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

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How the Brexit referendum has infantilised British politics

Politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. 

Ancient Greece is the cradle of modern Europe.  From its primordial soup emerged so much of our culture, our language and our politics. Of the three, it seems to be the politics that has made the least progress over the centuries. In fact, if you dropped an Athenian into the middle of politics in the UK today, they would find themselves right at home. This is not because of the direct democracy, the demagogues or the xenophobia, though all are worryingly familiar, but because of the style of the debate itself.

To understand politics in ancient Greece you have to grasp that they had no concept of ‘the truth’. This is not to say that they were liars, simply that the framework by which we judge credibility was not one they would have recognised. The myths and legends that dominated their discourse were neither thought of as being ‘true’ or ‘made-up’, they simply were, and the fact of their being known allowed them to be used as reference points for debate and argument.

Modern politics seems to be sliding back towards this infant state, and nothing embodies this more than the childish slanging match that passes for an EU referendum debate. In the past six years the UK has had three great exercises of direct democracy and it is safe to say none of the campaigns have added a great deal to sum of human enlightenment. Who remembers the claims that babies would die as a result of the special voting machines needed to conduct AV elections? But the EU referendum has taken this to new extremes. The In campaign are executing what is a fairly predictable strategy, the kind of thing that is normal fare in politics these days. Dossiers of doomsday scenarios. Experts wheeled out. Statistics embellished to dazzle the public. One can question the exact accuracy, but at least you feel they operate within certain parameters of veracity.

What is happening on the Out side, in contrast, is the collective nervous breakdown of a large section of the political establishment. Just this week we have had Penny Mordaunt, a government minister, flat-out denying the UK’s right to veto new accessions to the EU. We have seen the fiercely independent Institute for Fiscal Studies denounced as a propaganda arm for Brussels. Most bizarrely, Boris Johnson even tried to claim that the EU had banned bananas from being sold in bunches larger than three, something that nobody who has actually visited a shop in the UK could possibly believe. These kind of claims stretch our political discourse way beyond the crudely drawn boundaries of factual accuracy that normally constrain what politicians can do and say. Surely the people peddling these myths can never be taken seriously again?

But they will. You just watch as Johnson, Mordaunt and the rest slide effortlessly back into public life. Instead of being ridiculed for their unhinged statements, they will be rewarded with plush offices and ministerial cars. Journalists will continue to hang on every word they say. Their views will be published in newspapers, their faces will flit ceaselessly across our TV screens. Johnson is even touted as a plausible future leader of our country, possibly before the year is out. A man who over his meandering career seems to have held every possible opinion on any topic you care to name. Or rather, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the character we call Boris has no opinions at all, simply interests. The public, who have scant regard for a political class they believe to be untrustworthy, seem to have taken a shine to a man who is perhaps the most fundamentally dishonest of Westminster’s denizens.

What does all this say about the state of our politics? If it is true that we are seeing the advent of ‘post-truth’ politics, as some have argued, then it has grown out of the corrosive relationship between politicians and the public. It is both a great irony and a great tragedy that the very fact that people distrust all politicians is what has permitted the most opportunistic to peddle more and more outlandish claims. Political discourse has ceased to be a rational debate with agreed parameters and, like the ancient Greeks, more resembles a series of competing myths. Claims are assessed not by their accuracy but by their place in the grand narrative which is politics.

But the truth matters. For the ancients it was the historian Thucydides who shifted the dial decisively in favour of fact over fiction. In writing his Histories he decided that he wanted to know what actually happened, not just what made a good story. In a similar vein British politics needs to take a step back towards the real world. Broadcasters launching fact-checkers are a good start, but we need to up the level of scrutiny on political claims and those who make them. At times it feels like the press operate as a kind of counterweight to Game of Thrones author George RR Martin, going easy on much-loved characters for fear of upsetting the viewers.

But politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. If politics is the art of the possible, then political discourse is the art of saying what you can get away with. Until there are consequences for the worst offenders, the age of post-truth politics will continue suck the life from our public debate.