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Laurie Penny: Poppy Day is the opium of the people

A million paper flowers will never be enough to mop up the carnage of war.

On a rainy Thursday in Cheshire, at a base belonging to Europe's largest arms dealer, veterans laid down paper poppies in memory of fallen soldiers. This was no protest, however: BAE systems, a prominent supporter of the Royal British Legion's annual Poppy Appeal, cheerfully hosted the solemn ceremony to mark the beginning of the Appeal at its Radway Green facility.

Officials from the arms and munitions company, which rakes in billions from international wars and is subsidised by the British government, watched as servicemen and schoolchildren planted crosses in front of the base. The awkwardness of their presence passed unnoticed in a country that seems to have fundamentally misunderstood the nature of remembrance.

It might seem a little disrespectful to describe Remembrance Sunday and the rash of poppies that precedes it as "just show business", but that is precisely how Harry Patch, the final survivor of the 1914-1918 war, characterised the ceremonies in his memoir, The Last Fighting Tommy. Patch died last year at the age of 111; there is now nobody left living who truly remembers the futility of the war that sustains our patriotic imagination. Remembrance Day has been expanded to commemorate all fallen British servicemen and women, but in practice the events of the day focus on the two World Wars -- and no wonder.

British children are raised on the mythology of those wars, in part because, particularly in the case of the Second World War, there were clear moral and practical reasons why conflict was unavoidable, and more to the point, we won. Neither of these things can be said of the desert wars currently providing BAE with a healthy market for their wares. Soaked n the powerful narrative of righteous heroism, the poppy of remembrance has become a fig-leaf for the overseas military interests of successive governments.

There are good reasons to donate to the Royal British Legion, especially with government support for veterans so notoriously constipated, but poppy-wearing, especially by public officials, is tainted with hypocrisy. The poppy was chosen as an euphemistic symbol of the horrors of war by a generation for whom those horrors were all too immediate; it should be doubly offensive, then, that almost a century later members of the British administration wear poppies while sending young people to fight and die far from home for causes they barely comprehend.

It is understandable that friends and relatives of the fallen might wish to find meaning and purpose in the offensive futility of war. It is unforgivable that governments and businesses should seek to do the same. It behoves our leaders to be mindful of the ugly, unsentimental nature of conflict, but instead the mounting death toll is listed with precisely the sort of macabre piety that horrified Private Patch. When the human wastage of a body count becomes an emotional excuse for continuing a military offensive, in order to properly honour the fallen it's time to question our attitudes to war.

"Sacrifice" is the word continually used to associate this cynical and relentless carnage with public nostalgia for the glory of past victories. There are, however, two meanings to the word. One can sacrifice, in the sense of willingly giving one's life for a cause, or one can be a sacrifice, offered up for slaughter by one's betters in the name of God, or greed, or homeland.

It is this second understanding of sacrifice that we should bear in mind this poppy day. Even in the First World War, not all of the men and boys shot by their own side for cowardice or driven out "like cattle", in Wilfred Owen's words, in front of the German machine guns, died with future generations in mind. Not all of them bled willingly, for king and country; some of them simply bled because they had been seriously injured, because their leaders deemed it appropriate for them to die in pain and terror. A million paper flowers, rooted in the dark earth of this country's frantic military self- fashioning, will never be enough to mop up the carnage.

Of course, there are those for whom the paper poppy is undesirable by virtue of being rather too declasse. If you're one of them, you might consider going all out and purchasing a poppy pin encrusted with Swarovski crystals, as Simon Cowell and Cheryl Cole have just done. What more fashionable way could there be to pay tribute to the unnecessary slaughter of millions than with a sparkly bit of political bling?

As we celebrate another Remembrance Sunday, we should remember that the politicians wearing red flowers in Whitehall have cheerfully authorised the decimation of jobs, welfare and public education in order to defend Britain's military spending and nuclear arsenal and offer tax breaks for business. They have sacrificed the life chances of a generation of young and working-class people while making rhetorical sops towards "the national interest", and that is not remembrance, nor is it any way to honour the memory of the Great Generation. That, in fact, is "just show business".

A version of this column appears in this week's magazine.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Manchester Gorton?

Will Labour lose in Manchester Gorton?

The death of Gerald Kaufman will trigger a by-election in his Manchester Gorton seat, which has been Labour-held since 1935.

Coming so soon after the disappointing results in Copeland – where the seat was lost to the Tories – and Stoke – where the party lost vote share – some overly excitable commentators are talking up the possibility of an upset in the Manchester seat.

But Gorton is very different to Stoke-on-Trent and to Copeland. The Labour lead is 56 points, compared to 16.5 points in Stoke-on-Trent and 6.5 points in Copeland. (As I’ve written before and will doubtless write again, it’s much more instructive to talk about vote share rather than vote numbers in British elections. Most of the country tends to vote in the same way even if they vote at different volumes.)

That 47 per cent of the seat's residents come from a non-white background and that the Labour party holds every council seat in the constituency only adds to the party's strong position here. 

But that doesn’t mean that there is no interest to be had in the contest at all. That the seat voted heavily to remain in the European Union – around 65 per cent according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates – will provide a glimmer of hope to the Liberal Democrats that they can finish a strong second, as they did consistently from 1992 to 2010, before slumping to fifth in 2015.

How they do in second place will inform how jittery Labour MPs with smaller majorities and a history of Liberal Democrat activity are about Labour’s embrace of Brexit.

They also have a narrow chance of becoming competitive should Labour’s selection turn acrimonious. The seat has been in special measures since 2004, which means the selection will be run by the party’s national executive committee, though several local candidates are tipped to run, with Afzal Khan,  a local MEP, and Julie Reid, a local councillor, both expected to run for the vacant seats.

It’s highly unlikely but if the selection occurs in a way that irritates the local party or provokes serious local in-fighting, you can just about see how the Liberal Democrats give everyone a surprise. But it’s about as likely as the United States men landing on Mars any time soon – plausible, but far-fetched. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.