Putting it into perspective

Remembering the fallen
Remembering the fallen

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

It felt ever so slightly strange at the Remembrance Day service this morning. Remembrance Day is timed to coincide with the end of the First World War, being the closest Sunday to Armistice Day, the actual anniversary of the end.

This year, though, we’ve been focussing more on the start of the war, given that 2014 marks the centenary of its outbreak. A hundred years ago today, we were still in the early phase of the war and there was still a lot of optimism that it would be “all over by Christmas”. There had, of course, already been casualties, but the sheer grinding horror of the war had yet to become apparent.

But there’s a tendency even now, though, to underestimate how bad the war was. We’re used to modern military campaigns, where even a single death makes media headlines. It’s hard to comprehend the scale of a conflict where so many people died.

So, let’s see if we can put it into perspective. The Afghanistan conflict has been the most deadly of any war zone that British forces have been involved in over the past 40 years, resulting in a total of 453 British military lives lost. That’s more than Iraq (179 British military deaths) or the Falklands (255). The precise number of British military deaths in WW1 isn’t known, but even taking a low-end estimate the number of deaths was around 750,000. That’s an average of more than 500 deaths per day – more than the entire number lost in Afghanistan over a period of thirteen years.

Another way of looking at it is to consider the proportion of Britain’s population lost in the war. The overwhelming majority of military casualties were of young adult men aged from 18 to 35. There were around 6 million men of that age group in the UK at the start of the war. More than ten percent of that age group were lost.

Here’s a way to visualise that. Think of all the men you know personally who fall into that age group. Brothers, sons, fathers, husbands, boyfriends, uncles, nephews, friends, colleagues. Restrict it to people you would say that you actually know, not just acquaintances or social media friends. The sort of people whose funeral you would attend if they were run over in the street tomorrow.

Got that in your head? OK, now imagine that over the next four years, one in ten of them will be killed. Maybe one in fifteen if you’re lucky. Maybe one in five if you’re not.

That’s a lot. The chances are that at least one of your family will be among the casualties. There’s a strong probability that one of the people closest to you will not survive the next four years. It’s almost certain that several of your friends and colleagues will be dead. If you’re male, and you fall into that age group yourself, you may well be dead too.

Think of that, when you next wear a poppy in remembrance of those who died.

No, Ed, we still don’t need English Regions.

Regional devolution is back in the news following the Scottish referendum. The latest proposal to give more power to the regions comes from Ed Miliband, who wants to replace the House of Lords with an elected senate representing the “regions and nations” of the United Kingdom.

No, Ed, I don't agree.
No, Ed, I don’t agree.

I think this is just as daft an idea as the unlamented Regional Assemblies set up by former deputy PM John Prescott. While regions may make for convenient chunks of a map, or weather forecasts, or even a handy way of subdividing statistics, they are no basis for government administrative boundaries.

I live in Evesham, a traditional market town in Worcestershire. For statistical purposes, Worcestershire is part of the West Midlands, which has some value (though not a lot). We also get regional TV for the West Midlands. But we are not, in any meaningful sense, part of a West Midlands identity. My rural market town has nothing more in common with Birmingham – our putative regional capital – than it does with Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool or London.

A regional assembly, or a senate constituency, for the West Midlands would simply mean subsuming our county identity – which is predominately a rural and market town identity, plus the historic cathedral city of Worcester itself – into one dominated by the metropolitan concerns of Birmingham, Coventry, Wolverhampton, Dudley, etc.

I live in the southern end of the West Midlands. There are parts of Herefordshire which go further south, but not by a lot. Coincidentally, before I moved here, I lived right at the north of the West Midlands, in Stoke-on-Trent. And, trust me, there is very little that Stoke-on-Trent and Evesham have in common, other than needing to go through Birmingham in order to get from one to the other. Oh, and Birmingham Airport is convenient for both. But the one thing we definitely do have in common is that neither of us has any more in common with Birmingham than we do with each other. The idea that Birmingham is somehow a natural or historic capital of the West Midlands, in the way that London is the capital of England, or Worcester is the capital of Worcestershire, is simply laughable.

I don’t think it’s coincidence that most of the proposals for regional government come from the large metropolitan areas. For people in, say, Birmingham (or Manchester, or Newcastle), regional assemblies are a way for them to not only get a bit more freedom from London-based politics for themselves but also to be able to lord it over their suburban and rural hinterlands as well as second tier cities nearby. Those of us in the rural areas or smaller cities don’t gain anything. Instead, we simply have another layer of bureaucracy in between us and Westminster.

Letting the big cities have more power for themselves, London-style, arguably makes sense. But giving the big cities more power over their neighbouring counties does not. And that applies both to old-style Regional Assemblies as proposed by John Prescott and Ed Miliband’s new “Senate for the Regions”.

If we’re going to have a reformed House of Lords, then let’s do it properly and not create a metropolitan oligarchy which takes no account of genuinely local democracy. Instead of creating yet another layer of local government, let’s give more power to the layers we already have.