Why the Young Fabians are laying a wreath at the Cenotaph

Without the sacrifice of a generation we would never have vanquished the evils of Nazism, and Attlee’s lasting achievements could never have come about.

James Hallwood is secretary of the Young Fabians and is writing on behalf of the Executive

In July the Young Fabian Executive unanimously voted in support of my resolution to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday.

The Young Fabians are not wading into a debate on whether public officials should take part in official Remembrance Sunday commemorations – as a pluralistic organisation we are conscious that there are a range of views and traditions within the Labour movement and the Young Fabians itself.

With that in mind it’s important not to be prescriptive on how we remember – what works for most of us might not work for some. But just as I wouldn’t force everyone to see the poppy, the Cenotaph and Remembrance Sunday as the ultimate memorials to the fallen, so too must I defend the right of the majority of the British population who do.

Amidst the pomp of a state mourning the dead it is truly humbling to see the faces of Second World War veterans marching down Whitehall to pay their respects to their fallen comrades. For me it has always been an indicator of why the Cenotaph and the official commemorations are the appropriate way to remember – the men and women who fought overwhelmingly chose, and continue to choose, them to be so.

The final few veterans of the Great War chose to take part in the memorial until that generation passed on; now too the veterans of Britain’s fight against Hitler continue to hold Remembrance Sunday with high honour – veterans from wars since continue that tradition. In taking part in the official ceremony the Young Fabian Executive stands in solidarity with those who fought in these conflicts as they remember lost friends and their experiences of war.

The British Labour movement stands on the shoulders of our veterans. Without the sacrifice of a generation we would never have vanquished the evils of Nazism, and without them Attlee’s lasting achievements could never have come about. The NHS, the welfare state – Labour fights for them every day but without the fight against Hitler the spirit of ’45 would have remained an unrealised dream.

I have written before that standing with our forces does not mean supporting every detail of British foreign policy. I will use the centenary of the First World War to mourn a tragedy, not to celebrate.

More recently, I opposed the war in Iraq – but that does not mean I don’t have the utmost respect for our troops and veterans. Just as I disagree with the coalition’s NHS ‘reforms’, I stand with our doctors and nurses; and I have the same attitude with the armed forces.

On Sunday I will remember the men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice: the majority of them within the age-range of the Young Fabians, many of them sharing our socialist ideals. However you choose to do so, I hope you will remember too. As a country and as a movement we owe our continued existence to the heroes who have gone before us.

Ahead of laying our wreath the Young Fabians are discussing Remembrance Across the Generations this evening with shadow defence minister Gemma Doyle; veteran and author, James Wharton; and Matthew Rhodes from British Future. We will be discussing a range of topics around this subject so please come along – a diversity of views is expected and encouraged.

2 Responses to “Why the Young Fabians are laying a wreath at the Cenotaph”

  1. Dr John S. Partington

    “The NHS, the welfare state – Labour fights for them every day but without the fight against Hitler the spirit of ’45 would have remained an unrealised dream.” – This is a very ignorant, and indeed dangerous analysis of history. The fight against fascism was the only just fight Britain engaged in during the past two centuries – that’s true enough – but to suppose that the reforms realised by the Atlee government would not have come about otherwise is ridiculous. Up to the 1930s the Labour and Communist parties were merely gearing up for reform battles on the national stage – 1945’s reform occurred because this was Labour’s first opportunity to deliver them. The reforms were as much a reaction to the economic depression of the 1930s as they were of the Second World War – and after the shocking treatment of the masses during the interwar period, change was in the air! It was not realised earlier – because we went 10 years without a general election after 1935. Not that anything the reforming government was inevitable on these terms either – but war cannot be figured as the catalyst. The culture shock of a generation in two world wars and a severe economic recession, and the better organisation of the parties of the left all played a part and we don’t know if the reforms would have happened or not without the Second World War and historians are foolish when they enter into guessing games of such a nature. What is important today is the knowledge that – despite the Great Depression and six years of war in Europe and Asia – Britain could afford the welfare reforms and nationalisation programme which Atlee achieved. This is the crucial legacy which the next Labour government must remember when repairing the damage done by the current Coalition Government.
    Regarding commemorating the dead warriors of past conflicts, the Second World War was the only just war of the past century. Besides that noble struggle, Britain also engaged in many unjust wars, from the mass slaughter of the imperialist Great War to the illegal Iraq War and the ‘last hurrah’ of empire in the Falklands. It would be no shame commemorating the dead of these conflicts if we could argue that they were duped into battle and realised that the causes for which they fought were unjust, illegal or just plain stupid – but most old soldiers do not take this attitude. Most, while morning the loss of their comrades, are proud of their service and unquestioning about when they fought. For this reason, the commemoration of past battles, and the victims thereof, on purely national lines is wrong. Reconciliation events and pledges (with teeth) to take steps to prevent conflict and heal areas like Iraq and Afghanistan where British forces have contributed to destabilisation and suffering would be the right move – and also remembering the resisters and campaigners against war is a worthwhile exercise. Romantic interpretations of the past are not becoming of a socialist – principles remain principles, even while the non-socialist majority beat the national drum and shed tears for victims of what they believe were just wars. We should be proud of our traditions of opposition and resistance to war – and project those traditions appropriately while the rest of the country wears poppies and bows down to the concrete idol of the cenotaph.

  2. Sparky

    “The non-socialist majority.” Says it all really.

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