A couple of weeks ago my daughter, aged seven, came home from school, requesting money for a poppy. With liberal indulgence, I explained why I believe wearing a red poppy linked to those who continue to make war is wrong.
Then, with more difficulty, I explained why the pacifist white poppy is also problematic. I gave her 50p and told her to spend it wisely using her judgement.
The red poppy has been sold by the British Legion since its formation in 1921, but this was not the first veterans’ association. After the First World War, demobilised soldiers were promised “a land fit for heroes to live in” but instead found slums, unemployment and poverty. The physically disabled, and the hidden and forgotten masses of psychologically scarred, received scant support.
The first veterans’ organisations were, at least vaguely, left wing. The Labour-aligned National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers was formed in 1917, campaigning for better war pensions and job opportunities and excluded officers from membership. At the same time, the left-Liberal organised National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers campaigned under the slogan “justice not charity”.
In response to this the right set up their own veterans’ organisation. The Comrades of the Great War was set up by the Lord Derby, a Conservative who was still Secretary of State for War, and by 1921 this group and the equally establishment Officers’ Association successfully absorbed the two more critical organisations, forming the British Legion in a deliberate attempt to render the veterans’ movement uncritically semi-official.
The British Legion still sees itself as a welfare provider to ex-servicemen and co-ordinates remembrance events in conjunction with the military, and although in recent years it has developed a clearer campaigning profile for the rights of ex-service personnel, this is swaddled in promoting the military (one recent campaign was called “doing your bit”).
Often they demand not improvement, but priority: in 2008 they won their demand that injured service personnel be treated first in the NHS.
While it is right that injured personnel should get compensated and treated, their needs and rights are no greater than an injured builder or any other worker.
So if a red poppy is the outward symptom of inward national chauvinism, what of the white poppy of the pacifist Peace Pledge Union?
The PPU originated in 1934 and, paralleling the more recent antics of George Galloway, tended to argue the justice of German claims to parts of Czechoslovakia and Poland. Although Germany had suffered a genuinely unjust peace after the First World War, the PPU failed to recognise the direction of the march of the Third Reich. Worse still, a PPU pamphlet of 1938 stated there is “...no reason why Germany should not have colonies”.
The PPU also refused to take sides in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), refusing to oppose the Nazi-backed forces of Franco as they crushed the working class and destroyed democracy in Spain for a generation. The policy of the PPU was exactly that of the British state.
Ultimately the PPU were the product of the craving for peace that dominated British society in the 1930s, a reflexive but inadequate response to the horrors of the first world war. Similarly, the British Legion had undertaken a misguided trip to Germany in 1935 to meet German veterans, only to be drawn into Nazi propaganda, dining with Himmler, being photographed with Hitler and (most shockingly) visiting a concentration camp.
While the British Legion has acted as ideologues for the use of British armed force, the PPU helped shape not even a political pacifist movement but an individualist one. The PPU originally sought pledges from men not to fight, and this led not to a movement against war but encouraged individual conscientious objectors doing nothing to stop war but opting out as isolated individuals.
In the end the white poppy and the red poppy are reverse sides of the same coin — the red poppy suggesting that peace in a world of nationalistic rivalries can be achieved militarily, the white that by behaving in a “reasonable” way the causes of war under capitalism can be undermined.
I have yet to see my daughter wearing a poppy of any kind.
Poppy protest at Celtic
The anti-poppy protest staged by Celtic fans on 6 November was an expression of dissatisfaction at having Remembrance Day commemorations imposed on them. It also shows political activism at a club with an established tradition to that end.
However, the reactions to the protest from the Celtic Board and the Poppy Campaign lobby in the local media raise as many issues as the protest itself.
During the match a group of fans known as the “Green Brigade” unfurled a banner saying: “Your deeds would shame all the devils in hell. Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan. No bloodstained poppies on our hoops".
The Green Brigade are a loose group of leftist fans, numbering fewer than one hundred who vocally support the causes of the Irish Republican, Palestinian and Basque liberation movements, a thorn in the side to the club’s establishment (particularly current chairman, the former Blair government minister, Dr John Reid).
There’s not much more to say about them that doesn’t exaggerate their significance. To some they’re they’re the Glaswegian Black Panthers. To others they’re a tightly organised Provo splinter cell threatening Scottish democracy. In reality, it's sixty blokes singing songs!
The opposition of many fans to the occupation of Ireland is well documented as is the disgust which met the appointment of John Reid because of his intrinsic involvement in the other occupations mentioned in the banner.
However, the imposition of Remembrance Day on all clubs via the embroidery of the poppy on team jerseys has received less consideration. People wishing to mark the Armistice choose to pin a poppy to their own clothes. That choice is removed when it is sewn onto a symbol which has a distinctly different cultural significance.
The reaction in the local press took the predictable line of “disrespecting the fallen” Admittedly, the emotive rhetoric of the banner comparing them to “all the devils in hell” probably did as much to support the parochial redtops’ criticism as it did to alienate large sections of the Brigade’s fellow supporters.
That said, the protesters were exercising their rights to free political expression; a vital aspect of any viable democracy.
More shocking though is the decision of the Celtic Board to move to ban all fans who took part in the protest from Celtic Park. One wonders how much John Reid has to do with this decision. Perhaps it’s just incidental that the banner explicitly mentions two conflicts that will endure as his regrettable political legacy? (The Green Brigade rightly condemned Reid as a war criminal when he was appointed chairman in 2008.)
Obviously, the issue of the imposition of the Poppy Appeal on society is not just confined to Scottish football, but any resistance to it warrants rational discussion (largely absent in the press). Bypassing the undoubtable political implications for a moment, the principal feature of the act of remembrance is that it is an act of conscience; it cannot and should not be imposed on anyone.
Turning to the political aspect of the campaign, it is interesting to analyse the rationale they present to promote it. Remembering the fallen, soldier and civilian. Remembering the sacrifices; lamenting the horror of war.
The Poppy Campaign in its recent aggressive manifestation hardly heralds these sentiments. Indeed it is more easily likened to a sabre-rattling triumphalism that truly “disrespects the fallen” in both its implicit reverence of conflict and its explicit opposition to the political freedoms for which they have fallen.