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Words: Sam Faroqui
Photos: Josh Kearns
In February 2009, making the case for his stimulus package as the US economy reeled from the fallout of the 2008 crash, President Obama warned that a failure to take decisive action could see a stateside repeat of Japan’s ‘lost decade’ – the period from 1991 to 2000 (followed by a considerable hangover in the noughties) during which the country experienced no significant economic growth. Somehow, Japan – the site of the post-war economic ‘miracle’, the home of high tech – had become a byword for chronic stagnation and economic failure.
But a couple of days after Japanese premier Shinzo Abe declares his signature economic strategy has finally brought an end to deflation, the country’s ambassador to the UK, Keiichi Hayashi, is eager to emphasise that things have changed.
“Japan is now full of business opportunities. Under Abenomics, the prime minister has repeatedly said that Japan is back,” he says. “After almost one and a half or two decades, Japan is getting out of this vicious deflationary spiral. Share prices have gone up by over 50% over the past two years, and there has been positive economic growth – five, six quarters of positive growth over the past year and a half.”
Abenomics, the Japanese prime minister’s three-pronged effort to turn around his nation’s economy, is composed of the ‘three arrows’ of fiscal stimulus, quantitative easing – as favoured by the UK’s own central bank – and structural reforms. Encouraging greater inward investment will be a key part of that ‘third arrow’, the Ambassador explains.
“The prime minister himself has made it very clear that the government in Japan wants to see more foreign direct investment into Japan, and in fact he has set a target of doubling the amount of foreign direct investment into Japan by 2020,” he says. “It’s quite a challenge, but in order to do that he will have to implement all sorts of reform measures to encourage foreign investors to be keener on investing into Japan.”
As regards outward investment, Hayashi is keen to stress the importance to Japan of its business relationship with the UK.
“From our perspective, the UK is also an excellent business opportunity,” he says. “Currently, about 1,000 Japanese companies are operating in this country; this has created more than 160,000 jobs. In fact, in terms of inflow of Japanese investment, the last year was a record high at £8.6bn, which is a huge sum.
“In terms of Japanese investment to foreign countries, it is second only to the United States, so our investment to the UK exceeds that to China. So it’s quite an important business partner.”
Indeed, in perhaps the most prominent area of that partnership – car manufacturing – Nissan’s factory in Sunderland produced over 500,000 cars last year, more than any other UK-based manufacturer. And although auto exports to the European Union have tailed off relative to those to the rest of the world in recent years, the majority of Nissan UK’s exports – which account for 80% of production – is still destined for the EU market.
So, as the dust settles following David Cameron’s failed bid to block Jean-Claude Juncker’s candidacy for the EU Commission presidency – which the Prime Minister himself admitted had made the task of keeping Britain within the EU more difficult – where would a ‘Brexit’ leave the UK-Japan partnership?
The Ambassador is characteristically diplomatic, but his meaning is clear.
“In business terms, of course, the United Kingdom’s openness, transparency, and also perhaps rich intellectual infrastructure – legal service, accounting service and so on – and also easy access to the European market make the UK a quite attractive destination for Japanese investment,” he says. “So in that sense, the UK has become a very important business and economic partner for Japan, and serves as a gateway to the European market…
“I have to be very careful in what I say here, because the relationship with the European Union for the UK is to be determined by the government and people of the United Kingdom, and I do not want to speculate on what will happen if that happens. But in the context of what I said about the importance of the United Kingdom from the Japanese perspective, certainly one of the major attractions is the access to the European market.”
Furthermore, Hayashi indicates, withdrawal from the EU would see Britain’s global standing diminished.
“We want the United Kingdom to be a major player in the international scene, and of course there is no denial of the importance of the European Union,” he says. “We want the United Kingdom to continue to play a major positive role. We certainly want the EU to be outward-looking, not inward-looking, and I think we share the same sort of views, same perspectives in terms of trade, investment and so on. We certainly would like to see the continued relevance of the United Kingdom in the European context.”
Japan has its own concerns around representation on the international stage. Still the world’s third-largest economy in terms of nominal GDP, its calls for a permanent seat at the semi-ossified UN Security Council have thus far fallen on deaf ears.
“The UN Security Council is probably the most important global body in maintaining the peace and security of the world, and in that context, the Security Council has to be legitimate and representative and effective,” the Ambassador argues.
“Lack of representation would deprive the Security Council of legitimacy and effectiveness, and in that context, as far as Japan is concerned, Japan has both the will and the capacity to contribute as a permanent member of the Security Council.
“We have long been the second-largest financial contributor to the United Nations budget, and we have been playing a significant role in terms of participation in the UN peacekeeping operation and so on. So we are very much keen to see some kind of progress made in the work to make the Security Council more legitimate and effective, and in that context we are very much appreciative of the United Kingdom’s consistent support for Japan’s permanent membership.”
One issue which was the subject of notably tense exchanges at the Security Council earlier this year was the dispute between China and Japan over the former’s declaration of an air defence identification zone over a disputed area of the East China Sea and the visit of the latter’s prime minister to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honours the Japanese war dead, including – controversially – Class A war criminals.
The quarrel was played out closer to home in slightly surreal fashion, with first the Chinese ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, and then Ambassador Hayashi taking to the comment pages of the Telegraph to accuse the other’s country of seeking to play the role of ‘Voldemort’ in East Asia by resorting to provocation and militarism. This led to the delicious spectacle of Hayashi telling Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight – as Xiaoming waited to be interviewed in an adjoining studio (the two having refused to appear together) – “I don’t want to resort to ‘He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’ today”.
But today, Hayashi is at pains to play down tensions between the two countries, insisting Japan has no issue with the UK government’s decision to place its trading relationship with China front and centre of its push to get ahead in the ‘global race’.
“First of all, I think both Japan and the United Kingdom regard the increasing prosperity, the peaceful rise of China as an opportunity, not as a threat,” he says. “Japan itself has a huge economic business presence in China. I don’t think that we have any qualm or concern about other countries seeking business opportunities in China.”
Neither does he feel the Coalition’s focus on China has led it to neglect the relationship with Japan – though one detects, perhaps, an implied criticism of the level of attention paid to Tokyo by previous governments.
“I think generally we are happy about the importance this government has been attaching to the relationship with Japan,” he says. “At the beginning of my stint as Ambassador here – I arrived as Ambassador three and a half years ago – Japan was not very much discussed. That was a little bit disappointing from my perspective compared with the situation I saw back in the 1990s, when I was here earlier.
“But we feel that this coalition government recognised the importance of a Japan-UK partnership, I think from the beginning of the Coalition Government. In July 2010, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, paid a visit to Japan, ahead of China, say.
“I don’t want to make comparisons with the past, but I think certainly we are happy about the fact that this government has been emphasising the importance of having a solid working relationship with what they call the ‘old allies’ like Japan.”
With the 21st century being billed as ‘the Asian century’, Japan will no doubt be looking to share in the spoils of the continent’s economic resurgence. But given competitors like India (which has now overtaken Japan as the world’s third-largest economy if GDP is adjusted for purchasing power parity) can draw on a population 65% of which is under 35, does Japan’s increasingly ageing population mean it risks missing out?
The Ambassador acknowledges that Japan “is fast becoming what is called the ‘ageing society’”, and says the government is “trying to address the issue from all sorts of aspects”. However, he insists the problem is not unique to Japan, but rather an inevitable consequence of successful economic development.
“This kind of demographic change is in a way a dilemma caused by economic success,” he argues. “People tend to live longer and with better nourishment and better healthcare as the economy progress – advances – and the desire to produce a bigger family to support the family income tends to decline.
“Sooner or later, every country, including China and India – in the case of China I think it will be sooner, and India, certainly not immediately but in the long run – will face this issue, as long as their economy makes an advance.
“So in a way I think we feel that our country is going ahead of others in this regard, so we want to turn the challenge into an opportunity. How? Firstly, we have to make efforts to encourage young families to produce more children, by extending financial assistance and other incentives or by facilitating child rearing, and so on.
“Also, we are trying to expand the scope of the workforce by engaging more women and more elderly people to participate in the labour market, and we may also have to consider making maximum use of the talents of workers coming from overseas.
“But thirdly, about turning the challenge into an opportunity, we are trying to develop new products and services to meet the needs of the growing number of elderly people in society by way of robotics, new systems of providing care for the sick and elderly, and this could create a new overseas market because the world is soon to face the ‘ageing society’. So this could be a business chance for us.”
It’s an ingenious way to spin the issue. Yes, it may have the highest proportion of elderly citizens of any nation, but in that respect, Hayashi argues, high-tech Japan is once again ahead of the curve.
Words: Daniel Bond and Sam Faroqui
Photos: Paul Heartfield
Lord Livingston is a believer. He’s convinced that “40 years of hurt” are finally coming to an end. The whole team, he says, deserves praise for “putting in the hard yards” in South America, doggedly beating off competition from around the world, and even surprising a few people.
But while the Trade Minister is a sports fanatic, sadly – and predictably – he’s not talking about the football. It’s the country’s growing export market which has got him animated. England’s World Cup squad has already flown home from Brazil, defeated and dejected. But the UK’s trade squad has no intention of leaving any time soon: after decades of neglecting the region, they’re finally getting results.
“I go to places like Mexico or Colombia, and they have a really strong attitude about the UK, where they say ‘where were you? Where have you been all this time?’” Livingston tells The House from his office on the fifth floor of BIS’s Victoria Street HQ. “In a lot of places we just haven’t been around.”
For too long, he says, British governments – both Labour and Conservative – have ignored exports and allowed the UK to lag behind its competitors in Europe. But those wilderness years, he insists, are finally ending. UKTI helped around 40,000 companies to export goods and services overseas last year, and this year Livingston aims to ramp that up to 50,000. And at the top of his list is helping the UK’s small and medium-sized businesses achieve their export potential; only 16% currently sell outside the EU, compared with 30% of Italian firms.
“Going round the UK, I see so many companies with enormous potential and we need to build on that,” he says. “It’s continuing to do the hard yards, that’s what it’s about. There’s not one company or one place that suddenly transforms our export potential – it’s tens of thousands of companies. And we’re helping them.”
“We’re trying to make up for things from decades ago; things which just didn’t seem to rank on previous governments’ agenda. Our supply chain for motor vehicles has been weak, and we’re building that back up again, we’re seeing announcements of manufacturers setting up in the UK. We stopped providing financing for small companies for exporting. Because banks would do that, so what was the need? That was 20 years ago. We’re having to build that up again – so export finance has helped 50% more companies this year than last. But it’s still nowhere near where we want it to be, so we’re making further changes to build that up.
“If you have decades of things you were trying to put right, that’s a challenge. You can’t do it overnight. But the commitment of the whole government is really, really strong.”
The Government has set the target of doubling annual exports to £1tn by 2020 – a figure Livingston admits is “very ambitious”. “But there’s no point having a target which is easily achievable by doing what you’re doing,” he adds. “Why bother?”
“What this is doing,” he continues, “is dramatically raising the whole profile of exports in this country. To be clear, it’s not that the UK is a bad exporter, it’s the sixth-largest exporter in the world. We’re not a bad exporter. But we need to build on that. Given the quality of the firms we’ve got we can do more, and there are some areas of comparative weakness. And if you talk to businesspeople, they will tell you they’ve never seen a government as committed to business and to trade as this one is. And you’ll see the effect. We’re doing that and getting out and building on the excellent work of my predecessor [Lord Green], who did some excellent work.”
Livingston took over from Green last December after more than a decade at BT, culminating in five years as the firm’s CEO. Still only 49 – he will turn the big 5-0 later this month – his career has been remarkably precocious. After leaving Manchester University with a BA in economics at just 19, he trained as an accountant at Arthur Anderson, and went on to become the youngest-ever finance director of a FTSE 100 company aged 32.
Aside from business, his other love is football, and specifically Celtic: the Glaswegian became a non-executive director on the board of his hometown club in 2007. But despite his proud Scottishness, Livingston has mixed feelings about the Auld Enemy’s early exit from the World Cup this summer. While he describes Paul Gascoigne’s wonder goal against Scotland in Euro 96 as “one of the worst moments of my life”, he also admits he faced “moral pressure” from his English wife to back Roy Hodgson’s team in Brazil this time round. It’s a dilemma of split loyalties many will recognise this summer as the independence referendum approaches. As a Celtic-loving Scot married to an Englishwoman, “whose kids can’t decide which team to support”, Livingston says he understands the importance and the bonds of the Union as much as anyone. And he’s not going to give it up without a fight. “It’s not that Scotland can’t be an independent nation. Of course it can be. No one’s ever said otherwise. But both the UK and Scotland itself would be far richer economically, culturally and socially, together,” he says.
A number of businesses have come out in favour of a ‘No’ vote in recent weeks, warning that independence would create uncertainty and could ramp up costs. But others have complained about coming under pressure and intimidation from ‘Yes’ campaigners to stay out of the debate. The trend, Livingston says, is “very worrying”. “I hear that. I think there has been pressure,” he says. “It’s not good for the debate. But take, for instance, another debate, which is around the EU. I know there are some businesses which think one thing about the EU and some which think another. But I have never met anyone who’s said they’ve been getting pressure from somebody to change their position, from a government to change their position, or to not speak out. I think businesses should say what it means. It’s important. On September 19th, neither side wants to wake up and think ‘I wish I’d spoken out.’”
This is not about businesses or employers telling people how to vote, he is quick to add, but about making sure all the facts about independence are in the public domain. “What concerns me is the lack of fact basis in what the anti-Union people, the separatists, are saying,” he explains. “So President Barroso said you’ll have to reapply for EU membership, Alex Salmond says ‘no we won’t.’ The Chancellor and all other potential chancellors say you can’t share the pound, Alex Salmond says ‘of course we can’. You can’t be in that situation of just pretending these things aren’t the case. On September 19th if there is a vote for independence they [the Yes campaign] can’t say ‘oh, well actually I was wrong about all that’.
“I’ve just been with a group of ambassadors and they were quite clear on the issue of a re-application for EU membership. The UK would want to be supportive of Scotland getting back in, but they would have to get back in and it’s not a short process. The EU has never done anything in 18 months. The process has unanimously got to be approved by each parliament. The terms are any EU member has to be a member of Schengen. Is that going to be waived? The rebate: I don’t think that’s going to be popular among a whole load of members of the euro. The basis upon which Scotland enters will be difficult, and there are a lot of countries that are extremely concerned about Scotland coming in. So the UK may be one of Scotland’s allies in this; but the fact is you have to get in.”
On the UK’s own future in Europe, Livingston is more optimistic. He praises David Cameron for being almost a lone voice at the top table calling for a “reformed, competitive, prosperous” Europe, and says the business world has been overwhelmingly impressed with his calls for reform since his defining ‘Bloomberg speech’ in January last year.
“I was in Davos [at the World Economic Forum] shortly after he made that speech, and he was the absolute star,” Livingston remembers. “I wasn’t a member of the government, I was a businessman sitting in the audience, and all the foreign businesses really liked what he had to say, the sort of Europe he was envisioning. He was the absolute star of the show there.”
Unfortunately, he continues, there are too many other voices in British politics who want to make the EU debate about what the UK opposes, rather than what it supports. “People love to define us, particularly our newspapers, by what we’re against in Europe. And it’s time we actually talked about what we’re for,” he says. “What we’re absolutely for is free trade, we’re for completion of the single market, we’re for a very competitive Europe. I think we should spend more time actually talking about that.
“And I have rarely met somebody who is a Eurosceptic who doesn’t want free trade. It’s something you can find common cause with virtually across the whole of Parliament.”
Livingston is keen to emphasise the potential benefits to the UK of the nascent Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a proposed free trade agreement between the EU and the United States. While admitting negotiations towards the deal are not yet at the point “where the rubber hits the road”, he insists there’s been “a lot of progress”.
“If the intention is to do TTIP in the first half of next year, to basically reach agreement, that would be an outstanding achievement, it really would, given the scale of it,” he says. “And the level of ambition’s really big. Remember, it would be worth in excess of €100bn to the European economy, an ambitious TTIP. And even if you said ‘oh, that’s wrong by 30%’ – or 40%, whatever – at a time when we’re scratching around for 0.1%s of GDP, these are enormous numbers. £10bn to the UK – big numbers; worth pursuing.”
Although described by the US as a “companion piece” to the stalled Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Livingston seems eager to differentiate the two, pointing to ex-WTO chief Pascal Lamy’s assessment of TPP as being “the last of the big old-style agreements”. TTIP, on the other hand, is “the first of the new generation of trade agreements”, he says, melding tariff reduction – which “in the old days would be the big thing” but is now “pretty easy and straightforward”; market access issues – “some of them will be reasonably easy, some of them will be tough”; and regulatory coherence – “that’s particularly the new thing”.
To illustrate the latter issue, Livingston recounts complaints from Europe-based companies both large and small that differences in the standard sizes of products between the EU and US are acting as a barrier to production for export. Indeed, he is at pains to counter the perception that TTIP will primarily serve the interests of big business, insisting that streamlining production will see benefits accrue both to small firms and consumers.
“People describe it as being about multinationals, when actually the people who will really benefit are the smaller companies and the consumers because they’ll get better prices because there’s one production line, more choice,” he insists. “And I think we need to talk about consumers more. You see some of the prices of things in Europe compared to the US, and there’s real opportunity.”
But it is the proposed inclusion of an investor-to-state dispute settlement (ISDS) clause in the agreement, which would allow foreign investors to sue national governments for violation of their rights under international law, which has perhaps done most to fuel concerns that TTIP will see large corporations handed overweening power. The European Commission, taken aback by the level of opposition to ISDS, has launched a three-month public consultation on the matter.
Similar clauses in various other trade agreements have seen the Slovak Republic left almost €30m out of pocket after a private health insurance company successfully sued the government there for rolling back a liberalisation of the sector enacted under the previous administration, and the Uruguayan and Australian governments sued by tobacco giant Philip Morris for introducing restrictions on branded packaging for cigarettes.
Livingston, however, insists such examples are “not a reason to not have an ISDS clause, but to have the right sort of ISDS clause”. He admits there are some “probably not great ISDS clauses around”, but argues a “correctly-worded” clause “with transparent processes” is necessary to protect investors from unfair treatment.
“Why do you need an ISDS clause? Because actually, action is sometimes taken in countries that need to protect investors, and if they don’t have them, it will make them more worried about investing,” he says. “Take, for example, Argentina’s nationalisation of oil assets without compensation – Repsol, for instance. Was that fair or reasonable, or did they need to be protected? Because they couldn’t rely on Argentinian law - and so it helps.”
While suggesting that the impact of existing ISDS arrangements on governments’ freedom to act in the public interest has been exaggerated, Livingston stresses the need to ensure TTIP features a “tighter, better, more modern ISDS clause”.
“Some people oppose ISDS clauses because they say ‘ISDS clauses are the end of public policy’; ‘it will mean the end of the NHS’; etcetera,” he says. “But there are all these ISDS clauses already, and we haven’t had it. What ISDS clauses should cover is discriminatory action against foreign players in the marketplace and the expropriation of assets. It’s not meant to cover genuine public policy issues.”
As for his own future, Livingston is characteristically open-minded. He will still only be 50 by the time of the General Election, and with a stint in government to add to his decades of business experience, the Scot will have the world at his feet. After 2015 will he carry on as a minister or opposition frontbencher? “I genuinely have absolutely no idea,” he replies, before adding: “But then again, I had absolutely no idea I’d be doing this job a year before, frankly a month before. We’ll have to see. They may not want me on the frontbench. I’ll have to wait till I’m asked.”
It’s that time of year. Exhausted members of our intensely tangled politico-media knot are daring to dream about the moment when they will start the long drive to Cornwall/turn the keys in the door of the Highland getaway/take the first sip of rose wine by the pool in the South of France/send the first tweet from the voluntary project they are taking part in to show their commitment to the party, (delete as appropriate).
Naturally the leaders’ choices of destination will be worried about, although I for one could probably do without seeing another ‘look I’m just like you moment’ with senior politicians sweating their way through the budget flight experience.
Although Parliament has not had the busiest time of late, the way the inhabitants of the Westminster bubble live their lives is frenetic by many standards, so the relief of the session ending is entirely understandable. The desire to switch off completely is strong. Yet this year, I’m afraid that members and peers will have something rather more to worry about during the long summer break.
As you read, Scotland is already on holiday. School is already out, the Holyrood Parliament has already broken up. By some accounts the later English holidays were to ensure a ready supply of child labour for the harvesting in August. The Scottish break in October holidays were originally intended so Scottish children were available to help in the October tattie howking, picking potatoes, later in the year.
But whatever the real reason for the historical quirk, and I confess my research could not probably be described as exhaustive, that means the Scottish calendar of public life runs rather differently to the rest of the UK. This year, it takes on a special significance.
Just as many of Westminster’s finest are settling into the final stretch in the sun lounger, Scottish life will be getting back into routine, and it’s an easy bet that the SNP’s dogged campaigners will be really getting into their stride.
There will be a frenzied fortnight in Scotland while down South politics is still on pause. Better Together think they are pretty secure in the polling numbers that give them a victory.
But while it’s not exactly original to note it’s daft to underestimate Alex Salmond, it is still entirely true. And any lethargy on the Unionist side, any distraction, even the completely understandable joy of being on holiday, will be exploited by the Nationalists at the first chance.
Better Together campaigners in Scotland know this. But if Westminster unionists want to play a big part, and maybe that is the big if, they had better not clear the diary, but mark something very important down instead.
Laura Kuenssberg is chief correspondent and presenter for the BBC's Newsnight
It didn’t take me long to accept the invitation from the German Körber Foundation to go to Tehran and Isfahan. The theme of the Bergedorf Round Table discussion was to be ‘Stability in the Middle East – Prospects for Cooperation between Iran and the West’. We couldn’t have known that events in Iraq would mean Saudi Arabia and Iran would have a shared interest in defeating ISIS, and that rather than aiming for stability, we’d just be hoping to avoid breakdown.
I had been to Iran before – in 2007, with the Foreign Affairs Committee. Then, our embassy was open, we were startled to see the ‘Bobby Sands Hamburger’ stand just next door and even more surprised to hear that on the day of the Queen’s birthday, women were throwing stones over the embassy walls. President George W. Bush had included Iran in his ‘axis of evil’ speech; President Ahmadinejad aggressively questioned Israel’s right to exist; and Iran seemed inextricably on the road towards acquiring military nuclear capability.
We saw queues in petrol stations. When I asked one of the economic ministers whether the sanctions were biting, he smiled and told me that whilst he did not know about “my antecedents”, I clearly had “no idea” what I was talking about.
Not long after, the young Iranian who worked for the Embassy and who’d accompanied us to Isfahan was threatened with prison on some trumped-up charges. I left with a deep sadness. Here was a rich, ancient civilisation stuck with a repressive regime that used irrational behaviour as a rational weapon of statecraft. A government that combined parliamentary democracy with a revolutionary religious theocracy. And it was the only country I’d ever visited where they thought the Americans do what the British tell them! If only…
Seven years on, this time going with a German delegation, what would be different? I couldn’t get my visa in London. Following the ransacking of our embassy in Tehran in 2011, diplomatic relationships had broken down. My passport made a detour via Berlin. Our largely German group also included an American, a couple of French, an Austrian and some people with dual Iranian nationality.
Our Iranian counterparts and hosts were the Institute for Political and International Studies. We met in the splendid Golestan Palace, which had just recently been granted UN World Heritage status. There were a few tourists, who I thought were Chinese but a colleague believed to be North Korean.
The discussions were robust. Iran has to accept Israel’s right to exist. We touched on Hezbollah, but our hosts didn’t think they had anything to apologise for. Do they really need civil nuclear energy if their gas flares burn off more gas than the total export from Azerbaijan? Breakout capacity – the time it would take to produce highly-enriched uranium for nuclear weapons – was mentioned more often than the number of centrifuges they have. All this against the backdrop of the advance of ISIS just across the border in Iraq.
Following the election of President Rouhani in 2013, it’s obvious that there was a greater willingness to escape the isolation. Despite the longstanding sanctions, the country is holding together and the regime has succeeded in spreading the pain in a way which does not undermine the state itself.
Iran, Turkey and Israel are three functioning nation states which will become increasingly important as the old Sykes-Picot lines look like breaking. I doubt that an agreement on the nuclear issue will be reached by the artificially-imposed deadline of 20 July.
I went not least because I wanted to recapture the magic of the 33 arches of the Siose Bridge – one of the 11 bridges spanning the Zayandeh river in Isfahan, built by the Safavid king Shah Abbas in the mid-17th century. The bridge was still there, but there wasn’t a drop of water in the river bed: a drought, combined with extracting too much water for agriculture. An old man told me that the whole town is weeping.
But there was good news. We are re-opening the embassy. I wish I could take credit.
Gisela Stuart is Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston and Editor of The House magazine
I’m writing this article because of a young man called Liam. He’s 16 years old and has just finished his GCSE history exams. A fortnight ago, his teacher introduced me to him when I visited his school in Barnsley. Liam took one look at me and said: “The trouble with you politicians is you never learn the lessons from history!”
When I told Liam about the work I was doing on the First World War commemorations, I could see it resonated with him straight away – even though the conflict took place long before his great-grandparents were born.
The same can be said of people of all ages I’ve met across the country in this important year of remembrance. It’s striking how many people feel a special interest in events from so long ago, regardless of how old they are or where they come from.
It’s easy to understand why. The First World War changed Britain forever. It was a conflict that left its mark on every family, touched every community and fundamentally shifted our country’s place in the world. Of the 16,000 towns and villages across Britain in 1914, only 40 of them would reach 1918 without having lost someone in the conflict. It left every community with its own story to tell.
Earlier this year, I travelled to Serre in northern France to retrace the roots of one such story from my constituency. I followed in the footsteps of the Barnsley Pals from a century ago – two battalions of friends and neighbours who joined up in response to Lord Kitchener’s famous recruitment poster in 1914. Many of them lost their lives in the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916, when 20,000 soldiers were cut down in a single day.
It was a moving and sobering trip that brought home the profound scale of the sacrifice. One of the moments that has stayed with me most was reading through the names inscribed on the Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval. Suddenly I saw my own name – D Jarvis – staring back at me. It sent a chill right through me, taking me back to when I’ve had to read the names of fallen friends and colleagues from my service in the Army.
Our country has sadly been no stranger to loss in recent years, and we’ve all felt the pain of each of the 632 servicemen and women who have not returned from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It underlines how much of a scar was left on our society by a conflict that took the lives of six times that many soldiers every week.
One in every seven British men under the age of 25 would not survive the First World War. They were among 900,000 servicemen from Britain and the Commonwealth, and 16m soldiers and civilians across the globe, who would not live to see peace in 1918. The centenary commemorations provide us with a unique opportunity over the next four years to pay tribute to those heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice. That tribute should extend to the brave men and women in uniform who continue to serve us today, especially as we mark Armed Forces Day.
By accident or grand design, this year that date also coincides with the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914 – the day that saw the shooting of one man in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist which would plunge an entire continent into conflict.
We should reflect on how that moment changed our country. That includes remembering what happened here at home, as well as on the front line. The ‘home front’ is a phrase mostly associated with the Second World War, with images like the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign and people sheltering from the Blitz imprinted on our national consciousness.
But we mustn’t forget how the First World War was the first truly total war. Civilians were targeted for the first time – with around 850 losing their lives in Zeppelin air raids – and German U-boats brought the country to the brink of starvation. That Britain came through is a testament to the heroic efforts of groups like the Women’s Land Army, as well as the miners and factory, munitions and railway workers who kept our country going.
And our country changed in the process. Women took on jobs that had previously been the preserve of men. The war contributed to the first women – and all working men – winning the vote in 1918. Our society became less deferential, the trade union movement expanded, the role of the state changed, and our politics would never be the same. That’s what we also have to remember in these commemorations.
As well as the silent tributes, there is also a space for lively discussion, as we engage together with our shared history and think about its relevance to the lives we live today. I think that’s what Liam had in mind, too.
Dan Jarvis is MP for Barnsley Central and Labour’s lead on the First World War centenary commemorations