If you want to understand the extent to which the Armistice Day poppy has been stripped of dignity and meaning, then you need look no further than the front page of Friday’s Daily Mail. On the top right-hand corner sat the ubiquitous scarlet tribute to Britain’s war dead; underneath it, a splash which – by attacking three High Court judges for reasserting the primacy of parliament – sought to undermine the freedoms and democracy the men gave their lives to secure.
That the juxtaposition didn’t immediately jar shows how inured we are to the hijacking of the poppy for political purposes. Once a haunting reminder of the horrors of war, embodied in Flanders Field, it has been reduced to yet another weapon in the jingoists’ arsenal. Once a plea for enduring peace, it is now more often a badge of cheap patriotism or – worse still – a piece of propaganda in an ideological war.
There was a time when buying or not buying a poppy was a matter of personal choice. Many were happy to wear one as an act of remembrance, a token of solidarity or a means of raising money for injured veterans. Those who believed it glorified armed conflict could leave their lapels unadorned, or opt for a white one as a compromise. The voluntary nature of the gesture was key. If you wore one, it was because you wanted to; and if you didn’t, well, doubtless you had your reasons and you could keep them to yourself.
All that has changed. Over the past 15 years or so – since the attacks on the World Trade Center, in fact – Royal British Legion poppies have frequently been misappropriated; used not to lament past losses and learn the lessons of the past, but to justify and promote dubious military adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
At the same time, there has been a gradual ramping up of pressure, so that now poppies are available from early October onwards and wearing one is regarded as a civic duty – to be performed in the public glare – as opposed to an opportunity for private reflection.
This poppy fascism, as Jon Snow dubbed it, has had several unwelcome consequences. One is that, every year, some politicians indulge in unseemly displays of one-upmanship, flaunting their respect for former servicemen as conspicuously as possible. “Virtue signalling”, you might call it, if you were that way inclined.
Another is that those who don’t want to join in are scrutinised and judged by self-appointed moral arbiters. People who, like Republic of Ireland football player James McClean, refuse to conform are forced to demonstrate they are not traitors. So apparently shameful is it to be caught without a poppy, No 10 last year Photoshopped one on to the profile picture on David Cameron’s Facebook page.
This year, though, another layer of politicisation has been added: now not only is the poppy being used to sell questionable foreign interventions, it has been co-opted as a symbol of British sovereignty.
That’s is what the whole Fifa stramash is about. Personally, I don’t see the harm in the players wearing black armbands with poppies. But the English and Scottish Football Associations are not intent on defying the world governing body’s ban because they are desperate to honour their forefathers (they only started wearing poppy armbands in 2010), but because a bunch of foreign busybodies is trying to tell them what to do.
The row is a proxy for the stalled Brexit process; it is a means of flexing our national muscle in the absence of the triggering of Article 50. That’s why Theresa May was so keen to send “a clear message from the House of Commons”. And just listen to the language used by Steve McCabe, Labour MP for Birmingham Selly Oak, who raised the issue at PMQs “Will she [May] tell the respective associations that, in this country, we decide when to wear poppies and they’ll be wearing them at Wembley?” he said. It’s not about paying tribute it’s about establishing who wields the power; who dictates to whom.
The desire to unite in common protest against Fifa may also have something to do with the renewed threat of Scottish independence. At a time of division, poppies, and the wars they commemorate, reinforce a sense of shared heritage and mission.
The Royal British Legion has written to Fifa, insisting the poppy has “no political, religious or commercial meaning”. But even they must see that a symbol that is constantly being exploited and fought over can no longer be viewed as neutral. The football associations’ decision to take a stand against Fifa is innately political.
The problem is that once a symbol has been tainted (as the St George’s Cross was by association with the far right) it is difficult to reclaim it. The poppy is not quite so toxic, but it has been disowned by many different people on many different grounds. McClean, for example, considered it disrespectful to the innocent people who died during the Troubles, but some veterans have also rejected it on the basis that the original aims of the appeal have been subverted.
It’s a shame because there is a terrible poignancy about the poppy; its vibrancy combined with its fragility makes it the perfect emblem for the men sent over the top in the First World War. The sight of thousands of them spread like a bloody carpet across scarred battlefields will never lose its emotional power.
But when newspapers place them next to inflammatory headlines, when people are bullied and harangued into wearing them, when, every year, the controversy surrounding their value overshadows Armistice Day itself, you have to wonder if it’s time to let go. Or at least to refocus. If the poppy is to survive, we need to remind ourselves what it originally represented: not a fashion accessory, nor a testament to our rectitude, nor a celebration of our Britishness, nor a call to arms; but a howl of outrage against senseless slaughter and a commitment never to let it happen again.