UEA Students’ Union (UEA SU) has passed Motion 2006 Remember: Don’t Repeat, which mandates the union to stock both white and red poppies on campus in the run up to Armistice Day in future years. The motion states: “the red poppy is considered by some to be a political symbol with multiple offensive, upsetting and actively negative connotation.” The motion also included language describing the British armed forces as “imperialist.”
However, Concrete has learned that this is based on inaccurate information regarding the numbers of conscientious objectors arrested in Britain during World War One. A UEA history professor said that “scepticism is justified” when examining the figures put forward at union council. Professor Thomas Otte, a historian of British and World War One history stated that: “the numbers cited are wrong, and the whole issue was much more complicated.”
The motion was debated and passed in the final minutes of last week’s union council (17th November) and means that an equal number of both red and white poppies will be available on campus in the days before 11th November, from 2017. The union must also provide information leaflets to go alongside the displays of both poppies.
The motion, proposed by Finn Northrop, SU Non-Portfolio Officer, and seconded by Abbie Mulcairn, SU Women’s Officer, stated: “the imperialist nature of the British armed forces throughout history means that some see the red poppy as a celebration of the British armed forces and by extension, the atrocities perpetrated by the British armed forces throughout history.”
Finn Northrop told Concrete that: “while many wear red poppies as an act of remembrance, many others find the red poppy and its symbolism problematic.” He stated that: “Motion 2006 both validated the right of UEA students to reach a personal view on the issues and mandated the SU to stock both red and white poppies in the future. It sought to explain the views of those who prefer a white poppy, while recognising the diversity of views on campus on this issue.”
The motion also stated that: “all staff and students at UEA have the right to mourn the loss of life in conflict in the way they deem most appropriate, as long as it is in line with the values, ethics and policy of the union and British law.” However, according to the proposal, the allegedly negative associations of the red poppy mean that: “it can be distressing for students affected by one or more of the issues to be surrounded by something they see as a symbol of oppression and persecution and this compromises their wellbeing on campus.”
Mentioned specifically in the motion and during the debate in council was the arrest of 16,000 conscientious objectors during the First World War. The motion claims that this is: “part of the ‘war effort’ which is glamourized by the poppy,” and states that: “16,000 people were arrested as CO’s. CO’s were subjected to gross invasions of privacy, psychologically damaging “evaluations”, hard labour and in some cases execution.” This claim is cited to a Quakers in WW1 history website, but this webpage does not specifically mention the figure of 16,000. Professor Otte told Concrete that while “16,500 men identified themselves as conscientious objectors,” most of these men “cooperated with the tribunals set up to examine their cases, and 90% of them accepted alternative service, e.g. as ambulance drivers.” “1,298 of them refused all service, and these were imprisoned.”
Luke Heward, a third year History student and an Officer Cadet in the Cambridge University Officer Training Corps, (CUOTC), said that: “the choice of language the union have chosen is inappropriate and misrepresents what the red poppy and Remembrance Day represents.”
He stated that: “the Royal British Legion, the main organisation behind the red poppy appeal, is a non-political charity. For example, it rejected funding from the BNP and other extreme political groups, highlighting how it is not an organisation which celebrates Britain’s military past… the red poppy is not a jingoistic symbol,” and added: “people who are uncomfortable with the red poppy and see it as a political symbol are misinformed about its purpose.”
Heward continued: “every year when CUOTC undertake our remembrance parade, it is not a time of celebration but a time of sombre reflection. A time of remembering the fallen servicemen and servicewomen who made the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty. I hope that the union recognise that the red poppy is not a symbol of celebration, but a symbol of remembrance of the brutality and horror of war and conflict.”
Katie Ward, an American Studies postgraduate student told Concrete that: “as the granddaughter of a desert rat and the partner of a future officer in the British army, she was “disappointed and incredibly hurt that the union is even debating this topic.” She described the poppy as “a symbol of remembrance,” and stated that: “its development after the First World War indicates that it was not a symbol of imperialism.”
She continued: “debates like this turn it into a political statement that may be used by those who don’t agree with the government’s use of the armed forces to tarnish soldiers’ memories and completely misrepresent the true meaning of Poppy Day – to remember.”
“We thank our soldiers for protecting our values during the Second World War, especially their efforts in defeating fascism… which protects freedoms such as freedom of speech, allowing us to have this debate today.”
“To use this day to blame these people for the actions of government through politicisation is deeply offensive to myself and to many other service men and women and their families. It has deeply upset me that this is even an issue.”
White poppies are distributed by the Peace Pledge Union and “represent remembrance for all victims of a war, a commitment to peace, and a challenge to attempts to glamourise or celebrate war”, whereas the traditional red poppy honours the fallen and injured of British armed forces, money raised from the annual appeal provides “lifelong support for the Armed Forces community – serving men and women, veterans and their families”.