red faction

November brings cold nights, dark skies and the perennial tabloid topic; “How shall we fill 500 words on Remembrance Sunday?”. For as long as I can recall, there is never a bad time to start complaining about wearing a Poppy too soon, in the wrong lapel, or if wearing one at all is distasteful. Recently, Facebook and in the Internet generally has fostered a form of nationalistic hubris which mixes the remembrance of our fallen war dead with twisted nationalism and barely hidden racism. “You’ll never see Muslims wearing a Poppy!” screams the copy-and-paste status updates.

For every group where users speak in general terms – such as “Poppy’s {sic} show our gratitude to our boys injured and killed for our freedom and should be promoted by companies not banned” – it does not take long to find prejudice of a very unsettling kind. One status update in a Poundland group, hastily set up in the heat of the “Poundland ban the poppy” controversy, reads “Disgusting! I’m not racist in any way but if Great Brittain’s {sic} traditions and morals offend you ”Vistiors” then PISS OFF and don’t come back!!!”.  Some mouse clicks further and I find “The shop manager in question was probably some Muslim extremist let into the UK after claim political asylum from Pakistan or somewhere equally horrific.”

As a symbol of war and remembrance, the poppy has always been easily hijacked, adopted by those who push a very different message than that of peace and understanding. Its colour is vivid and unromantic, the blood of the fallen, the setting of many suns on the bodies of men and women who will never see loved ones again. It’s the colour of sacrifice and of England. Associations which would always attract disquiet and those who would like to cause disquiet. In an age where nationalism beats close to the surface of the news agenda, particularly the extremist English nationalism with its football hooligan connections, the poppy sits with the cross of St George and lions in Trafalgar Square as adopted symbols of a mindset completely at odds with the peace and understanding the end of armed conflict is supposed to promote. Yes, the burning of poppies by Muslim extremists is an incendiary act, but the anti-everything English nationalists who would rather smash up a town centre than engage in debate are extremists too. Ignorance and prejudice anger me more than the absence of a poppy on a suit-jacket.

The politics of the poppy has been tackled by two very different blog posts in recent days. Laurie Penny wrote last year an article in New Statesman which was reproduced at the start of this week in which she decries the “hypocrisy and showbiz” of poppy day. In an otherwise considered article – and there’s not often when Penny can be described like that – she spoils everything with a jarring paragraph on politicians “cheerfully author[ising]” cuts to jobs and education “in order to defend Britain’s military spending.”  Her attempt to tie the sacrifice of the fallen to “the sacrifice…of working class people” in a political diatribe is unfortunate and misplaces her anger.  Blogger “Stackee” brings Penny to task – objecting to the way Penny has chosen to use working-class people as a way to score crass political points.

In the middle of all this  are valid points teetering on the edge of hubris. The sight of Tony Blair at the Cenotaph every year did stick in the throat, his reasons for war so tenuous and weak, the justification for invading Iraq nothing less than a false prospectus. In the two minutes of silence on 11 November, how many prayers and thoughts can realistically balance the perfunctory orders which sent men and women to fight? 

Wearing a poppy is not a right. It is neither a symbol of piety. Armistice Day is not primarily a date to mourn the deaths of men who fought under our flag. Laurie Penny is right to feel awkward at the sight of politicians wearing poppies though her substantive point is way off the mark. 

Would any of this be resolved if the White Poppy was more readily available? It would certainly get the nationalists talking…