“We elected you, so represent us.” An open letter to Michael Chessum

A King’s student asks the ULU President to represent him on Remembrance Day.

 

Dear Mr Chessum,

Following your recent comments regarding ULU’s ban on its officers attending Remembrance Day services in an official capacity, I feel the need, as a member of both King’s College London and ULU, to express my concern about this serious situation.

Having read your statement and the various responses on Twitter you have made, I feel that the motion passed in the ULU Senate on October 24 is not only wrong, but wholly contradicts the principle of freedom of speech that you claim to advocate. One tweet reads:

“Slightly sad realisation of what it all boils down to: ‘people died for your right to free speech. SO DO AS I SAY OR ELSE.'”

However, in another tweet you say: “Just don’t speak for me or others who see differently.”

So fearful are you of having views imposed on you by an official ULU representative attending the service, you have forgotten that you yourself represent the views of over 120,000 individuals, the largest students’ union in Europe.

Regardless of whether any officers intended to go in an official capacity, the principle remains the same: in order for you to maintain your personal moral position, you have forgotten that others may feel differently. As others have also pointed out, the spirit of democracy was hardly overwhelming when Daniel Cooper made a decision of the same nature last year; yet despite the criticism this generated, the same decision has been made once more.

In some ways, I agree with what you have to say. Commemoration is a decidedly murky area in terms of what is being remembered, and has the potential to be exploited. We only need to look at David Cameron’s speech on October 11 at the Imperial War Museum, when he said that, next year, the 100 year anniversary of the start of the First World War would, “like the Diamond Jubilee celebrated this year, say something about who we are as people.” His comments were at best misguided, and at worst a gross misunderstanding of the remembrance service and the harrowing experiences of war.

However if you boil away the politics and commercialism, you are left with the  stark reality of the millions of deaths of those who fought, not only in the two World Wars, but also those of recent years. You’re left with a soldier who, regardless of their beliefs and justifications of the war, is prepared to lay down his or her life for their country. To me, that means these services do not celebrate slaughter, but remember the lives outside of war and the horror within it.

You’ve said that to participate in Remembrance Day with politicians like Tony Blair would be justifying their actions, but if representatives of the Armed Forces are willingly involved and see no glorification in war, then I see no reason why people who want to remember those lost should not participate.

I recognise you’ve seen something of a backlash, as well as support, following your statement, and this only goes to show what an emotive and controversial subject this is. For many, however, Remembrance Day offers a chance  to remember not only the losses of yesterday, but also the losses of today.

To fully ban any ULU officer from officially representing ULU at a remembrance service is denying thousands their right to show respect to the lost as part of the wider student community. Wilfred Owen wrote “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” as a criticism of war and the misguided celebration of it, and it is precisely for this reason that we should remember it in the same spirit of non-glorification, as one united community.

As a member of King’s College London I am pleased I will be represented by the KCLSU president at a Remembrance service. I hope that I can say the same as a member of ULU.

Regards,
Elliot Gathercole

6 Comments

  1. Daniel Golding

    4 November, 2013 at 12:53 am

    Firstly, the article presents an interesting argument.

    More importantly, I disagree. I believe an elected representative should only represent you where you cannot yourself be present.

    ULU meeting rooms might be too small for 120,000 students. Houses of parliament I’m sure are too small for 64 million people. We elect people in those situations because we need decisions to be made and our voices to be represented.

    You are not the person needing representation on remembrance day, the dead are, they are the ones who aren’t able to be present themselves. I’m sure there will be room at your local service for you to attend and remember, no one can remember on your behalf.

    • Elliot

      4 November, 2013 at 4:08 pm

      Thank you for your comments Daniel.

      With regards to an elected representative there to make decisions for the people who have elected him, I would generally agree. However, I believe this isn’t an ordinary case and requires a more democratic response than has been given. Take your example of the Houses of Parliament; they are there to make decisions on behalf of the people. This does not mean the people shouldn’t be consulted though, especially on controversial and emotive subjects. They aren’t simply going to make a decision as to whether Britain should remain in the EU, it is appearing increasingly likely the public will get a yes or no vote to the topic because of the nature. A similar referendum could’ve been taken with regards to Remembrance Day services online, particularly considering the reaction the same topic received last year.

      I understand I am not in need of remembrance, and I will be attending a local service where I can remember privately. However, as both KCLSU and ULU represent me and thousands of other students (as we have already discussed) I see no reason why out of respect we shouldn’t extend Remembrance from individuals to communities as well. Mayors of Towns lay wreathes, representatives of the Armed Forces lay Wreaths, why not representatives of the students?

      • Daniel Golding

        5 November, 2013 at 10:04 pm

        Nice work, a good counterargument. I don’t take my following points, or previous ones for that matter, seriously. I’ll see what I can squeeze beside this bully of a left margin.

        I suppose the logical conclusion of my previous argument would be that mayors and Armed Forces reps should not lay wreaths. Yes, if one group is allowed, why deny others? What is the prerequisite for a group to be allowed to partake in wreath laying via a representative? Must a member of said group have been lost in armed conflict? I’ll continue my obsession with the finiteness of spacial and time dimensions; the number of groups that should be given wreath laying opportunities would surely outnumber the number of swooping camera shots the BBC could fit into their coverage of Remembrance Day commemorations. The spectacle of group reps laying wreaths would draw attention away from the focus of the service – those being remembered – people would forget what they were supposed to be remembering.

        Is the real crime of the “ban” not the irony that it should pull the face of ULU out of the spotlight but has instead pushed it into it? It has become far more politicised where opponents would be better served if it had been ignored. Would you not say that your article has helped in this respect.

        • Elliot

          6 November, 2013 at 9:56 pm

          I did wonder if that might be the case, but thought it was best to assume you were being serious!

          As I said, Remembrance can be a murky topic and sometimes the media coverage can be counter-productive because it takes away from what we should be remembering. It clearly is a cultural precedent which leads communities to laying wreaths, or having representatives laying them on behalf of communities, but I think that this is because of communities. When soldiers went off to war, and still do go off to war, it is in their communities that they are greatly missed and therefore these are the places that choose to remember. There is no qualification of ‘knowing someone to remember’- simply living in the freedom that Britain offers should be enough- and I personally think that as a 19 year old I’d like to remember those who at my age were sent off to war, something I couldn’t begin to comprehend. This is why communities lay wreaths, I feel.

          In terms of my article amongst others bringing media coverage to ULU and further deflecting away from Remembrance, I would agree in principle. However, I think it would be more wrong to let these comments go unchallenged and let people believe that they are representative of current students. Many are entirely respectful of Remembrance and it would be sad to see them all tarred with the same brush. I’d also argue this hasn’t been fantastic press for ULU and Chessum, and therefore I don’t think my article has helped them in a positive way.

  2. Anon

    8 November, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    I’m afraid you neglect the views of veterans who don’t want a politicized Remembrance for those very reason that Chessum has put forward: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/08/poppy-last-time-remembrance-harry-leslie-smith Just because your point of view isn’t being reflected, doesn’t mean you should attack those who do have a better understanding.

  3. Abby Markowitz

    17 April, 2015 at 4:35 am

    Michael Chessum and Daniel Cooper faced charges of ableism in court. Fantastic liberation politics! http://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/student-takes-university-chiefs-to-tribunal-over-discrimination-9187589.html

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