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 Devon's humpback whale is dredging up the politics of the sea

The arrival of a humpback whale at Slapton Sands has caused a local splash. But the history of the village has a warning for those who think of the sea as spectacle alone.

The Devon coast road from Dartmouth to Torcross is as pretty as it is treacherous. After winding through a cliff-top village, the road ahead falls away to reveal a giant lake – the Slapton Ley - flanked by green hills on one side and ocean on the other. 

Tourists (or "grockles") gasp at the view and, in recent weeks, even locals have been staring out to sea - where a giant humpback whale has taken up residence in the bay.

Not seen at Slapton in living memory, the whale has swum into rural stardom. Hundreds have lined the beach with cameras and telescopes. The nearby pub and farm shop have seen levels of trade only usually enjoyed in the summer.

According to Keith Pugh, (the ice-cream-van-man who has been keeping the crowds supplied with tea) one lady from Plymouth caught the bus here every day for six weeks just to catch a single glimpse. That’s a four-hour round trip.

If this all sounds a bit fishy, that's because it is. Experts believe that the whale is feeding on the bumper numbers of small fish and mackerel that have been reported in the area. But even these are behaving in unexpected ways. “The mackerel are further north than usual for this time of year,” says Mark Darlaston, a photographer who first identified the whale as a humpback (and jokingly named it after storm “Doris”).

So what is the humpback up to, so far south of its northern feeding grounds? And should its presence be seen as a sign of recovery - for whales and UK waters in general? 

Not yet, say conservationists. And not if the history of Slapton is anything to go by.

Troubled waters

Villagers at Torcross, at the far end of Slapton sands, are familiar with secrets from the deep. In 1944, a military training in the bay went horribly wrong, when nearly 1,000 American servicemen were drowned. The tragedy was hushed up for decades.

But the greatest threat to the community comes from mismanagement of the sea itself. On 26 January 1917 the entire neighbouring village of Hallsands was swallowed by a storm. The tragedy was partially manmade. The underwater sandbanks, which had helped protect the shore from longshore drift, had been thoughtlessly dredged to supply building materials for the Plymouth docks. Some 660,000 tonnes of material were removed and never replaced.

The results of that plunder are still felt at Slapton today. In 2014, a gale-force storm swept away part of the road that runs between the sea and the ley. Just last year, the seawall at Torcross crumbled, as the protective beach beneath was carried away by waves.

Into the Brexit deeps

So much in our oceans is tightly connected to human activity. If whales are a rare sight on the UK coast, it is partly because of the human campaign against them for many years in the form of whaling. According to Sally Hamilton from the conservation charity Orca, the 1980s moratorium on whaling has helped some populations to recover. 

But others are still fighting to survive in the face of pollution, noise, and over-fishing. The UK’s last resident pod of killer whales looks likely to die out after high levels of PCB chemicals have stopped the females reproducing. In Norway, a stranded whale was found to have over 30 plastic bags blocking its digestive system.

There is also no certainty that the glut of fish that the whale is feeding on will come again next year. “There is still masses we don’t understand about the ocean,” says Will McCallum from Greenpeace, “Climate change and the threat of over-fishing mean that where fish are moving to is more unpredictable that it has ever been.”

And it's not just whales that could get caught out. Some UK politicians have demanded that a Brexit deal include blocking foreign vessels from fishing in British waters. With 58 per cent of UK-caught fish caught by non-British fleets, it is argued that a ban would benefit the UK industry.

But with migration patterns becoming more erratic, McCallum is sceptical. "Re-territorialising our waters would be an absolute potential disaster because we just don’t know where fish stocks are going to move," he says. 

Out of the Blues

At Torcross, the sea has long been a source of worry. Claire, the landlady at the Start Bay Inn, recalls the many storms that have pelted the seafront pub since she was a child. Just last year she was “running from one end to the other” trying to sweep the water out, while bottles rattled and the chip-fryer shook.

So it was perhaps unsurprising that news of the whale’s arrival first met with local concern. “I can’t bear to see it,” one woman tells me. She had read in the press that it had come so close in to shore to “beach” itself and die, and heard rumours it was in mourning for a lost calf.

But thanks to the investigations of Mark Darlaston and the divers at the British Divers Marine Life Rescue, such fake whale-news has been corrected - and its visits are fast becoming a source of wider hope. The owner of the Stokely farmshop has joked about replacing it with a decoy “nessie” when it leaves. Claire cannot wait to put its picture on the front of her menus (where the picture is currently of the recent storm).

It is not yet known what lies ahead for Brexit fishing policy, or for whales. But dip into the history of the village of Torcross, and it's clear that understanding and protecting the sea is inseparable from protecting ourselves.

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