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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.

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

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.