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.

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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.