As tensions are cranked up and rhetoric becomes ever more belligerent, ANDREW FISHER says that using Remembrance Day as a political weapon is perverse
It’s in pretty poor taste to use the memory of the dead to score political points.
Armistice Day, November 11, and Remembrance Sunday happen to fall on consecutive days this year. It is a time of solemn reflection to mourn the war dead. The two world wars of the last century saw more than 1million British people lose their lives, more than 100million worldwide.
This year, the Prime Minister and Home Secretary have whipped up a divisive campaign against people proposing to march in favour of an armistice on Armistice Day.
“To plan protests on Armistice Day is provocative and disrespectful,” Rishi Sunak said last week, adding without evidence that “there is a clear and present risk that the Cenotaph and other war memorials could be desecrated, something that would be an affront to the British public and the values we stand for”.
For years now, the neo-Nazis of the National Front have been allowed to hold a march to the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday. They plan to do so again this Sunday. Not a peep has been heard from Sunak or Suella Braverman about this march.
And for years now, the fortnight or so before Remembrance Sunday has marked the start of a new game in which the newspapers harangue TV presenters and politicians for not wearing a poppy. This is nothing to do with solemn remembrance, but a new and insidious form of politicking that uses the war dead as a cudgel for political opponents.
In 1981, Michael Foot was pilloried after he appeared at the Cenotaph in his capacity as the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. He was wearing a dark green woollen coat that his wife had bought him from Harrods. The Queen Mother even complimented Foot on his coat on the day.
For The Sun newspaper, however, it was a “donkey jacket”, and a show of disrespect. It was the first step in a continuing campaign to belittle and undermine someone who had spent his life campaigning for peace.
Thirty-four years later and the same kind of false furore was manufactured around one of Foot’s successors as Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
Corbyn, according to The Sun, didn’t bow deeply enough when laying a wreath to the dead.
“Nod in my name” was the tabloid’s headline, and the paper dedicated an entire editorial to the issue. An unlikely source leapt to Corbyn’s defence, with the Telegraph’s Charles Moore writing: “He comported himself appropriately. Contrary to some comment, there was nothing wrong with his slight bow as he laid his wreath.”
In 2012, the Irish footballer, James McClean, playing in the Premier League, explained why he wouldn’t be wearing the poppy. He had grown up in Derry, where the British Army had committed the atrocities of Bloody Sunday. He was booed and abused in football grounds, and attacked in sections of the British press. He and his family has been the subject of vicious online abuse ever since.
Yet the Royal British Legion gave McClean their full support in his decision not to wear the poppy, saying: “To insist that people wear a poppy would be contrary to everything that it stands for. We offer our full support to James for exercising his right to choose not to wear a poppy.”
Britain’s military past is a mixed bag, not one of unalloyed honour. The defeat of Nazism was one of the great victories for human liberation in the 20th century. But there was also the decolonisation process which often saw campaigns of self-determination brutally repressed by British forces.
This is a point recognised by McClean: “If the poppy was simply about World War One and Two victims alone, I’d wear it without a problem.
“I would wear it every day of the year if that was the thing but it doesn’t. It stands for all the conflicts that Britain has been involved in. Because of the history where I come from in Derry, I cannot wear something that represents that.”
The men who fought in the trenches of World War I saw horrors that no one should ever experience. Wilfred Owen’s poetic masterpiece Dulce et Decorum est sends a message to those who glorify war:
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
That old lie, dressed up in Latin, is that it’s a beautiful and fitting thing to die for your country.
Harry Patch also served in World War I. He was its last British survivor, who died in 2009, aged 111.
Five years before, he met the last German survivor of the war. Patch said of the meeting, “We’ve had 87 years to think what war is. To me, it’s a licence to go out and murder.
“Why should the British government call me up and take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn’t speak?
“All those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now what is the sense in that?”
I will take the words of Owen and Patch, men who fought in war and saw its horrors first-hand over any commentator who thinks critiquing the fashion on Remembrance Day of their political opponents is “appropriate”.
Many families will have their own connections to the world wars and other conflicts since, whether those are stories of active service, personal loss, evacuation from cities like London and Portsmouth, or cowering terrified in bomb shelters during the Blitz.
For others, the connotations are of oppression by British forces. Those memories are just as true and worthy of respect.
Remembrance is a personal thing. The solemnity of the occasion deserves better than petty politicking.
Remember the dead, but live and let live.
- As well as the BBC’s Politics Live, Radio 4’s Today and various other broadcast outlets, Andrew Fisher is a regular guest on The Croydon Insider, the podcast that analyses the latest news from inside Croydon. Click here to listen to his contribution in this month’s episode, together with Donna Fraser, Sanjana Idnani and Annabel Smith (requires subscription)
- From 2015 to 2019, Andrew Fisher was the Labour Party’s Director of Policy under Jeremy Corbyn. He is a former chair of the Croydon Central Constituency Labour Party. Fisher is also the author of The Failed Experiment – and how to build an economy that works, and now writes regular columns for InsideCroydon
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