Oxford Union Remembrance Debate

On Thursday 5th November Dan took part in a debate on remembrance at the Oxford Union.

The debate was on the motion 'This House would not wear the Red Poppy.' Below is Dan's speech against the motion, closing the case for the Opposition. The motion was defeated by 241 votes to 93.

Mr President, Honourable members, Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for that welcome – it is a privilege to address your Union.

It is an opportunity I have not had before –

But how could I resist the chance to follow in the footsteps of the greatest minds who have addressed your society:

Albert Einstein,
Mother Theresa,
The Dalai Lama,
and Kermit the Frog…

This has been an excellent debate in which we have reflected upon what the poppy means to each of us.

For me, it’s a reminder of where I was on the 11th November 2007 – because I was surrounded by poppies.

I was on patrol with my unit in the opium fields of Helmand province in Afghanistan.

I remember how quiet it was when we paused at 11 o’clock, to think of our fallen comrades.

So tonight’s debate takes us far beyond the poppy fields of Flanders.

But let me start by making something clear: I don’t come here tonight questioning anyone’s right not to wear a poppy.

Because the battle that Harry’s generation fought 70 years ago was precisely to defend those eternal values that we cherish – the right to speak our minds and make our own choices, free from fear or persecution.

So wear a poppy, don’t wear a poppy, that is your right.

But if you are asking me tonight, if I think you should wear the red poppy, then my respectful answer is yes.

Not in celebration, but in the spirit of commemoration, and for reasons of respect, remembrance, and hope for the future.

Let me say something about each of those things.

First, respect - for our veterans and their families.

We live in a fast-moving world that is full of distractions.

So there are few things more moving than when our country falls silent.

That’s why every autumn we come together to remember the people who have laid down their lives for us, the veterans whose lives have been changed by conflict, and the families whose loved ones did not come home.

When we buy a poppy and put our coins in the collection tin, that is not only about the vital support delivered by the Royal British Legion, it is a signal to those veterans and their families that that we are thinking of them.

That we feel what they are going through. And that we stand with them, in the spirit of respect, decency and solidarity.

That is what brought the Poppy Appeal into being in the last century and we must not forget it in this one.

Second, remembrance.

Because the red poppy is a timeless symbol that ensures we never forget our shared history.

We are gathered in a Chamber that has stood through two world wars and countless conflicts that have shaped generation after generation.

None more so than the First World War: the war that gave birth to the concept of remembrance as we know it today.

In 1914 there were 16,000 towns and villages across Britain, of which only 40 would reach 1918 without having lost someone in the conflict.

So every community has its own story to tell – including my own.

Every week I walk into my constituency office through a square dedicated to the Barnsley Pals battalions.

These were the men who responded to Lord Kitchener’s famous recruitment poster in 1914.

Men who joined up together, trained together, went to war together, and ultimately many of them died together.

Last year I travelled to northern France, where the Barnsley Pals fought at the Battle of the Somme.

I walked over the ground which they had fought – the open countryside that inspired the Canadian medic John McCrae to write of:

‘Flanders fields where the poppies blow,
‘between the crosses, row on row…’
‘That mark our place; and in the sky
‘The larks, still bravely singing, fly…’

To stand over the graves of the Barnsley Pals was an incredibly sobering experience.

It felt like they were a long way from home.

Some believe they died in a battle that – though appalling – was necessary and needed to be fought.

Others argue their sacrifice was futile, in a war that achieved nothing, and that could and should have been avoided.

Many other conflicts that have claimed the lives of our servicemen and women have sparked similar differences of opinion.

But whatever your opinion about any one of them, my argument is the same.

No matter what we think of the political decisions that have sent our soldiers into conflict, we have a duty to support our Armed Forces and bear witness to their sacrifice.

Because the moment when the poppy becomes a symbol for one set of ideas over another, is the moment it loses its power.

We wear it because it rises far above the disagreements that divide us – and because it unites us, in gratitude to those who have put themselves in harm’s way in service to our country.

My past was shaped by my service in the British Army.

Now I serve in the House of Commons,

I have been there when it has considered matters of war and peace.

And I can tell you – that however history judges those decisions, they are better taken when our decision-makers are made to feel the weight of history, and remember the cost of peace and consequences of war.

And the poppy is an important part of that.

Which brings me to my third point – which is why I think the poppy is also about hope for the future.

We’ve heard a lot tonight about what the poppy stands for.

To those who say that the poppy only stands for bloodshed, division and the glorification of war, let me offer you this reflection.

It’s a story from Northern Ireland – where I served 15 years ago.

I saw the tensions that divided communities – some of which linger today.

For many, the red poppy was seen as a symbol of Britishness.

But in 1997, an Irish nationalist named Alban Maginness became the Lord Mayor of Belfast.

Alban went to his city’s service for those who fell on the front line and laid a wreath at the memorial.

And he did so wearing a red poppy.

He was not wearing a symbol of his tradition – but he felt he could extend the hand of friendship to the unionist people of Belfast by wearing a symbol of their tradition.

It was a powerful moment of unity in Northern Ireland’s divided politics.

And it shows why we shouldn’t ignore the role that the poppy has played in making peace.

If an Irish nationalist can wear a red poppy, as an act of reconciliation and respect for a different tradition, then perhaps we can see how the poppy holds the potential to bring us closer together.

That is how we will build a more just and peaceful future.

So let me conclude with this thought.

It’s the story of a young man named Henry Moseley.

Henry was a gifted physicist who studied at this university over a century ago.

He contributed to some of the most significant scientific breakthroughs of his time.

But when war broke out, Moseley enlisted with the Royal Engineers.

And 100 years ago this year, he was killed on the beaches of Gallipoli.

Some have said that he could well have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.

It makes me wonder how many more people we have lost like Henry who have never had the chance to fulfil their potential.

So tonight on the 5th of November, –
let us remember those who came before us like Henry.

And let us wear the poppy in remembrance of them.

In respect for the fallen, in solidarity with their loved ones, in support for those who serve us still, and in an enduring hope for a more just and peaceful future.

That is the case we on the side of the Opposition present to you tonight – and I very much hope you will support us.

Thank you very much.

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