It’s that time of year again. Since the first Poppy appeal in the 1920’s, the changing of the seasons in the UK has been marked as much by flashes of red on lapels as the leaves falling from the trees. In recent years’ debates surrounding the morality of the poppy have become as ubiquitous as the plastic flower itself. It’s easy to see why so many people feel uncomfortable with the often garish yearly show of support for “our boys”.
The original intention of the poppy is a debate that still rages. The poem that inspired the symbol of the Poppy, “In Flanders Fields” by Lt Col John McCrae, comes across as rather imperialistic to 21st century eyes. However, the Poppy appeal was not initiated by McCrae but American academic Moina Michael. Inspired by the strong symbolism of the Poppy within the poem, Michael began to make silk poppies, and The Royal British Legion ordered 11 million of them to sell in memory of those who had died. After the success of the first appeal, the following year a factory was set up employing disabled ex-servicemen. Poppy Scotland provides employment to disabled veterans in their factory to this day.
However, as the UK’s far right have continued to co-opt the symbol to further their nationalist agenda, the poppy has become only more contentious. A mob mentality has sprung up around the choice to wear one. Jon Snow of Channel 4 news is one of the many public figures who has been reprimanded for his decision not to wear one on air. For the last few years, I have been one of those choosing to sit out the yearly ritual. I didn’t feel I could sport a symbol that had become synonymous with support for war and nationalism. However last year, I was presented with a dilemma.
My Grandfather was a proud RAF man. So as his funeral fell on the 10th of November, it seemed only natural to wear a poppy for the service. As I listened to the stories of his life, I realised just what a huge impact the forces had had on him. When this was taken away from him he struggled to adapt to civilian life. My Grandpa is only one of thousands of men and women who find themselves in the same position.
On the flip side of so called “Poppy fascism”, my decision to wear a poppy has proved controversial amongst my leftie peers. So how do I reconcile my left wing politics with my decision to wear a symbol that many who share my politics see as inherently imperialist?
Class is at the core of left wing politics, and the British armed forces are a minefield of class issues. A career in the Armed forces is one of the most popular professions for young working class Britons and former private school students alike. However, whilst the latter often find themselves on a fast track to higher ranks, the front line is made up predominantly of soldiers from a working class background. Not only are the working class more likely to die or be injured in battle, they suffer from higher rates of PTSD. Ultimately, they are more likely to be left behind by a government quite happy to put them in harm’s way, but unwilling to support them when they return.
In the past I have chosen not to wear a poppy. I do not support the wars that British forces have fought recently, but I do support people. I respect the memory of the thousands of young men drafted into service in the world wars never to return, many of them foreign soldiers drafted from the Commonwealth and British empire. I support those who turn to alcohol as a crutch to deal with post forces life. I support the veterans who leave service only to end up living on the streets. I support people suffering from PTSD as a result of what they have seen on active duty, and stuck in the inadequate mental health service we are all too familiar with.
So this year I choose to wear a poppy. Not because I support war or even the British army. I wear it because remembrance should be about people. We should be able to separate the institutions of war from the individuals affected by it. I do not deny that the poppy is political. The political aspect of war should not be overlooked, but politicians continue to separate themselves from veterans. I wear a poppy as a sign of remembrance and a show of support for veterans left behind by austerity. If I refuse to wear a poppy due to its use as a symbol by far right groups, I play into their hands. If I choose to wear a white poppy alongside my red poppy (a decision The British Legion would fully support), I feel like I would be reinforcing the idea that a red poppy is a symbol of war.
Choosing not to wear a poppy is understandable in the current political climate. However, supporters of the left should not feel that our politics prevents us from supporting the poppy appeal.
[Jessica Shenton – @JessAlice1992]