations on 9/11 and feels uncomfortably associated with contemporary wars that have had shaky public support – an unfortunate choice for an organisation whose mission has a broader historical span. And then there is the showbusiness. Isn’t there the showbusiness. The Poppy Appeal has had an official charity single for several years, and this year was also launched with a free concert in Trafalgar Square featuring Alesha Dixon and Pixie Lott (whereas the Spice Girls only read a poem when they launched the appeal in 1997). X Factor contestants and judges all wear poppies in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday, and in 2008 and 2010 the show released group singles featuring all contestants to raise money for Help for Heroes, a newer charity for wounded soldiers and veterans that was founded in 2007. (Mariah Carey’s Hero and David Bowie’s Heroes, for the record.)

This level of showbusiness involvement in Remembrance feels new in Britain. The end result reminds me of Croatian showbusiness during and after the war of independence in 1991-95, when at certain points practically every professional musician participated in campaigning and commemoration under the auspices of the state broadcaster, HRT. The 1990s showbusiness calendar contained many annual pop festivals (live competitive song contests, often open-air) that producers had inherited from the Yugoslav system and repurposed. The inaugural edition of a new festival, Melodies of the Croatian Adriatic (Melodije Hrvatskog Jadrana) in 1993 was remembered by music critics for several years afterwards as an epitome of HRT’s wartime nationalism: many of the audience tickets had been distributed to Croatian soldiers who attended in uniform, and the presenter read out soldiers’ telegrams before the performance by Drazen Zecic, a singer who was himself in the Croatian Army. (The fact that Zecic won the audience vote was unsurprising.) For several years after the end of the war, the Croatian Army operated its own televised pop festival in which all contestants had to be serving or former military personnel. Hardly a public commemoration, or political rally, in Croatia goes past without a free pop concert in a public square. These examples end up as my reference point when I think about the ‘poppyfication’ of entertainment in the UK – not as a way of presenting this politicisation of entertainment as non-British, but as a reminder to think in a broader way about how politics, television and popular music are connected.

There have always been connections between Britain’s modern popular music industry and the military: musicians can be hired to perform at military bases in the UK and abroad (Katherine Jenkins, the latest musician to be termed ‘Forces’ sweetheart’ in the press, is probably the highest-profile musician to regularly play for troops in Afghanistan), and will earn royalties if their songs are played on the Forces broadcaster, BFBS. What’s new – or rather, what’s revived – is the extent to which war and the military are referenced in the music they make and the promotional texts written about them, particularly when musicians have personal associations with the British military.

When James Blunt released his first album in 2004, his Army service as a junior officer in Kosovo was a curiosity, explaining one of his album tracks but not structuring his career as a whole. In contrast, the careers of newer musicians with military backgrounds are explicitly military-themed: the music of the Military Wives choir, formed by a BBC project in 2011, is rooted entirely in the members’ experiences as the wives of deployed troops.

The choir has been heavily involved in commemorative events such as the Royal British Legion’s Festival of Remembrance, and performed at the send-off of a group of Royal Marines taking part in a fundraising march. There’s ample room to read this as an example of the militarisation of everyday life, which feeds on very engrained (and heteronormative) concepts of what it means to be a soldier and a soldier’s spouse. Yet this isn’t the only perspective from which the convergence of entertainment and commemoration has been criticised this year. During the Festival of Remembrance, a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, Richard Kemp, grumpily expressed the view that light music was not appropriate for a solemn occasion:

Part of the Festival of Remembrance this year was Jonjo Kerr, a member of the Yorkshire Regiment who reached the X Factor finals in 2011 and deployed to Afghanistan with his company earlier this year, but not before recording a duet with the Military Wives, who accompanied his performance at the Royal Albert Hall.

The nucleus of the entertainment/military complex in the UK seems to be X Factor and the complex of producers around it. Gary Barlow, this year’s chief judge in the absence of Simon Cowell, also co-ordinated the official song for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, featuring the ‘Commonwealth Band’ of musical theatre stars and the Military Wives again. Although this set of activities is of obvious use to the state, the military, the monarchy, and the non-state organisations that work in support of them, its origins are with a privately-owned television station, ITV, rather than with the public BBC. There’s more that could probably said about the implications of this network for thinking about the relationship between popular music, politics and the state.

What does this have to do with wearing a poppy?

The thoughts and memories about wearing a poppy that I began this post with have to do with people wearing them. Increasingly, though, it feels as if institutions wear them too. And this is very different territory. After the launch of the Poppy Appeal, a season that itself seems to get longer every year, politicians and broadcast personalities wear poppies on every public appearance, as if they’ll be taken to task for not doing so – and, with the Daily Mail around, they probably will be. The sentiment is summed up in this billboard from the Royal British Legion, which has been towering over a nearby parade of shops for several weeks: a poppyless suit lapel with the slogan ‘Something missing?’

Even if this coerciveness was always inherent in the Poppy Appeal, as one line of pacifist criticism suggests, the explicitness of coercion in this image is new. In me, it induces a level of discomfort that I haven’t felt about this symbol before. I think that I’ve bought a poppy in most recent years, and worn it or not worn it depending on whether it will stay on my coat. At least, I haven’t made the conscious decision not to buy one; until this year, when on thinking about it I decided not to.

This doesn’t mean that I may never buy one again, or that I’d argue that somebody who bought one this year shouldn’t have. It’s more to do with what it means to make a choice. If I buy and wear a poppy every year, there’s a point at which it stops being a choice that I review each year, and becomes more of a personal tradition. I do have items I wear every day without thinking any more about why I wear them, but none of them are symbols of a collective identity or a public appeal.  When something has as much meaning attached as a Remembrance poppy, I want to have thought deeply about why I’ve chosen to wear it, and for the choice to wear it to mean anything, I also have to be able to conceive of the choice not to. This year it felt like time for me to choose not to.

Yesterday evening, Kent Police announced that they had arrested a man for posting an image of a burning paper poppy on Facebook. I’d planned this post before I heard about it, but the news (the latest in a growing number of arrests for ‘malicious telecommunications’ using Facebook or Twitter) increases my discomfort at the coerciveness of the contemporary poppy even further. Is the poppy now so sacred and unquestionable that depicting its burning on a social network must be considered a crime? If so, that too must feed into my choices in future years about whether or not to display one, as it will feed into the choices of other people’s. And sacred symbols are not really something I like to display.

The more the meaning of the poppy is fixed (and I recognise some people believe that it has always been fixed in this way), the more it shuts down space to identify with and express other meanings, that at least until now used to be attached to it.

Remembrance Sunday is just one component of British national identity, and of some other national identities where war memory has mingled with Britain’s – in Canada, where the current government has also been accused of politicising Remembrance, or in Australia and New Zealand, where 11 November takes second place to a separate commemoration of veterans on Anzac Day. But the problem of the poppy points to a much wider question about how we use and interpret symbols of any kind: similar debates emerged, for instance, around national symbols such as the Union Flag during the London Olympics and Paralympics. These are symbols that have been created for official purposes, in support of aims with which a member of the public might or might not agree. Yet is it possible for people to use them in ways that express or communicate personal meanings that may be very different – may even contradict those official aims?

It may not always work. But I want to believe that the possibility, at least, exists. Because I also believe that the creators of culture don’t get the final say in what their creations mean to people, and that’s the only way that I can find to reconcile those beliefs.

Still. The more that institutions wear the poppy, the less room there is for individuals to choose to do so.

‘We’ve lost the immigration figures!’: the politics of number and the politics of the person

One of the most memorable moments from the political satire The Thick of It, and one of the easiest to believe, is when the fictional Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship has suffered a catastrophic loss of data on what is perhaps the most sensitive topic in British political debate. The department’s special adviser, Ollie Reeder, claps his hands to his head and moans like a beached whale: ‘We’ve lost the immigration figures!’

For all that a particularly ‘sympathetic’ individual case can temporarily mobilise public interest – the former Commonwealth soldiers facing deportation or the Afghan interpreter whose asylum claim was rejected (and then reopened) by the UK Border Agency – the greatest sins a British government can commit to do with immigration seem to revolve around numbers: allowing too many immigrants to enter, or even worse, not knowing how many immigrants in the country there are.

Before I go on to talk about the flaws in this kind of ‘politics of number’ (a term I’m picking up from Jenny Edkins’s recent book on missing persons), I ought to be open about the fact that I believe UK immigration policy as it has developed is restrictive and damaging. Its impact on the sector I work in worries me. If a British university wants to field a world-class team of researchers and teachers, it has to have freedom to pick them from around the world, and at all career levels from graduate student up; I don’t believe it would have improved my prospects as a British job-seeker in higher education, or my aspirations to become a world-class researcher myself, if I’d been prevented from learning from the best. (The current immigration tiers are supposed to make allowances for immigrants of extraordinary ability, but depend on quotas which are clearly insufficient.) Fee increases, the abolition of the post-study work visa, and fiascos such as London Met’s loss of student visa sponsorship privileges or the recent queues outside the Overseas Visitors Records Office in London all dissuade non-EEA students from considering the UK rather than ‘competitor’ university providers. Non-EEA students are an important source of revenue for UK universities, although I can’t use that to justify my position if I also feel tuition fees are too high. Rather, having taught in a department where its multinational character was a distinctive part of its ethos, I know that everyone in the classroom (British taxpayers and the children of British taxpayers included, if that’s how we have to play it) received a higher quality experience because of the range of people there and the different kinds of knowledge they could bring.

And it’s easy for me to say that. I don’t experience the negative social effects that are attributed to immigration. But I do believe that the people most responsible for those effects aren’t immigrants. We can’t explain housing shortages without explaining why homes and land are allowed to stand empty, why few properly ‘affordable’ homes are built, why the political consensus is that rents should be uncontrolled, or why it isn’t a policy goal for as many people as possible to be able to live near their workplace and travel sustainably. We can’t explain the widespread common-sense perception that immigrants undercut the wages of British workers without asking why the kind of exploitative conditions recorded in this research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation are allowed to happen to any worker within territory controlled by the British state.

I find it frustrating that no mainstream political option in England is regularly asking these questions. (Scotland may be another matter.) Yet I also find it frustrating that, even when politicians argue in favour of a more open immigration policy, the arguments they make are so often framed in terms of numbers.

Last month I watched the live stream of a House of Commons debate on immigration, which discussed a motion raised by a Conservative MP, Nicholas Soames, who was calling on the government ‘to take all necessary steps to reduce immigration to a level that will stabilise the UK’s population as close as possible to its present level’. (What are those necessary steps? The SNP’s Pete Wishart challenged Soames straight away to spell them out. They were still left to our imagination.) It took more than an hour, when Labour’s Fiona Mactaggart began describing the lives of her constituents in Slough, for any speaker to talk about immigration through any lens other than the number of immigrants or their impact on the British population:

What I object to most about the motion is its focus on numbers and its failure to focus on the lives of human beings. That is the issue. If we are thinking about migration policy, the first thing we need to do is think about who the migrants are, what they are here for and what the benefits are to them, their families, the communities they come to and the country as a whole.

Frankly, there is a serious consequence of not starting from the question of the lives of human beings, and we saw it in the decision on London Metropolitan University, where there has been a collective punishment of perfectly legitimate students for the failure of the institution at which they registered in all good faith. I am not saying that every student was necessarily legitimate, but we know that those students who are and who fulfil all the requirements have been collectively punished, absolutely contrary to British traditions, for the failure of the institution in which they work. That is a consequence of trying to decide immigration policy not on its human consequences, but on some abstract numerical basis. (Hansard 6 Sep 2012: 441-2)

I’m not a fan of everything Mactaggart does as a politician, particularly not her stance on sex work. But I couldn’t agree with her more here. Immigration policy does fail to focus on the lives of human beings, and has done so for a long time. And it’s far from the only thing that fails to do that.

The chances are, even someone reading this who wants to freeze or reduce immigration has probably been annoyed in some or other way by ‘computer says no’ culture – making decisions according to quantified criteria, with no regard for individual circumstances or possibility for human discretion. (The phrase comes from the sketch show Little Britain. I’m even less comfortable with most of Little Britain‘s representations than I am with Mactaggart’s stance on sex work, but this one is a useful addition to the language; a journalist during the RBS computer failure can ask, for instance, ‘what is their back up plan should the “computer say no”?’) Think about the number of situations that are now determined by computerised credit scoring or risk assessment, with nobody to complain to should the circumstances of your life not fit neatly into the average and the computer say no.

You could argue that fully quantified decision-making is fairer; that wherever there’s discretion there’s always room for discrimination, through conscious or unconscious prejudice. I still believe that’s something we can overcome, with strong personal and institutional commitment.

The political culture we live under today, writes Jenny Edkins in her book Missing, is ‘a politics that misses the person, a politics that objectifies and instrumentalizes’ (p. 2). I reviewed it a few months ago and found it a powerful way to think about what’s left out of contemporary public policy. Policy on the economy and welfare assumes that people are fully interchangeable individuals, without ties to each other or to places. They should move where the jobs are – ‘get on your bike’, in the words attributed to Norman Tebbit, and now actualised in a welfare policy that forces councils in areas with high housing costs to house social tenants in other parts of the country. Under this logic, to take a job that doesn’t fully use your potential to generate value is irrational. To keep an extra room up in your household so that family and friends can visit you is a luxury, for which recipients of housing benefit are to be penalised. These other human needs are unquantifiable, or at least (and I’m a qualitative researcher, so I would say this, wouldn’t I) something of their force is lost when we do quantify them. Edkins believes that the market principle is actually unable to take account of them:

The economic individual […] is exchangeable one for another, and ranked by wealth, purchasing power, or entitlements. The market principle allows us to ignore the needs of someone who has no money and who thus cannot express those needs in terms that the economic system can recognize. (p. 9)

In Edkins’s criticism of the market, there are echoes of Michael Sandel and his ethical questions about what money can’t buy; the passionate defence of the person as something, someone, who should not be reduced to economic value but so often is was also the strongest message I took away from reading David Graeber’s Debt. It’s there, more pithily, in the ethics of Terry Pratchett’s voice of wisdom, the witch Granny Weatherwax, who debates sin with a zealous priest in the novel Carpe Jugulum:

[‘S]in, young man, is when you treat people like things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.’

‘It’s a lot more complicated than that—’

‘No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.’

‘Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes—’

‘But they starts with thinking about people as things…’

I think this is why I’m frustrated by the official response that Labour, as this country’s opposition, has made to the heavily increased means tests for family visas – precisely the type of rules that are based entirely on economic calculations, unable to accommodate the many reasons why a person might fail to meet the criteria, and tailored by design to exclude the bottom half of British earners from bringing spouses or dependents to settle in the UK. (This may mean that, in cases such as a UK/US civil partnership, the couple are also unable to settle in the other partner’s country.) The shadow immigration minister, Chris Bryant, would prefer ‘to insist that anyone sponsoring a partner into this country deposits a financial bond, which would be used to protect the taxpayer and meet any unforeseen costs that might be incurred, and which would be redeemable after a fixed period’. There’s still an idea here that the welcomeness of immigration is to be understood primarily in terms of whether or not a person will cost the state more money than they pay back. It’s still a financial calculation, which has to depend on the idea that a person’s worth is somehow linked to how much money they can make. That’s a slippery slope, which has voting rights based on property qualifications at or near the bottom.

This isn’t opposition, at least not as I see it. Both sides are actually saying the same thing. The means test and the bond are both justified with the language of ‘fairness’; I want to suggest that the logic behind both those solutions has consequences that are profoundly unfair.

Behind all this there are beliefs about what kinds of knowledge are useful and what it’s appropriate to do with them. My own views on statistics are probably clear by now. It wouldn’t be possible to manage a modern state without them: you’ve got to work out how many houses need building somehow. But it’s personal histories and understanding or observing what people do that will tell you things like how they find the money to pay their housing costs, what trade-offs they make when they can’t afford everything that they might want in a home, what they use the rooms of their homes for, what amenities they need near their homes, how they want to decorate them and cook in them and heat and cool them, how they need their homes adapted to what their bodies are able or unable to do. Understanding those things will mean the houses that get built are better. Or at least I think so.

And when it comes to our values, the ethics we want to express as part of a political community, and the principles we want the people who politically represent us to be guided by, I don’t think we can determine those purely on the basis of statistics. Or at least I think so, too.

Because otherwise, it starts and finishes with seeing people as things.