Red, white, or none at all? The great poppy debate

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Channel 4 newsreader Jon Snow has refused to wear one while presenting Channel 4 News. Huw Edwards, the BBC newsreader, was handed one halfway through the Ten O'Clock News two weeks ago. And in the immediate lead-up to Remembrance Sunday, Britain's increasingly fractious poppy debate shows no sign of running out of steam.

Mr Snow took a stand via his blog against what he described as "poppy fascism" - the insistence that the absence of a poppy on his lapel represented an insult to the country's war dead. In doing so he rekindled a dispute that has reverberated through decades.

His stance was given a boost from an unlikely quarter when Jonathan Bartley, the head of the religious think-tank, Ekklesia, suggested it was "more Christian" to wear a white poppy rather than a red one. Writing in the Church Times, Mr Bartley, a former member of John Major's campaign team, went on to suggest that the red poppy had become a symbol of political correctness with public figures forced to wear one as an "article of faith".

Today, the schism over how best to remember those who died in Britain's wars and conflicts will be played out in the Castle Grounds of Abersytwyth.

Some 250 miles from the Cenotaph in Westminster, a small group of peace activists will lay Britain's only officially sanctioned wreath of white poppies. Despite having the backing of the town hall, the ceremony will take place a day before the Royal British Legion lays its red poppy wreath on Remembrance Sunday.

"Unfortunately, they are not being laid side by side," said Lotte Reine, a member of the Aberystwyth Peace and Justice Network, who will take part in the ceremony.

"We are trying to work on that for next year but there is a gap in comprehension about what white poppies mean.

"The media is quite strong here and it is still quite sensitive," she said.

The Royal British Legion insists it does not promote the view that not wearing the scarlet tribute to the fallen was somehow socially unacceptable. Stuart Gendall, its spokesman, insisted the strength of the red poppy was in its potency as an international recognised symbol. The flower was chosen as a symbol of remembrance in the aftermath of the First World War, during which the shells and shrapnel which fell on the trenches and craters of Flanders led to a mass of poppies covering the killing fields.

"There is no message of glorification. What you wear is a matter of choice, the Legion doesn't have a problem whether you wear a red one or a white one, both or none at all. It is up to you. We don't comment on matters spiritual, poppies are there for the benefit of the living."

Sales of red poppies look set to reach a record 37 million this year, fuelled in part by public sympathy for the troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Legion raised £75m last year to help present and former servicemen and women and their families.

The Peace Pledge Union (PPU), meanwhile, which began producing and distributing the white poppy in association with the Co-operative Women's Guild in 1934 after falling out with the Legion over the wording of the tribute, is hoping to sell a more modest 45,000 paper flowers this year. It will barely cover its costs.

But the PPU co-ordinator, Jan Melichar, says the peace poppy has had its most controversial year since the early 1980s.

Then, at the height of the Cold War, right-wing newspapers sought to rubbish the symbol as evidence of loony leftism.

"During the Thatcher years the tabloids went looking for the people that made them and made mincemeat out of them. It was really shocking. Many of them were elderly. But Margaret Thatcher was great for business, when she was in office sales soared," he recalls.

Remembrance was a highly politicised area 20 years ago. The Labour leader Michael Foot was criticised in the media for wearing a "donkey jacket" to the Cenotaph in 1982. He insisted he was wearing a "perfectly good jacket".

The PPU abandoned the laying of its white poppy wreath at the Cenotaph a few years later, saying the ceremony had become "too backward-looking".

Wearing the poppy

* Alex Arthurwarry, 62, from Dagenham, London, said: "I was born in wartime. When my mother was expecting me she was bombed out of her house and evacuated to the Duke of Bedford's estate, which is where I was born. My mother's cousin died in the Second World War - he was in the Navy and had even fought in the First World War. That is why I wear a poppy. It is to remember what people sacrificed their lives for."

* Pat Gorbutt, 70, from Lancashire, said: "My brother died in Korea so it is not just the two world wars we are remembering, it is all of them. I don't think it matters if Jon Snow (the Channel 4 presenter) doesn't wear a poppy when he is presenting the news. That is his right and his opinion and he is entitled to it - that is what people in the world wars died for."

* Anusia Kotowicz, 22, from London, said: "I have just finished university and not many people wore poppies there. At school you were given one and told to wear it but now it is very much a matter of my personal choice. I studied history and I think so much of what is happening now dates back to the First World War. People who say the red poppy glorifies war are wrong. We were always taught that the red colour symbolises the bloodshed and waste of life caused by war."

* Richard Butcher, 12, from South Yorkshire, said: "My granddad fought in the Second World War in Dunkirk. He survived but he died soon after I was born. I don't really remember him but I have seen pictures and been told all the stories. We wear poppies so we think about what everybody did in the war. I wouldn't want to be a soldier or go to war. You would have to be very brave. A lot of people at my school don't wear poppies but I like to."

* David Brown, 41, from Northern Ireland, said: "I was in the Ulster Defence Regiment for four years and the Royal Ulster Constabulary for 12 years before I was medically discharged. I was there in the aftermath of the Omagh bomb. Picking up toys and seeing the carnage really brings home what things like this are about. The poppy should be about all those conflicts and people who died in them."

* Cheryl Blackeet, 39, from Rotherham, South Yorkshire, said: "I've come down to London with my husband and brother-in-law for the Cenotaph service for the past couple of years. t is incredibly moving to see all the veterans marching, including my brother-in-law, who was in the Royal Signals. I think it is important that we never forget what people did. The poppy for me is about respecting and thanking people who fight in wars. It is about the dead but also about those who are still risking their lives."

Maxine Frith