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Why aren’t we allowed to feel ambiguous about Remembrance Day poppies?

What is ostensibly about solemn remembrance has become a carefully-policed identity question. But having mixed feelings about the symbol is reasonable.

Is it just me, or has the poppy thing got a bit . . . weird, this year? First it was the poppy photoshopped onto a photo of David Cameron, lest someone see an image of our Prime Minister this November without one, then Sienna Miller getting a public telling-off for appearing on a chat show without one on her dress. At Waterloo Station, huge ones have sprung up out of the concourse floor, and Jeremy Corbyn was on the Sun’s front page for not bowing low enough while laying his wreath at the Cenotaph.

I should make it clear at this point that I’m no pacifist. As an Air Cadet, I spent many cold weekends collecting for the Royal British Legion outside our local Budgens, often before heading to veterans’ events where we’d serve dinner in our Number 1 blues. I am an observer of two minute silences, and donate to the appeal every year. Early last August, I went down to parliament to see the lights turn off at 11pm, the time war was declared a century ago (it felt important).

Yet the poppy hagiography, which seems to have reached new heights this winter following last year’s WW1 centenary celebrations, makes me uncomfortable  especially given how not only celebrities but even private citizens can now be criticised for not wearing one. 

No other charity seems to garner this kind of anxious paternalistic handwringing. There isn’t a Red Cross Day during which television presenters are berated for not wearing the organisation’s logo on their suits, or a yearly NSPCC drive where those who don’t engage are accused of disrespecting the nation’s children. In fact, ITV News presenter Charlene White doesn’t wear the poppy on air specifically because her job doesn’t permit, say, a World Aids Day ribbon to be shown on screen.

All of this might reasonably lead one to suspect the debate around the poppy is at least partially about something other than remembrance. Of course, the poppy has never been just about charity (although it oughtn’t to be about general support for the military either). The history of the poppy as a symbol of peace is long and complex, from its origins in John McCrae’s poem to the field of poppies which closes the last season of Blackadder, after the main characters are gunned down going over the top.

Yet at the point at which a poppy is emblazoned on the side of a Tornado, it seems safe to say its meaning is at the very least  unfortunately – under dispute. Last year, veteran Harry Leslie Smith tweeted about his sense that the symbol had been “co-opted” by political discourses, and Chief of Defence Staff Nicholas Houghton spoke out against what he calls “poppy Stalinism”.

An RAF tornado with a poppy motif. Source: Royal Air Force Facebook

Last week, West Bromwich Albion midfielder James McClean was criticised after refusing to wear a poppy on his strip in a match at Old Trafford. In a statement explaining his stance, the Derry/Londonderry-born footballer explained that "the poppy is used to remember victims of other conflicts since 1945 and this is where the problem starts for me".

A friend of mine from Donegal, now based in England, has encountered the same thing. Happy to donate to the Royal British Legion, he was surprised to find colleagues asking him during his first winter in London why he wasn’t wearing a poppy at work, and had to delicately explain that his feelings about the British military slightly differed from theirs. (Quite aside from the fact that, in certain parts of Ireland, the poppy has been taken up as a sectarian icon).

But the concern shouldn’t be limited to those who have a specific reason to not wear a poppy. For many of us, it’s not a principled stance so much as a feeling of ambiguity about the whole thing that makes us reluctant. In a discursive environment which is, particularly online, increasingly marked out by entrenched ideological positions, it’s hard to put forward an argument that one can be perfectly respectful towards veterans and even admire the work the RBL does without necessarily wanting to mark oneself as simpatico with everything the poppy has come to symbolise, especially as contested debates about nationhood, belonging and patriotism have been taken up in the most virulently xenophobic and even cruel way by certain portions of the national press.

But if you believe that Remembrance Day ought primarily to be about recognising the need to support veterans after their service ends, then being reluctant to wear the same image which graces the fuselage of a fighter-bomber jet isn’t any sort of contradiction. Just as you can quite reasonably be against a war but care about the wellbeing of Servicemen and women serving in it, not wearing a poppy needn’t indicate not caring about veterans. It’s possible to be respectful without buying the whole package.

And if the big conflicts of the twentieth century have taught us anything, it’s that a bit of healthy scepticism over where we locate our sense of national identity rarely goes amiss.

Stephanie Boland is head of digital at Prospect. She tweets at @stephanieboland.

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Four key thinkers more deserving of a revival than “Trump’s philosopher” Ayn Rand

If thinkers have enduring value, it is because their ideas are timeless, not timely.

A recent story in theTimes carried the headline, “Trump’s philosopher is heading for your local pub”. The philosopher in question was Ayn Rand, whose works The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) have been a profound influence on the American right since they were published, and are apparently enjoying a resurgence.

The story went on: the previous week, “about 15 people packed into a room above the Plumbers Arms in Victoria, central London” to discuss Rand. You read that right: 15! Three more than a dozen! Their cups runneth over indeed. We later discovered that Britain’s first Ayn Rand Centre is being set up. Moreover, new groups dedicated to Rand have popped up in Reading and Milton Keynes.

Everything about this story was designed to make me angry. For one thing, Rand was above all a novelist, not a philosopher. For another, it’s generous to suggest that the star of America’s Celebrity Apprentice, who is also the current occupant of the White House, is deeply familiar with her overall body of work. He said he enjoyed The Fountainhead; that’s some way short of her being a favourite philosopher.

But the thing that really riles me is this fashion for stories about intellectual fashions. Last year, apparently, there was an upsurge of interest in, and sales of, George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. During the financial crisis, displaying knowledge of Hyman Minsky’s oeuvre became the columnist’s trope du jour – just as, in the recession that followed, flaunting one’s knowledge of John Maynard Keynes’s The General Theory was a mark of cool and learning.

If thinkers have enduring value, it is because their ideas are timeless, not timely. So here, apropos of nothing in particular, are four other key thinkers that are being unfairly neglected.

1. Polonius The true hero of Elsinore, who manages to distil in one speech more wisdom than the self-indulgent prince manages over five acts. Where Hamlet’s meandering vanities take him hither and thither to no great end, Polonius speaks the language of uncommon common sense to which this column aspires. And how prescient is he? His “neither a borrower nor a lender be” anticipated the post-monetary policy era four centuries before Mark Carney took the reins in Threadneedle Street. And his advice to “Give every man thine ear but few thy voice” is the perfect coping mechanism for social media. 

2. Judith Kerr If you have young children, chances are you are more than familiar with Kerr’s seminal work, The Tiger Who Came to Tea. In it, Sophie is having tea with her mother in the kitchen when a big, furry, stripy tiger knocks on the door. It joins them and promptly eats and drinks everything in the house, forcing the family to go out for a special dinner when Sophie’s father comes home from work. Naturally, I don’t approve of the stereotypical gender roles in this plot; but the message of instinctive generosity and openness to unfamiliar outsiders, with unforeseen benefits for family life, undoubtedly carries lessons for our age of mass migration and rapid demographic upheaval.

3. Meryl Streep Less neglected than my other candidates for your attention, I’ll grant; but I really think Meryl Streep’s assertion, when asked in 2015 by Time Out if she was a feminist, is crucial. She said: “I’m a humanist.” In doing this she proclaimed the connection between feminism and universal ideals, placed feminism within a broader philosophical tradition, and revived interest in humanism at a time when religiosity is again on the march. Given the current conniptions over gender in our public domain, this was an important contribution, don’t you think?

4. Humphrey Appleby Have you noticed that, amid the toxic warfare over Brexit, the once unimpeachable integrity of Britain’s civil servants is now being traduced? Jacob Rees-Mogg criticised them only the other week. I recommend he revisit Yes, Minister, in which the peerless Nigel Hawthorne played the ultimate British bureaucrat. His dictum that “a cynic is what an idealist calls a realist” is both plausible and the perfect coolant for our
overheated democracy.

Back to the Ayn Rand philosophy club: I don’t believe I’ve tried the Plumbers Arms in Victoria. But I’ll make an exception if some New Statesman reader is prepared to start the first UK society dedicated to the propagation of these thinkers’ ideas. Anyone fancy a pint? 

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist