How the poppy became a symbol of racism

The Entente Cordiale which sent my father to France is now trash beneath the high heels of Theresa May, yet this wretched woman dares to wear a poppy

Robert Fisk
Thursday 11 November 2021 12:18 GMT
Sea of ceramic poppies unveiled at museum ahead of Remembrance Day

This piece was originally published in November 2016. Robert Fisk was The Independent’s multi-award-winning Middle East correspondent. He lived in the Arab world for more than 40 years, covering the war in Syria and Lebanon, five Israeli invasions, the Iran-Iraq war, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Algerian civil war, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, the Bosnian and Kosovo wars, the American invasion and occupation of Iraq and the 2011 Arab revolutions. He passed away in October 2020, aged 74.

Yes, the boys and girls of the BBC and ITV, and all our lively media and sports personalities and politicians, are at it again. They’re flaunting their silly poppies once more to show their super-correctness in the face of history, as ignorant or forgetful as ever that their tired fashion accessory was inspired by a poem which urged the soldiers of the Great War of 1914-18 to go on killing and slaughtering.

But that’s no longer quite the point, for I fear there are now darker reasons why these TV chumps and their MP interviewees sport their red compassion badges on their clothes.

For who are they commemorating? The dead of Sarajevo? Of Srebrenica? Of Aleppo? Nope. The television bumpkins only shed their crocodile tears for the dead of First and Second World Wars, who were (save for a colonial war or two) the last generation of Britons to get the chop before the new age of “we-bomb-you-die” technology ensured that their chaps – brown-eyed, for the most part, often Muslims, usually dark skinned – got blown to bits while our chaps flew safely home to the mess for breakfast.

Yes, I rage against the poppy disgrace every year. And yes, my father – 12th Battalion The King’s Liverpool Regiment, Third Battle of the Somme, the liberation of burning Cambrai 1918 – finally abandoned the poppy charade when he learned of the hypocrisy and lies behind the war in which he fought. His schoolboy son followed his father’s example and never wore his wretched Flanders flower again.

Oddly, the dunderheads who are taking Britain out of the European Union on a carpet of equally deceitful lies – and I include Theresa May and her buffoonery of ministers – are guilty of even greater hypocrisy than the TV presenters whose poppies, for just a few days a year, take over the function of studio make-up artists (poppies distracting viewers from the slabs of paste on their TV faces). For the fields of Flanders, the real mud and faeces and blood which those vile poppies are supposed to symbolise, showed just how European our dead generations were.

British soldiers went off to fight and die in their tens of thousands for little Catholic Belgium, today the seat of the EU where Nigel Farage disgraced his country by telling the grandchildren of those we went to fight for that they’d never done a day’s work in their lives. In France, British (and, of course, Irish) soldiers bled to death in even greater Golgothas – 20,000 alone on the first day of the Somme in 1916 – to save the nation which we are now throwing out of our shiny new insular lives.

The Entente Cordiale which sent my father to France is now trash beneath the high heels of Theresa May – yet this wretched woman dares to wear a poppy.

When Poles fought and died alongside British pilots in the 1940 Battle of Britain to save us from Nazi Germany, we idolised them, lionised them, wrote about their exploits in the RAF, filmed them, fell in love with them. For them, too, we pretend to wear the poppy. But now the poppy wearers want to throw the children of those brave men out of Britain. Shame is the only word I can find to describe our betrayal.

And perhaps I sniff something equally pernicious among the studio boys and girls. On Britain’s international television channels, Christmas was long ago banned (save for news stories on the Pope). There are no Christmas trees any more beside the presenters’ desks, not a sprig of holly. For we live in a multicultural society, in which such manifestations might be offensive to other “cultures” (I use that word advisedly, for culture to me means Beethoven and the poet Hafiz and Monet).

And for the same reason, our international screens never show the slightest clue of Eid festivities (save again for news stories) lest this, too, offends another “culture”. Yet the poppy just manages to sneak onto the screen of BBC World; it is permissable, you see, the very last symbol that “our” dead remain more precious than the millions of human beings we have killed, in the Middle East for example, for whom we wear no token of remembrance. Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara will be wearing his poppy this week – but not for those he liquidated in his grotesque invasion of Iraq.

And in this sense, I fear that the wearing of the poppy has become a symbol of racism. In his old-fashioned way (and he read a lot about post-imperial history) I think my father, who was 93 when he died, understood this.

His example was one of great courage. He fought for his country and then, unafraid, he threw his poppy away. Television celebrities do not have to fight for their country – yet they do not even have the guts to break this fake conformity and toss their sordid poppies in the office wastepaper bin.

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