Be a Voice: What Does the Poppy Represent in 2018?

Sunday 11th November marks the centenary of the Armistice, the event which brought World War One to a close. The Great War has been entrenched in public memory ever since, with the red poppy becoming an extremely important symbol. Here, two Talk Politics writers discuss the significance of the poppy today.

Campaign Agent Christy Williams

Suggesting that not wearing a red poppy each November somehow equates to being ‘unpatriotic’ or simply not caring about remembrance is not only a shallow argument, but one that has caused a rift between those ‘wearers’ and ‘non-wearers’. This constructed schism is fuelled by those who wish to further politicise the issue. Whilst the red poppy has historically been the symbol of remembrance, it is vital to remember that it is not the be all and end all of the event. Remembrance can be deeply emotional and respectful without the symbolism attached.

 Since 2014, Harry Leslie Smith, a Second World War RAF veteran has chosen not to wear a red poppy during remembrance, believing that the symbolism has been hijacked by politicians who use it to nostalgically justify jingoistic military interventionism. It seems insincere that political leaders, who wear a poppy to remember victims of war, would then happily support unnecessary military action, putting our own troops on the ground in falsely justified wars such as Iraq in 2003, allowing our own bombs to destroy the lives of innocent civilians in the Middle East and permitting the continued sale of arms to the Saudi government, who’s airstrikes are a leading cause of the world’s worst humanitarian crises in Yemen. How much does the red poppy really mean if those in power who wear it simply continue to dishonour its true value?

 ‘Enforcers’ of the red poppy must remember that its symbolism doesn’t represent something positive for everyone. It’s not to say that all those who continue to value the poppy are in any way endorsing any negative connotations, but that stigmatising those who don’t wear one requires an ignorance of what their reasoning might be.

 Irish footballer James McClean declines to wear a poppy on his shirt during remembrance due to his close family and community connections to the victims of the Bloody Sunday Massacre. The footballer received abuse from football fans last week for his decision. Should one be made to blindly conform to the symbolism if they feel it disrespectful to their own heritage? McClean has made it clear that he is not anti-remembrance, and those who argue for the poppy in such an uncompromising manner forget that to simply expect people to wear it without making the conscious decision to do so, undermines it as a meaningful symbol - not just for those in the public eye, but for us all.

 There are powerful ways to remember all who have sacrificed for us without donning the poppy. The noble causes of the British Legion do focus mainly on British service personnel, so it’s important that alternative remembrance appeals such The Ghurkha Welfare Trust and campaigns which emphasise the sacrifices of Indian, Caribbean, African and many other foreign troops who fought on behalf of Britain, are also embraced in this country. These sacrifices are, heartbreakingly, all too often overlooked, with some feeling the red poppy is a symbol that doesn't necessarily include them.

 The red poppy has not only become an easy PR stunt for political leaders who simply won’t ‘learn from history’, but has led to a constructed division between ‘wearers’ and ‘non-wearers’ - a notion encouraged by those who wish to label ‘non-wearers’ as ‘disloyal’. In order for remembrance to remain a meaningful event, we must accept that the poppy is not the be all and end all and the decision to not wear one is a free choice that should be respected.

Sub-Editor Luke Walpole

The poppy has been politicised. To pretend otherwise would be remiss.

Its use as a yardstick by which patriotism is measured undermines the very ideals it should represent. The poppy should not be shorthand for the greatness of Great Britain. It should not be an excuse to beat our chests and yearn for an imperial past.

To believe that the poppy represents these things is yield it over to the nationalists and opportunistic politicians who wish to hijack a symbol for their own ends. Accordingly, absence from your lapel does not make you less British. If you choose not to wear it, it does not make you fair game for abuse. 

Additionally, I do understand the argument for a white poppy. I agree that the scope of our remembrance needs to be widened. This was a World War, and people from across the globe fought and died. What's more, I believe that our national story does need revisiting; our involvement in conflict needs reappraising.

But throwing away the red poppy does those who died a disservice.

If the First World War instructed us of the perils of rampant nationalism, then shouldn't we stop modern-day nationalists from becoming the gatekeepers of our past? Relinquishing the poppy gives them a vital symbol and the emotional ownership of an event which they wilfully misremember. You may question the importance of symbols, but they have the capacity to bring us together in febrile times.

The intentions of the white poppy are good, but it mischaracterises the past. It was a red poppy which Canadian John McCrae observed in the desolate fields. It was a red poppy which American Moina Michael fashioned into a silk pin, and which were brought to England by a Frenchwoman, Anna Guérin.

This trans-Atlantic trio, thrust together in the pursuit of a common goal, understood the power of symbols and the power of unity. They show us what the poppy can represent in 2018; that we are infinitely more safe, prosperous and successful when we come together.

When rows and rows of soldiers died on the Western Front, it was the stark red of the poppy that first poked through the saturated earth. When surrounded by death, disease and destruction, this small red flower was a symbol of hope.

Men and women from across the world died for a cause they were helpless to direct. They died so we could live, not so that we could be lulled into making the same mistakes which consigned them to the Western Front over a century ago. Don’t let demagoguery deprive us of an intensely emotive, sobering, yet instructive chapter of our history.

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Image credit: Martin Pettitt @ Flickr