Dr Helen McCartney, Reader, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London
Remembrance is a political act. In public discussions surrounding Extinction Rebellion’s recent cenotaph protest, it has been suggested by the Royal British Legion (among others) that Armistice Day is ‘not for political protest’. This view ignores the fact that remembrance is inherently political. It marks the death of service personnel in war; the ultimate political act. It is, therefore, no surprise that 11th November attracts debate surrounding the moral and political implications of the use of force.
While the current government may wish to express an official interpretation of what remembrance means, remembrance itself is a highly subjective activity that has multiple meanings for different individuals and groups. Governments may want to control the narratives surrounding remembrance, but the meaning and purposes of remembrance have been continually contested over the last century. Protest surrounding an act of remembrance is nothing new.
Take the example of the inter-war years in Britain. While the government at the time sought to promote an overarching narrative that the war had been for a righteous cause and that the country was united in grief, those participating in commemoration in the 1920s and 30s often believed they had a responsibility to the dead to create a better world in the wake of war. There was often no consensus over how this should be achieved. Debates in this period centred on those things people wanted to be valued and prioritised, from more comprehensive state support for the unemployed to a commitment to the preservation of international peace. Sometimes these debates were played out during Armistice Day. For example, two hundred unemployed men in Liverpool chose to protest their treatment during the silence on November 11th 1921. Newspapers reported that the silence was punctuated with shouts of ‘what we need is food not prayers’ and ‘anyone want a medal? In the 1930s, pacifist groups such as the Peace Pledge Union, distributed their literature on Armistice Day to those who had gathered to participate in the two minutes silence. To suggest that remembrance does not have a political dimension is to misrepresent the nature and history of the act.
To be fair, the Royal British Legion’s origins are socially conservative and the organisation originally served to divert the activities of ex-service personnel down less radical paths in the turbulent years following the First World War. There are also other critiques to be made of the timing of Extinction Rebellion’s protest and the ethics of breaching a lock-down during a pandemic. Yet the fundamental point that remembrance is not about politics is one that should be challenged. This view that remembrance is an apolitical act helps to underpin a contemporary narrative that dissociates armed forces personnel from the political ends they are required to serve by the government of the day. Promoting Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day as a sacred period where the British public venerates those who die in war, devoid of political context, does not acknowledge the complexities of war in the past or the security challenges of the future.