16 November 2017
In the great British tradition of completely kicking off over Christmas advertising campaigns, many took offence to the image.
By demonising people for the opinions they hold, the very freedoms for which British soldiers died are threatened.
Every November, a familiar story resurfaces. It centres on the true meaning of the poppy, and whether a person’s decision to wear one, or not wear one, is a measure of the respect they have for the men and women who fought for this country.
Occasionally, it has even come to represent uncomfortable political conversations that don’t reflect the true history of remembrance.
Wearing a remembrance poppy was inspired by the WWI poem In Flanders Fields. The opening line refers to the flowers as being the first thing to grow by the graves of the thousands of soldiers killed in the region during the conflict.
World War I claimed the lives of nearly one million soldiers from Britain and its Empire. The poppy was a nation’s gesture of sober reflection, even remorse.
As the nation once again sacrificed its men and women to defend our nation, some twenty years later, the poppy took on even greater significance. Every 11 November, the country pinned the flower to its chest to remember the millions killed by two global conflicts.
WWII resulted in an unimaginable loss of life. Remembrance was made all the more poignant by considering the path history would have taken had the allies lost the war. The poppy remembered the dead, but it also symbolised a wider commitment to forever fight against hatred.
In the decades that have followed WWII, the poppy has continued to act as the nation’s symbol of remembrance. Come October, volunteers sell a paper poppy to raise funds for the Royal British Legion, the charity that supports veterans of the British Armed Forces. Even as fewer and fewer of us have any connection to the conflicts that first inspired its meaning, we still wear the poppy to remember the sacrifice that shaped the free society we now live in, and to help those who serve our nation today.
However, recent years have also lead to the problems we mentioned at the beginning. The poppy has been co-opted by a minority for less honourable purposes; to bolster agendas and call into question not only the ‘gratitude’ of certain people, but the Britishness of some communities and figures. This sort of point-scoring would have been unthinkable in the direct aftermath of the World Wars, when the dead were still being brought home, but time has a funny way of distorting meaning. The poppy is a symbol of remembrance and respect, it should not be used to divide people or pass judgement.
This has not gone unnoticed in public life. Year after year, debates about the poppy rage, from concerns over footballers sporting them on the pitch to newsreaders wearing them on television. Even army veterans have criticised the ‘hijacking’ of the poppy, with one criticising Britain First for flogging merchandise with the flower emblazoned on it: ‘By selling items branded with the poppy, Britain First is raising money to promote values that our military men and women have died to defeat.’
This illustrates perhaps the most important point. The enormous sacrifices made by our men and women represent our historic efforts to protect our nation from fascism, oppression and hatred. By demonising people for the decisions they make or opinions they hold, the very freedoms for which British soldiers died are threatened.
It is not patriotic to disrespect the choices of others. It is patriotic to remember what it cost for us to have the freedom to choose.