Wear your poppy with ego

Observations on conspicuous compassion

Red poppies used to be worn solely in November, in the week before Remembrance Sunday. Yet they are now routinely seen in mid-October. Politicians and TV news presenters in particular seem to compete to be the first seen wearing one. Last year, Tony Blair and his front-bench colleagues were spotted wearing poppies on 23 October. This year, a correspondent to the Daily Telegraph announced he had seen his first poppy on 16 October.

Not only are poppies sprouting earlier and earlier, but they are growing more ostentatious. People wear extra-large versions, or appear - as the royal family does - with a veritable bouquet of poppies affixed to their breasts. Some taxi drivers display enormous poppies on their radiators the whole year round.

What drives this urge to be seen as more empathetic than the next person? It is, I suggest, because we live in a climate of conspicuous compassion, in which many are concerned not with doing good but merely feeling good.

The blossoming of poppies has coincided with the proliferation of looped empathy ribbons. Since the launch of the red Aids ribbon in 1991, of which more than 100 million have been distributed worldwide, dozens of imitators have emerged: pink for breast cancer, dark blue for ME awareness, green for organ donors, mauve for animal rights, yellow for "I want someone home", royal blue for better water quality. This year, the News of the World launched a yellow loop "to honour ALL our troops in the Gulf". The newspaper estimated that two million Britons followed its lead.

You may argue that this development is no bad thing. Where is the harm in displaying empathy and drawing attention to plights that afflict the needy? But there is scant evidence that this habit has "raised awareness" at all. According to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, donations to good causes actually dropped by 31 per cent between 1995 and 1999. And even between 2001 and 2002, when donations to charity increased by £400m (a total £7.3bn), the number of Britons giving continued to fall, from 69 to 63 per cent of the population over the same period. At best, the jury is still out over whether displaying empathy ribbons has "raised awareness". This leads to the unfortunate conclusion that large poppies and ribbons serve principally as a vehicle through which to project one's ego, or to make known one's political, personal or, possibly, sexual leanings.

Lapel loutism is symptomatic of a society that is both deeply egotistical - comprising atomised, self-seeking individuals - and (as the psychologist Oliver James argues) acutely unhappy. It is the by-product of our emotionally correct, crying-in-public, post-Diana consensus, in which a lonely populace is prone to immodest, attention-seeking displays of compassion. As James writes in Britain on the Couch: "A common impulse behind wanting to give love unconditionally to non-intimates is the desire to receive it."

The danger is that the appropriation of poppy and ribbon will sully the name of deserving causes such as the Royal British Legion, which spends £40m a year on support for retired people from the services and their dependants, half of which comes from its annual poppy appeal.

So if you do wear a red poppy this year, do so with pride. Preferably a small, modest one. And in November.

Patrick West's Conspicuous Compassion will be out soon from Civitas