Lindsey German explains why she won't be intimidated by the mania which sees wearing a red poppy as a test of loyalty, a definition of Britishness
This weekend was when the poppy campaign reached its heights. Remembrance ceremonies took place across the country, thousands of poppy wreaths were laid at war memorials, and at Whitehall’s Cenotaph royalty and politicians - including the war criminal Tony Blair - mingled with the military to pay their respects to the dead of past wars, especially the First World War, whose hundredth anniversary we mark this year.
What could be wrong with that? Well, some of us are finding quite a lot wrong. Before I go any further, this is not about disrespecting the dead. Every person who lost his or her lives in the First World War should be remembered. The war itself should be remembered. Those who want to wear the poppy should of course be perfectly free to do so. But it is increasingly clear that the poppy campaign is not just about remembrance.
That is obvious in the response to those of us who choose not to wear the poppy. I have been called a traitor, a disgrace, as well as other less printable remarks for writing an article supporting the wearing of a white peace poppy.
Those who have the temerity to appear on television without wearing the poppy are attacked in the right wing media and across social media. Many of these attacks seem to come from people who, to put it mildly, do not like people of other races or nationalities.
Attitudes to those who do not wear the poppy vary of course but it is seen by some as a test of loyalty, a definition of Britishness.
How else can we explain the poppy hijab which Muslim women are encouraged to wear? Supposedly to commemorate the Muslim dead of the war, it is hardly surprising that many Muslim women refuse to wear one, and feel that their ancestors, as colonial subjects, often had little choice whether to fight.
While the poppy is marketed as a unifying national campaign, there is no doubting its militaristic and nationalistic connections. You don’t have to know that the sponsors of the Poppy Rocks concert, organised by British Legion young professionals, are Lockheed Martin, the major arms company, to know that the military are at the heart of the campaign.
The emphasis on British losses, as opposed to losses on all sides, which the ceramic poppies at the Tower of London highlight, serves to mark not the total loss and suffering of the war, but a one sided view of it.
The Royal British Legion's use of Joss Stone singing ‘The Green Fields of France’ as the official remembrance song, omitting the final anti-war section, is not only a travesty of artistic integrity, but a reminder of how much the commemoration is connected to a view of the war which says that it was right.
The pressure to wear the poppy is overwhelming. On every mainstream media programme, in every major shop, and sold by teachers to pupils in many schools (no pressure there, then), the omniscience of the poppy is relatively new. When many of those who actually fought in the world wars were still alive, there was not the pressure to buy the poppy in the same kind of way, nor was it advertised on such a scale.
The change has come with the increase in modern wars. They have been much less costly of British lives (although much more costly of their opponents’ lives) but they have also been unpopular and contested. In parallel with this development has been the rise of the poppy.
A consequence of this approach is how much is lost from the history of the First World War: those who opposed it, those who died as civilians, those women not in the military whose contribution is barely recognised, and the growing disaffection with the war felt by many soldiers.
That is why it was called the war to end all wars. Tragically, it wasn’t. And that is why I am a 'traitor' and a 'disgrace' for refusing to wear the red poppy.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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