What does a plastic flower matter?
To many Britons a poppy, traditionally worn pinned to one's coat in the weeks preceding Remembrance Sunday, is an enduring symbol of British culture. In any given public place, from London to Lanarkshire, little red pedals adorn the breast's of passersby. Along with the two minutes of silence at eleven o'clock on the day itself, the poppy is synonymous with the national act of remembrance.
Of course not everyone wears one. Jon Snow, the Channel 4 news anchor, refuses to sport a poppy on air in the days prior to Remembrance Sunday. This act has seen him come in for criticism in the past, although we appear to have collectively got used to it. As Snow himself has pointed out, remembrance is all about honouring those who gave us the possibility to chose what to do with our lives. How or if you wear a poppy is part of that.
But what if you're an elected politician?
This week the University of London Union released a statement telling its 120,000 student members that there would be no official presence at the ceremonies of remembrance from ULU. Individual members of the union's staff and sabbatical officers will be free to attend in a personal capacity, but not as representatives of the union itself.
This has its genesis in November last year when acting Vice-President Daniel Cooper declined an invitation to attend the University of London's formal remembrance service. He wrote a long letter outlining why he had done so, posting a copy on his blog. What followed was dubbed, with an upsetting level of unoriginality, 'poppygate' by student media in London. Student's complained, some signed a petition for him to resign and a lot of angry sentences featuring the words 'disrespectful' and 'outrageous' were uttered via social media. Cooper's argument was that the act of organised remembrance is irrevocably tainted by its establishment in the period after the First World War as a way of encouraging public denial of the imperialist causes of the war. Cooper went on to quote Siegfried Sassoon and Harry Patch before stating that while he would mourn the loss of life during the war 'We should instead remember the internationalists and socialists. We should remember the figures like Karl Kraus, one of many poets and satirists, who denounced the war'.
Cooper's position was hardly new. Anyone who has seen an adaptation of Alan Bennett's The History Boys will have been exposed to the sentiment that 'we remember in order to forget' when it comes to the Great War. However he missed two important points in his letter. Firstly, Remembrance Sunday is no longer purely focused on the memory of the First World War. The sacrifice of those who died in the Second War, as well as in conflicts since, is also remembered. Indeed, with no British veterans of the Great War still living, it may increasingly be the case that the 11th November, or the nearest Sunday to it, becomes more focused upon those who died nearly two decades after the war of 1914-18. Even if the origins of British remembrance may be in imperialist denial nearly a century has completely changed its nature.
Also ignored, both by Cooper then and ULU now, is the issue of representation. If the majority of ULU members are in favour of the act of remembrance then perhaps an official ULU presence is required. After all, no one asks the Prime Minister his personal views upon the nature of remembrance, he is simply expected to attend to represent the overwhelming views of British citizens. As elected officials, both members of Parliament and members of the ULU Senate have a certain requirement to represent the view of their constituents.
The words 'We sleep safely in our beds because rough man stand ready in the night to visit violence upon those who would harm us' are often misattributed to George Orwell. These lines were actually used in the 1990s to summaries Orwell's view, set out in at least three separate essays, concerning the paradox within the anti-war movement prior to the Second World War. That those who opposed war, or indeed those who held anti-establishment views, were free to express them largely due to the protection afforded them by Britain's great imperial power. While I heartily agree that the 'internationalists and socialists' of Cooper's original statement should be celebrated we cannot forget that most of them, certainly those living in central and western Europe, died quietly in their beds, not violently on the battlefield. It is entirely possibly to honour the memory of both groups. I respectfully disagree with anyone who says otherwise, especially when it is their job to represent me.