At what level does respect start? It was a question thrown at Jeremy Corbyn repeatedly last week; after laying his wreath at the Cenotaph, on Remembrance Sunday, many claimed that he did not bow deeply enough.
An ex-Tory Defence Minister Sir Gerald Howarth called him an embarrassment to the country, while The Sun’s front page ran with the headline “Nod in my name” and accused Corbyn of “refusing” to bow. The Telegraph featured two stances, one from Christopher Hope, Victoria Ward and Joe Shute criticising his “slight tip forward”, while ex-Telegraph editor Charles Moore said that “there was nothing wrong with his slight bow”.
I could dedicate this entire feature to forensic analysis of Corbyn’s arched upper body, comparing to past Leaders of the Opposition and consulting etiquette experts. I could measure whether one should do what they feel is right, versus whether one should do what they believe is right for the country. I could don my left-wing cape and point out the second remembrance service Corbyn went to in his constituency, after the one at the Cenotaph, or how he stopped to take photos with veterans Nonetheless, I am not going to do any of those things. Partly because better journalists than me already have, but mostly because there is a more important issue at hand: the politicisation of Remembrance.
Wars are political. I understand this is an obvious statement, but in the discourse of apolitical remembrance it must be mentioned. There has never been a conflict prefaced with, “Nothing personal, mate”. The language, location, and form of remembrance all has an inherent political stance to it. GCSE History lessons in Britain rarely focus on, for example, the literature of German soldiers.
However, there are many that believe that Remembrance Sunday should not be politicised; that the actions of newspapers taking a shot at Jeremy Corbyn over this subject does a disservice to the war dead. On the surface, it is rather crass to use Corbyn’s bow, however slight, to try and claim that the he does not respect the United Kingdom’s war dead.
His message on the poppy wreath – criticised for not focusing enough on the British war dead – read “In memory of the fallen in all wars. Let us resolve to create a world of peace”. The only way Corbyn could have made his pacifism more explicit, is if his note mentioned every country specifically. At this point, we might need to call for a bigger wreath.
Simon Danczuk’s claim that Corbyn distracted attention from Labour campaigns, through his lacklustre bow, is a particularly potent piece of propaganda – he somehow concludes that the leader of the Labour party should be able to control media reports on him. Owen Jones, referring to The Sun directly, called their front page: “political lobbying operation satirically calling itself the free press.” Jones has, of course, a right to be angry, but the focus is on the wrong villain.
While the media has responsibility, there are few members of the public that believe any source is objective, or that newspapers are without political bias. On some level, media is a business, and scandalous headlines are the easiest way to get readers and make money. In many ways, media politicisation is very transparent. In contrast, other sectors of society are far more deceptive.
The Royal British Legion is a UK charity that provides lifelong support for the Royal Navy, British Army, Royal Air Force, Reservists, veterans, and their families. They are also the charity most associated with the Poppy Appeal. Nonetheless, The Royal British Legion also has ties with arms dealers. In 2014, the the Legion’s annual ‘Poppy Rocks Ball’ was sponsored by Lockheed Martin UK, the subsidiary of the world’s largest arms supplier, Lockheed Martin.
The charity’s existence is built on keeping the families of soldiers safe, so it is troubling to learn of their association with the weapons that cost countless lives. BAE Systems, one of the world’s leading arms traders, not only funded sales of cutting-edge weapons to Saudi Arabia, Libya, and the Middle East in 200. It also provided the money for the Legion’s Remembrance Day events that year.
In this context, neither the angle of Corbyn’s bow, the size of the wreath, nor the colour of the poppy, could be read as an insult to the memory of the soldiers. These are men that were sent to their deaths in a pointless war, under the leadership of ignorant generals. Families that continue to be broken by the bullets of manufacturing companies, who appropriate the symbol of respect for their own commercial gain.
This kind of terrible disrespect is even visible at university. The day after Remembrance Sunday, the British Army had a large stand on campus, outside the Great Hall, recruiting students with flashy visuals and Oculus Rift parachute drops. Whether you are for or against the notion of the military, the four days between Remembrance Sunday and the 11th November should be a time when we are not encouraging people to fight, it should be a time of solemn remembrance of sacrifice.
The moment you change a discourse of remembrance into one of glorification, then in the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we won’t remember them.