Remembrance is a time for reflection on our history and the sacrifice of others. It is intended to bring us together in a mood of reflection and reconciliation. Two divisive and misguided views threaten to undermine this period of commemoration. ‘Poppy fascism’ has been a recent source of controversy with celebrities unfairly targeted for not wearing a poppy. At the other end of the spectrum, the ‘white poppy’ movement has been gaining influence.
Poppies are traditionally worn as a mark of respect for those who fought and died for our country. The sales of poppies generate money for the support of veterans and families. There are many other equally brilliant charities that sell badges or offer stickers when you donate to them during their annual appeals but there is no pressure to display their badges. The Royal British Legion quite rightly says “Poppies aren’t compulsory and nobody should be targeted for not wearing one, how you pay your respects at remembrance is your personal choice. Poppies are not pro-war, rather a symbol of respect for those who gave everything for our safety. Not commemorating wars would mean not learning the lessons from history”.
The white poppy is produced by the ‘Peace Pledge Union‘, a pacifist group founded in the 1930s and endorsed by various more recent hard-left groups such as ‘Stop the War’. The PPU says red poppies have the effect of “reinforcing support and acceptance of the military” and claim that its symbolism has been co-opted by politicians to justify present day wars. The white poppy is supposed to be a sign of “commitment to peace and a rejection of militarism”. The PPU is well outside of the mainstream but are gaining more traction, they report a record number of white poppies sold this year – so far 119,555 (while about 40 million red poppies are sold by the RBL in Britain each year).
The white poppy brigade are effectively politicising remembrance by taking a symbol only intended to recognise the sacrifice of those who served and making it about protest and politics. Even worse, they are detracting from a campaign designed to raise money to benefit those injured in war and support the families of the dead. Wearing a poppy does not mean you approve every decision to send our troops to war, it is not an endorsement of any political viewpoint, politician or military leader.
The PPU applies the vague and pejorative term ‘militarist’ to anyone who admires our armed forces, and is concerned with their capability and welfare. In this context, ‘militarism’ can loosely be understood to mean undermining democracy, aggressive nationalism and glorying in war. The PPU also claim “militarism is on the rise in Britain” and complain about forces recruitment is schools and universities. Ironically the defence budget has been mostly in sharp decline since 1990, forces personnel numbers are falling and recruitment is difficult.
Wearing a white poppy could be perceived as a kind of virtue signalling that “I am morally superior to the wearer of red poppies because I dislike war more than them”. The PPU and their ilk seem to think that those serving in the military or interested in defence actually relish the prospect of war and want conflict. While some of those serving might take a certain professional pride in being put to the ultimate test, the vast majority are more aware than most of the horror of war, devoting their lives in service to deterrence and avoidance of conflict. While the so-called ‘peace campaigners’ make self-righteous protests, those in uniform actually get on with the job of maintaining the peace. In most cases, the young men and women who died fighting for this country believed in the cause they were fighting for at the time, even those that did not carried out their duty and fought to protect their comrades.
The philosophy of pacifism and unilateral disarmament is like deciding to disband the police force, in the hope that criminals will be inspired to give up committing crime. Every sane person hungers for peace and would like more international dialogue and diplomacy. The difference between the PPU and the rest is the recognition that there may come a time, and as a last resort, when it is necessary to fight for what you believe in. History is sad a cycle of wars and conflict which we should make every attempt to break. History also shows that bullies and tyrants will always be with us and armed deterrence and the ability to defend your principles can prevent war. There is no question that politicians of many nations including ours, have sent people off to fight in haste and with poor justification and in conflicts they should not have been involved in. The military can be used in the wrong way as a tool of unwarranted destruction but can also be a force for protection and for good. It is foolish to entirely dismiss the need for armed forces and national defence because of historical mistakes.
The red of the poppy is not a symbol of bloodshed as many think but a sign of new life from the flowers that quickly sprang up on the battlefield when the fighting stopped. The colour of the ‘white poppy’ itself might be quite offensive to those who have served, associated with surrender, appeasement and the white feather of cowardice. MP Johnny Mercer who has served on the frontline and witnessed the deaths of friends in combat says: “White poppies are attention seeking rubbish. Ignore the wearers of them. If you don’t want to wear a poppy don’t bother; they fought and died so you could choose. But don’t deliberately try and hijack its symbolism for your own ends.”
We firmly reject the philosophy of the white poppy but no one should receive personal abuse for wearing one. Respecting every individual as a person, even if their views are the polar opposite to our own, is a critical part of our democracy and a peaceful way of life. We need to rise above a febrile political environment, Brexit, social media and many other factors that are driving divisions and mistrust. At this time of year, it would seem like the right thing to do to express gratitude to all those who died to give us freedom of choice, that choice may include wearing a poppy, not wearing a poppy or even wearing poppies of other colours.