Don’t bully those who wish to commemorate the war dead in their own way

All too often events aimed at remembering the victims casually morph into uncritical reverence of the First World War.

There is always a balance to strike in a democracy between being apolitical and being too political. Everyone is aware of the problem of apathetic non-voters, but it is just as important to remember that the apathetic society is preferable to the fanatical one.

The annual Remembrance Day Service is a good example of an event which is considered above the petty squabbles that characterise Westminster politics. For one day in November, the leaders of the three main political parties put aside their differences and come together to pay their respects to Britain’s war dead. The public are also expected, if not to lay a wreath at the cenotaph, then at least to wear a poppy in the lead up to the service, and more so in the case of public figures, where something approaching poppy McCarthyism reigns.

It is unsurprising, then, to learn that a furore has erupted over a decision by the University of London Union (ULU) Senate to pass a resolution stating that ULU's elected representatives "have the liberty to choose" whether or not to lay a wreath at this year’s Remembrance Service. Student representatives may still attend Remembrance Service if they wish, but they cannot attend on behalf of the university. The sense of outrage at the actions of ULU has been heightened by the fact that President Michael Chessum has made it clear that he has no plans to attend the service.

To critics of the ULU Senate’s decision, Remembrance Service is not a political event, therefore students are wrong to try and 'politicise' it. As Shadow Veterans Minister Gemma Doyle put it, "wearing a poppy is not a comment on politics or military intervention". Labour MP for Walthamstow Stella Creasy went further, saying the actions of her former union made her feel "ashamed".

But despite my sympathies being with those who will be laying wreaths at the Cenotaph on Sunday, there is something dishonest about describing Remembrance Service - decked out as it is with royalty, establishment figures and generals - as apolitical, not to mention using that characterisation to cajole those who wish to pay their respects in a different way.

Despite the importance of remembering Britain’s war dead (as well as the foreign civilians killed in British conflicts, conspicuously absent from official services), all too often, events aimed at remembering the victims of war casually morph into uncritical reverence of the First World War - the so-called Great War in which 16 million Europeans perished. The Poppy, worn to commemorate the dead in the lead up to Remembrance Sunday, is, after all, strongly associated with that war - the first war it was used to commemorate. Leading politicians involved in Remembrance Service also subscribe to a revisionist history of the First World War: last year during his Great Centenary speech, David Cameron described the deaths of British soldiers in the First World War as "a sacrifice they made for us". He also recently called for the 2014 centenary of that conflict to be "like the Diamond Jubilee celebrations". (Yes, you read that right: street parties and bunting to commemorate the deaths of 16 million people.)

Poppies and wreaths have become associated with the worst sort of gesture politics. Remembering the dead ought to be a quiet and dignified affair, yet there is increasingly a sense that one can no longer simply give money to the Royal British Legion, but must broadcast the fact through the wearing of a conspicuous poppy. In this sense, attaching a poppy to one’s lapel has become the equivalent of 'liking' a Facebook page or growing a patch of facial hair for 'Movember' - a way to be both self-righteous and narcissistic - as well as an excuse to bully those who don’t conform.

There is no salvation to be found in the white poppy either. Said to symbolise 'an end to all wars', the problem with the white poppy is similar to that of the peace movement in general: 'peace' often translates as little more than a desire to keep one’s hands clean and retreat into childish certainties. This was demonstrated by the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) in the 1930s, where the white poppy originates. So keen were the PPU on 'peace' that they remained neutral during the Spanish civil war as General Franco’s fascists slaughtered working class anarchists and socialists. They also remarked in an official pamphlet of 1938 that there was "...no reason why Germany should not have colonies".

There can certainly be too much politics; I can think of a number of examples of dreary po-faced student activists making other peoples’ lives miserable by trying to politicise everything. That said, a Remembrance Service that lionises the First World War is by default political. That’s why it’s important to respect those who do not wish to partake in what they view as an uncritical celebration of militarism. British soldiers were not sent away in 1914 to die for 'us', as David Cameron appears to believe, but were sent to die in excrement-filled trenches for the right of the British establishment to carry on subjugating people in places like Burma and India. Paying one’s respects to the war dead is admirable; but let people do it in their own way. 

A visitor walks past a monument of poppies at the National Memorial Arboretum on November 5, 2013 in Alrewas, Staffordshire. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496