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Paul_Nash_Wire_2.jpgWilf Stevenson on the importance of commemoration and our changing reflections of major events

Edmund Blunden wrote Can you remember? in January 1936, nearly 20 years after he fought in the Battle of Passchendaele. Asked to choose a poem to represent his war poetry, he chose this one – within which he asks himself if he can remember the war and describes his feelings when those memories return. The closing lines capture the duality of such memories: 

“And some are sparkling, laughing, singing,
Young, heroic, mild;
And some incurable, twisted,
Shrieking, dumb, defiled.”

This exploration of memory is not just important as a means of understanding a survivor’s experiences. It is also one of the ways we have of building knowledge of our past – complementing the dry histories and challenging art works that flow from these lived experiences.

Such learning is refracted because we no longer have the privilege of speaking to survivors. One museum manager at the In Flanders Fields Museum put it like this in 1998: Now that the generation of the First World War is disappearing, a museum must come in its place.”

As the distance between ourselves and the events widens, society’s responsibility to our past becomes greater. We must impart, in the very act of learning, an obligation to the young to be inquisitive about history. That is why commemoration, in its many forms, is so important.

Passchendaele symbolises the horrors of trench warfare, and has been described as “the worst battlefield in history”. Not only was the loss of life unimaginable – in just three months, 350,000 Allied and 260,000 German soldiers were killed – but the conditions in which they fought, lived and died were beyond hellish. Major Desmond Allhusen recalled in his diary:

“the mud and water reached our waists and it took us about half an hour to do a hundred yards… it [the mud] was different from what we were used to. It had lost all form and consistency and all resemblance to the honest stuff one finds in peaceful lands. It was just the shapeless mess that remains when everything else is gone.”

Lieutenant General Sir Lancelot Kiggell, General Haig’s Chief of Staff, broke down at the end of the campaign when he reached the edge of the battlefield, and exclaimed “Did we really send men to fight in this?”

One of the worries that people had about First World War commemoration and the related artistic work was that it would glorify as well as memorialise. As Blunden’s poetry attests, the memory of the war can be as devastating as the battles themselves – we need to gain that perspective before we celebrate. Commemoration, in particular of a battle like Passchendaele, must be multi-dimensional. It should be open to exploring the past both through the lives of the individuals who experienced them and within broader continental and global contexts.

We have a responsibility to seek the truth, to be inquisitive, and crucially be open to our own prejudices. In recognising our own pre-conceived notions, we will be better placed to get the most out of a commemorative act, whether it be a Paul Nash painting of the Western Front or a local council memorial. I would argue both are as valuable.

Both memory and commemoration have, for a long time, been acknowledged as areas of contestation. The commemoration of war is, in many ways, as political as the act itself.

In recent months, the threshold on accuracy and truth is being diluted and could have important consequences on how we commemorate and view the past. The antidote to such behaviour is to continuously renew interest in our own past, not to shy away from such debates, by being open to different types of commemoration.

Truth, memory and commemoration are all inextricably linked. It is not just the responsibility of academics, teachers, or even politicians to be mindful to this. The responsibility of interpretation should weigh heavy on all of us. Blunden was acutely aware of how memory changed our understanding of war. Our commemorations need to reflect that.

Lord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara is a member of Labour’s frontbench team in the House of Lords. He tweets @Missenden50

Published 19th October 2017

Can you remember?

Wilf Stevenson on the importance of commemoration and our changing reflections of major events

PhilHunt2015.jpgPhilip Hunt on the increased risks to the viability of thousands of community pharmacies

With the NHS now preparing for what promises to be one of the most pressurised winters ever, it seems perverse that community pharmacists – well placed as they are to take some of the load off other busy health professionals – face a cut in funding.

These pharmacies are the most accessible of all healthcare services, with many extending their hours and services. Last year, saw an average 137 visitors each day, 281 medical reviews, the dispensation of around 87,000 prescribed products, and the distribution of nearly a million flu vaccines.

According to a Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) analysis commissioned by the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC), in 2015, community pharmacies contributed £3bn in value to the NHS and public sector in England. This included £1.1bn for the NHS; £600m in benefits to patients and £242m avoided in treatment costs.

Budget cuts and changes to how funding is distributed are putting all of this at risk, and threatening an increased burden on GPs and A&E departments. 

The majority of community pharmacies’ funding comes from the NHS, and pays for premises staff and all other operating costs. Funding reductions however, have seen a 7.5% drop in financial support since 2015-6.

These are not the only changes to funding, as a number of dispensing fees will be combined into one – with established fees being phased out. Pharmacies in isolated areas will receive funding from an access scheme and high performers will receive an extra £75 million in quality payments as a way of promoting greater cooperation with other parts of the NHS. In addition, a pharmacy integration fund will provide an extra £42 million. All of this is welcome but it will not ameliorate the impending crisis, as the overall package risks the viability of many pharmacies.

The government is well aware of the scale of the potential closures. In a meeting last year with the All Party Pharmacy Group, the then Health Minister Alistair Burt said multiple pharmacies are more likely to adapt to the new system than the smaller independents. In fact, he forecast between 1,000 and 3,000 would close. So much for Tory support for the SME sector!

Currently in many parts of the country, such as busy high streets, there is a choice of community pharmacy. For a government supposedly in favour of competition, it’s surprising that a stated aim of its approach is to reduce that choice. But it’s also a real worry that our more deprived areas are the most vulnerable to such closures 

Pharmacies have also been hit with unpredictable high wholesale bills. With a squeeze on NHS funding alongside this, many have been left in in difficulty trying to find a source of credit to pay thebills. The PSNC are warning that banks may withdraw credit if income covenants are not met.

There is palpable fear within the sector about the impact of overstretched services in the past few months and a dire situation this coming winter. If predictions are correct, Britain will be hit by a flu epidemic that began in Australia. Community pharmacies will be on the frontline of this.

In the Lords today, I will drawing attention to these problems. For the sake of the millions of peopledependent on nearby and well stocked community pharmacies, ministers must stop the madness.

Lord Philip Hunt of Kings Heath is Shadow Health Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @LordPhilofBrum

Published 19th October 2017


Me and the pharma

Philip Hunt on the increased risks to the viability of thousands of community pharmacies

LeslieGriffiths.jpgLeslie Griffiths on the need to encourage the success story that is Channel Four

I start my tenure within the Shadow DCMS team with a debate on the future of Channel Four – a future that should be a matter of concern for all of us.

Since being set up in 1982, Channel Four has become part of a brilliantly conceived system of free-to-air provision which allows for as broad a diversity of programming as can be devised or imagined. That’s why it always seemed difficult to understand why ministers set their hearts on selling it off. And when the Lords Communication Committee turned their expertise to this subject they showed a similar disbelief.

Just two years ago, Channel Four was granted a new ten-year license and it is bewildering, so soon into that new mandate, to seek what would virtually amount to a dismantling.

Perhaps a failure to meet objectives was the reason for the government’s desired privatisation? Not according to the Committee, which found that most of the objectives were being addressed responsibly. They also found that the business was viable, with considerable sums spent on commissioning new programmes.

Mercifully, wiser heads in the government saw the error of its ways and earlier this year dropped their interest in privatisation. But the government’s main piece of advice – something that has a feel of a command about it – has become the need for Channel Four to work much harder at serving the UK’s nations and regions. 

Now, nobody can be against that – a bit like breathing I’d say. But the barely disguised suggestion is that the relocation of a significant part of Channel Four’s core business, if not all of it, should up sticks and move out of London to another part of the country.

Culture Secretary Karen Bradley announced both the u-turn on privatisation and the pivot toward regionalisation from the heart of Salford’s Media City. Indeed, she offered Greater Manchester as an example of what was being done for the industry by those prepared to move out of the capital. We should however, be careful about facile comparisons.

I just happened to be working with the BBC in a peripheral way when, during the 1990s, some departments were being decanted from London to Manchester. The existence of an already vibrant BBC activity there, together with the eventual presence of ITV, allowed these relocated departments the possibility of achieving critical mass as the bold new venture was developed. No similar place is beckoning the Channel Four operation.

Like the government’s approach to devolution it takes more than warm words and catchphrases to bring about change. Everything would have to begin several steps back from what happened back then.

Nor should we forget that the BBC did most of its work in house in those, producing its own programmes. Channel Four doesn’t work that way, commissioning from outside bodies. Its entrepreneurial success in creating vast networks of programme makers in the regions and nations, well beyond the capital, cries out to be listened to.

That said, it would be interesting to look more closely at where the terrestrial broadcasters as a whole currently commission their programmes, to make sure that independent producers in all of our nations and regions get the chance to tell their stories and broadcast their ideas about the world, from their perspective. This is not just a Channel Four issue – other public service broadcasters such as BBC and ITV should also be asked to defend commissioning policies. A key feature of our terrestrial TV system is that it is a complex inter-related ecology where the channels compete on quality and diversity so that audiences receive the best service possible.

A new Chief Executive Officer, Alex Mahon will take up post at Channel Four in November – the first woman CEO of a national broadcasting company. She is very aware of the nature of this discussion and fully committed to producing bold and substantial plans for increasing Channel Four’s contribution to the nations and regions. All of this suggests we should make haste slowly and help it become an even more successful company than it already is.

Lord Leslie Griffiths of Burry Port is a member of Labour’s frontbench team in the House of Lords

Published 17th October 2017

Commission statement

Leslie Griffiths on the need to encourage the success story that is Channel Four

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