Remembrance Sunday: Commemoration or political pageantry?

Rachel Barr investigates the coverage and controversy Britain’s Remembrance Day services have caused in the UK Student Media landscape following the decision of ULU to ban representatives at the national event. 

Europes’ biggest student union – University of London Union (ULU) – sparked controversy throughout the UK this week in it’s decision to ban student representatives from attending the nation’s annual Remembrance Sunday event.

ULU, an umbrella organisation which represents all 120,000 of London’s student body, issued a “blanket ban” on elected student representatives attending remembrance services on behalf of the students they represent, on the grounds that:

“While of course many of those who participate have different views, official ‘Remembrance’ ceremonies and the campaign around them glorify and justify Britain’s role in world politics and British militarism, as well as ignoring the treatment of British soldiers by the military command”.

Since the motion was passed, students publications, politicians and the mainstream press have come out in droves to speak out on the ban, causing what was a student issue to evolve into a much larger debate, reflecting even upon the Remembrance ceremony itself.

Remembrance Sunday: A tribute

Remembrance Sunday, the second Sunday of every November, and the symbol of the poppy have long since become a British Institution. Leicester University’s The Ripple provided some insight into the tradition of the ceremony:

“Britons observe a two-minute silence on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, as this is when World War I finally ended…Poppies have long been associated with Remembrance Day as they grew on the battlefields when the war ended. The Poppy Appeal is run by a charity called The Royal British Legion. Money, often raised by volunteer sellers, is given to servicemen and women whose lives have been affected by war.”

“The colossal loss of life, misery and suffering is commemorated in a way that doesn’t fit with the reality of what took place in WW1”

The commemoration of the “glorious dead” is not without criticism however, not least from the student community. Last year, acting ULU president Daniel Cooper controversially refused to lay a wreath on behalf of the union, despite cries of his ‘disrespect’, stating in his blog that he refused to participate on the grounds that:

“The colossal loss of life, misery and suffering is commemorated in a way that doesn’t fit with the reality of what took place in WW1”.

Similarly in Scotland, President of  Edinburgh University’s Student Association (EUSA) James McAsh followed suit in boycotting the 2012 ceremony in what was also a  highly contested move. According to Edinburgh’s The Journal, Critics of McAsh’s refusal gave opinions that his actions were ‘vile’, with others on Facebook calling for his resignation.

This year, ULU passed a policy in – according to current ULU President Michael Chessum’s article in The Independent  – a ‘relatively routine and democratic way’, stating that no representatives would be sent to the ceremonies on behalf of students: regarding the ceremony as a “political statement” with which they did not want to be associated.

Far-flung criticisms

Since the passing of the policy, it has been met with considerable criticism. Anthony Shaw, KCLSU Vice President of Representation and Communication responded to the ban in King’s College London’s Roar! calling the actions of the ULU executive unnecessarily political, stating:

“This entire episode also stinks of politicking by student politicians and the politicisation of a non-political event. This event is to remember the dead, it is not to glorify war or to celebrate our successes. People attend these services not to support war – it is in fact the complete opposite. A reminder of the true horror of war. You can oppose wars and why they are fought and still attend a remembrance service and remember the dead.”

In an open letter to Chessum also featured in Roar!, King’s student Elliot Gathercole also called on the President to remember who he had been elected to represent, adding that he felt:

“the motion passed in the ULU Senate on October 24 is not only wrong, but wholly contradicts the principle of freedom of speech that you claim to advocate”.

Speaking to the Telegraph, Louisa Townson, president of the Conservative Society at University College London, similarly attacked the decision which she branded “delusional arrogance of this senate clique”. She comments:

“I find it amazing that when convenient they shout from the rooftops about the sheer number they represent, but on a topic like this expediently silence them…Students overwhelmingly want their union to pay respect, not just to fallen students in years gone by, but to give thanks to those that lost their lives to protect the rights and liberties we hold dear today.”

“The politics of remembrance have always been contested.”

However, some students have risen in defence of the motion and what it stands for. Writing for the London Student, Joe Glenton calls out the ceremony and asociated poppy selling as a means of propaganda.

“ the official version of remembrance is much less about honouring soldiers than it is about obscuring them with an avalanche of wreaths…The politics of remembrance have always been contested, not least by soldiers themselves. I will contest them again here; I do not do so lightly, but rather out of a sense of duty to the war dead, one or two of whom I knew.”

Writing for the Independent, Michael Chessum defends the motion and his decision to boycott remembrance day by highlighting that those who think it is not political are ‘missing the point’. Remembrance day, to him, and to much of the UK’s student left signifies the growing sensationalism and forced pageantry of a ‘celebration’ that abuses the memory of the nation’s war casualties.

“ Politicians and the military high command salute the wounded and fallen of the past 100 years, like murderers holding special funerals for their victims. Many of those who return find themselves without proper state support, and a future with massive cuts to disability benefit and the rest of the welfare state. The idea that veterans and victims of war should be financially reliant on the sale of poppies is far more of an insult than is anyone’s personal decision not to wear one”.

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