Rishi Sunak’s net personal wealth is estimated at £730m. As both prime minister (now) and chancellor (recently), he has been in a better position than most to change the lot of British forces and veterans, by properly funding the NHS, the welfare state, social housing and so on.
Given all this, and given that until a few days ago he was claiming the economic crisis was far too serious to allow him to attend a conference aimed at tackling catastrophic climate change, one has to ask: might there be something ever so slightly performative about the stunt he pulled on Thursday morning (3 November), when he was to be found selling paper poppies in Westminster Tube station to raise money for the Royal British Legion? Of course, gestures can matter in politics – objectionable as his premiership was in every other sense, Boris Johnson’s first visit to Kyiv clearly genuinely meant something to the people of Ukraine. But I think it’s possible that “lack of poppy awareness” is not the main problem facing veterans today.
This isn’t the only stunt Sunak has engaged in to mark the occasion: his new puppy, Nova, has also been pictured wearing a poppy, and not even one of the purple ones which are meant to mark the animals lost to human wars. The London Overground trains that thunder past my flat every few minutes, and which make my own dog seemingly the only one in Britain who’s entirely blasé about Diwali and Bonfire Night, are currently adorned with a painted poppy. Elsewhere, BBC guests are being handed poppies before they appear on television, to prevent complaints; here and there, inadvertently sinister poppy covered figures are popping up, like something out of a horror movie; a few enterprising pubs have repurposed old plastic Christmas trees as remembrance bushes; and so on.
For all that, though, I can’t quite shake the feeling that some of the magic has gone out of poppy season this year. Previous years have brought football mascots dressed as giant poppies, and the words “lest we forget” shaved into the flank of an actual real life horse. Normally by this point we’d have had weeks of discourse, yelling at public figures who’d failed to show the proper respect, or debating whether some of these tributes might in fact be a little bit crass. This year, though, it all feels rather muted: the Poppy Watch Twitter account, which documents the more unhinged acts of remembrance, and which I’ve shamelessly trawled for this column, has been retweeting a lot of examples from previous years. That seems telling.
This may be because, after months of political chaos and with many households’ finances on the edge, we have too many real problems to waste much energy on nonsense. Then again, with the Platinum Jubilee being followed swiftly by the death of the Queen, perhaps we’re all a bit patriotism-ed out.
Maybe there’s another reason, though. The Royal British Legion’s annual poppy campaign exists to raise money for British and Commonwealth veterans of all wars. But it began in the aftermath of the First World War, as a way of commemorating those who had died in a conflict which had touched almost everyone, and it remains indelibly associated in the public mind with both that war and its sequel.
There are, however, very few veterans from those wars still with us, and the direct memory of those times is no longer the shared national experience it once was. Just as no one today mourns those who died in the War of the Austrian Succession, say, there must come a point in the future when an annual event that exists to remember the two world wars becomes, if not unnecessary, then at least less freighted with emotion.
That, I suspect, is why poppy season has become increasingly crass in recent years, a focus for tributes intended less to commemorate the victims than as a right-wing form of virtue signalling. But maybe it was also a last gasp, part of the all-encompassing culture war sparked by Brexit. Perhaps, gradually, without a head of state who served in the Second World War, Britain will start to move on.
Or perhaps not. When Keir Starmer is monstered in the Sun for showing up on Remembrance Sunday wearing slightly the wrong coat, or when Grant Shapps comes to work next week dressed as a giant poppy, I may need to revise my prediction.