For as far back as I can remember I have always bought a poppy and worn it, as the phrase goes, with pride.
This year I won’t be doing that. I feel embarrassed about it. I fear that the poppy has been appropriated by the sorts of people who have no right to do so. By that I mean the extremists, and yes, the Brextremists. Plus the neo-fascists and the fascists, the far right, and, to use a phrase that I realise some find offensive or hackneyed, the gammon tendency.
I do not want people thinking I’m some sort of racist because I have this symbol on me, which I am afraid may now be the trend. There was some guy on the Daily Mail website comments section (always a terrifying mirror into parts of our society) who wrote this: “Brexit is our World War I. I just hope that our actions and fight for freedom is remembered as solemnly as our grandfathers in a hundred years’ time. Never forget”.
Maybe some future British king, queen or president will be laying a wreath at the grave of the Unknown Brexiteer, who had to go without brie for a week when the ports closed, but I doubt it.
The far right has spoiled it, and is quietly, slowly but surely turning the poppy from a nationally unifying gesture to yet another field of combat for its culture wars.
It’s made the poor little poppy a more sectarian, politicised, polarising thing, where once it was a small and simple act of routine charity, which most of us never gave much of a thought to. Those days there were still a fair few veterans of the Great War knocking around.
Today there is almost a competition among some to see who can have the biggest poppy, the most extensive coverage of the commemorations, who can be the most ostentatiously patriotic, who can get a poppy on the lapel first, have the biggest full colour supplements. It’s a world where you’re attacked on social media if you happen to appear in public or on television without wearing one. You could have served in Korea or Cyprus or Aden, been on the beach at Anzio, lost a limb in Northern Ireland, bombed Dresden, suffered burns in the Falklands or suffered PTSD after Iraq and Afghanistan – but if you’ve not got your poppy on by mid-October then to some golf-club Brexit bore you’re basically a Quisling; that’s how bad it is.
They are pushing some of us away from the poppy – and harming the British Legion’s invaluable work by reducing its funding. It is a deeply distasteful trend and I want no part of it.
I still give money to the Royal British Legion poppy appeal. It’s an excellent cause. I still want to remember relatives who served or were lost in the world wars. It’s all very distant now, but the least we can do is to support the British Legion, because it provides solace for those physically and mentally harmed by their service, voluntary or conscripted. Its work is not political or limited by someone’s gender, race or sexual orientation. It’s not bothered about whether the alcoholic homeless ex-squaddie who lost his way has this or that opinion on whatever. It looks after Muslim ex-service people too.
That’s one irony. And an awful irony, of course: we fought a couple of world wars and a score of other conflicts in the 20th century to protect human rights, free speech and freedom of expression. Now I find my own ability to express some solidarity with those who made such sacrifices is being compromised by the association of the poppy, of Remembrance Day and of patriotism generally with the most unpleasant strands of opinion.
I don’t mind people wearing the poppy or the red poppy, or not wearing it, or demonstrating against war, if they like. That’s what freedom is all about.
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