I won’t be wearing an Armistice Day poppy this year (I’m hoping this public announcement won’t lead to torrents of vile abuse). From both the left and right, the poppy has become a political minefield through which no sane person could possibly navigate unscathed; wear a red one and you’re glorifying war, a white one and you’re politicising the issue. I have reached a point of no return; if I see a poppy seller I will gladly put change in the jar for the Royal British Legion, an extremely worthy cause. But I won’t be wearing a poppy – it means too many things to too many different people, and there’s no way of knowing who will perceive it which way.
Poppy fascism has reached new extremes in recent years, fuelled by a wave of nationalism from neo-Nazi hate groups like the disgusting Britain First, to the point where refusing (or forgetting) to wear one fires the starting gun on a screaming witch hunt. Every year the villagers on Twitter grab their pitchforks to chase down anyone who dare stray from the poppy consensus. But the weird status of the poppy as an enforced social convention rather than a personal choice to display respect on your own terms goes beyond the extreme fringes of society into the mainstream. One ridiculous example of this are contradictory rules banning BBC presenters from wearing AIDs ribbons because they promote a charitable cause but disciplining them if they don’t have a poppy pinned faithfully to their chest at the beginning of November.
The tragedy of the poppy is that they now frequently embody everything that Armistice Day shouldn’t be; a token gesture, throwing a few coins into a collecting tin and feeling like you’ve really done something to help the world, while continuing on with your life. For people who have lost someone in the line of duty, it is not about a flower pinned to a lapel but about the tragic loss of human life. The white poppy, an attempt to revive a debate about the morality of our foreign wars, has become a piñata of those claiming it is an attempt to politicise Armistice Day. But we must resist all efforts to make Remembrance Sunday a futile glance backwards, instead of ensuring many more do not die in the same tragic circumstances as those who have previously fallen. It would be a disservice for those dead from war to do anything different.
The furore surrounding the centenary of World War One perfectly embodies this problem. Thousands made the trip to London to visit the World War One poppy memorial, a visually striking wave of poppies surrounding the Tower of London moat, each ceramic flower representing a fallen soldier of Britain and those fighting from the colonies. This outpouring of public commemoration could not have stood in bigger contrast to the public’s dismal understanding of the actual facts of the First World War. One survey revealed that just 13% of respondents correctly identified the reason Britain declared war, less than the 19% who incorrectly guessed a German invasion of Poland. One in three members of the British public couldn’t name the year in which the war started and less than half were aware that the war extended outside Europe at all. For a nation so clearly obsessed with Remembrance Day, these figures are a national embarrassment.
With public awareness of these basic facts so limited, it is easy to see how jingoistic attempts to revise the facts of the First World War under a strange patriotic narrative could easily infect the public consciousness. These attempts go beyond the racist Facebook rantings of moronic Britain First fascists. Flag-bearer for nonsensical patriotism, much-hated education secretary Michael Gove took to the pages of the Daily Mail to criticise “left-wing academics” who portray the First World War as “a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite”. The First World War was “plainly a just war”, according to Gove, a fight “defending the western liberal order”, “marked by nobility and courage”. All this, of course, attempts to make patriotic black and white what is clearly a very murky shade of grey. Our questionable democracy, in which only rich men could vote, was hardly a flag-bearer for fairness and equality; nor was our allegiance with the despot Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. To dismiss criticism of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in human history, where a million people died, as simply “a precursor of allied victory” is a vile statement that does about as little for ‘Remembrance’ as anyone could possibly muster. To use Armistice Day to score snide political points about “leftwing academics” and drum up patriotic support for your new school curriculum is a pathetic denigration of the spirit of Remembrance Sunday. Cynical attempts (regardless of a charitable connection) to commandeer the slaughter of millions to flog overpriced groceries should be met with equal contempt.
Those who dismiss the white poppy are right to be concerned that the focus of Armistice Day might be shifted from remembering those who died, but those wearing the white poppy are at least trying to shed some light on the nature of conflict, our involvement with it, and its position in our national psyche. We should be concerned at the disastrous lack of knowledge shown by a nation so hell-bent on vilifying anyone who doesn’t pin a red flower to their lapel for the very cause they often fail to understand. Remembrance is about more than wearing a poppy, it’s about remembering the past so as not to repeat the same mistakes in the future. Britain must consider whether a token gesture fast becoming a symbol of mindless nationalism is half as important as remembering those who lost their lives, and understanding the conflicts that were, and still are, fought in our name.