The Poppy

Comment | The Poppy

In the past it seemed to be such a simple idea to me, and I think it started out as just that. You bought a poppy to remember those who had died in a war and the money went to help those who were still affected by their involvement in military service, although the focus was very much on the former.

For many it was never as simple as that hence the emergence of the white poppy, in 1933, by the Co-operative Women’s Guild as a way of remembering those who died while also signifying an abhorrence by the wearer to war and the politics that surrounded it. The white poppy has always been controversial but there is a clear statement about it on the Royal British Legion’s website that ‘We have no objection to white poppies, or any group expressing their views. We see no conflict in wearing the red poppy alongside the white poppy’. This could not be clearer from the organisation that adopted the poppy as its symbol in 1921.

For many wearing a poppy is still a simple act of remembrance to honour those friends, families, colleagues and fellow service people who have lost their lives; and a common phrase is that those who ‘fell’ did so to enable the rest of use to be ‘free’.

Yet it seems that for each year that goes by there seems to be an increasing pressure for people to wear red poppies. The right wing media seems to delight in naming and shaming celebrities and others in the public eye if they do not wear one, and reigns down vilification on those who wear a white poppy (there are also purple poppies to remember those animals who died in wars, and in military-related experimentation; and black poppies to commemorate conscientious objectors). Indeed, there has already been an enormous amount of speculation, no pressure, sent in the direction of Jeremy Corbyn about whether he will wear a white poppy at the Cenotaph Service of Remembrance, although he has been wearing a red poppy. Add to this the picture of David Cameron that has had a poppy photo-shopped on it and you get a sense of how far we are getting from the original meaning of the poppy and why we wear it.

The case and reasons for whether or not we wear a poppy are now well rehearsed, but they have taken on an added significance this year with Opposition whose leadership has a strong pacifist agenda. This highlights more than ever how much the poppy has become a political tool that people of all political persuasions choose to use. Yet it is those who choose to stir up righteous indignation in favour of the red poppy who are showing it, and those whom we remember through wearing that symbol, the greatest degree of contempt; equating it as they do with a narrow definition of patriotism.

I do not think it is remotely patriotic to be told what I should and should not wear, nor be told how I should or should not remember people who have gone, and continue to go, through an enormous amount of suffering as the result of war. Indeed, lest we forget, we are a country that is probably unique in the world in that it has been almost constantly involved in military conflict for over a century  and continue to be so with military interventions against ISIL.

I find it offensive how many individuals and organisations put pressure on people to wear red poppies for covert reasons, which take this symbol far away from its original meaning. Furthermore, I consider it to be a sign that we are becoming less free in the way we are allowed to think, particularly if that contradicts those in politics and the media who claim themselves to be upholders of freedom and justice, who use the memorial of the ‘fallen’ in such a manipulative manner.

I have not yet decided whether to wear a red poppy this year or not. If I did it would be for the simple and honest remembrance of all people who have suffered, and continue to suffer, as the result of war: for those who died on the fields of Flanders and Helmand; on the beaches of Normandy, Kos and Crete; and for those who have suffered at the hands of brutal regimes, both ‘opponents’ and ‘allies’. For me it is not the right of anyone to appropriate the poppy for anything further than their own personal act of remembrance.

At a recent demonstration I attended in support of our welcoming refugees to Britain a common ‘heckle’ from passers by was ‘what about our heroes?’. For me there is no reason why we cannot remember those who have died fighting for a free and open society and welcome the victims of current conflicts. For me that act of openness and welcoming is proof beyond doubt that those who died fighting for those ideals have succeeded.

I know that not everyone will agree with me on this… and that is fine, too.