“Poppies shouldn’t be politicised”

UEA is wonderful in so many ways. We welcome people regardless of race, gender, sexuality, and other social identities. We have a campus that’s generally safe and happy. We have iconic architecture, and a plethora of bunnies roam freely around.

I love UEA. I also love the SU. They’re often a great source for provocative headlines. In 2016 they even hit national headlines when the SU claimed that some see the red poppy as a ‘symbol of oppression’, and started selling white poppies alongside red poppies for Remembrance Day. There are serious arguments on both sides about this. As ever with the UEA SU, some decisions are laughable and others are sane. But that’s what makes UEA such an interesting place. Something must be right for student experience to remain high in the rankings. But while many fall into the debate between red and white, something very sad is happening at this university.

At UEA, few people wear poppies in the run up to Remembrance Day, which is on 11 November. Last year I spotted only two boxes of poppies on campus, both in the SU shop. One was red and one was white. This year I’ve found three, all red, again in the SU shop. That’s for around 15,000 students and 3,000 staff. Only three boxes of poppies.

The institution of UEA, as opposed to the SU, isn’t much better. UEA doesn’t recognise Remembrance Day on its Equality and Diversity Calendar. They’ve pencilled in Human Rights Day and World Day of Social Justice, but have left out Remembrance Day.

It’s not only those at UEA who risk entangling the poppy in politics. Our nearby (and arguably fancier) neighbours at Cambridge have a similar problem. Their SU voted down a proposal from Cambridge University Conservative Association (CUCA) to commemorate British war veterans. One Cambridge student, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of a similar backlash, said in his view CUCA ‘want to be fighting a culture war’. The fallout was vicious, with harassment and even death threats.  It’s sickening to think the poppy could become collateral damage in a culture war.

Poppies shouldn’t be politicised. Poppies aren’t a glorification of war but a symbol of the cost of war on all sides. After all, most of those we are remembering were our age. People wear it to commemorate people of all nationalities who fought. They wear it so together we can remember the atrocities of war. Wearing a poppy doesn’t mean you’re condoning the actions of the past. It’s about remembering the people who gave and give their lives so we can grow up in a democratic country.

This year is the centenary of Armistice Day. People across Britain will light bonfires and beacons in remembrance. The money the British Legion raises will go to helping veterans. Many people will wear a poppy, but not at UEA. I reckon more people would, but at UEA we’re simply not given the chance.

Universities and Student Unions may row over how wearing the poppy might offend obscure sects of students. But people come to university to learn and broaden their minds. Even if you don’t agree with someone, you should have the courage in your own beliefs to listen to their opinion. If you can’t stomach it maybe you’re in the wrong place. UEA can be wonderful. But common sense needs to prevail. The university needs to encourage the wearing of poppies and support the commemoration of those who sacrificed their lives for the good of others. The SU have the right to oppose the university’s views. But UEA should be above this debate. Have some common sense. Have some respect. Wear the poppy, and remember them.

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Chris Matthews

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June 2022
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