Ian McGregor: You can wear a poppy and still oppose war

Picture: TSPL
Picture: TSPL
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SOME may argue it has become too politicised, but it is no more than a sign of our support for veterans and their families, writes Ian McGregor

Here’s a seasonal question for you. Just how should we regard the poppy? Is it something to be bought as a matter of absolute duty, or is its meaning becoming unacceptably politicised? Has its significance become ambiguous? Should there be some sort of popular consensus on what it means?

Picture: Ian Rutherford

Picture: Ian Rutherford

You might expect me, as chief executive of the organisation running the Scottish Poppy Appeal, to argue everyone should buy and wear a poppy as a matter of course, as a solemn, public act of respect for past sacrifices made on our behalf. After all, haven’t these preserved the freedoms we pretty much take for granted? I don’t, however, propose to do that.

Yes, of course I want as many people as possible to wear a poppy. Yes, I do want the appeal to raise as much as possible to help those in Scotland’s armed forces and veterans’ community who are in need. And, yes, I would like there to be a consensus that the poppy is a symbol of remembrance and respect for those sacrifices, for people everywhere to be utterly convinced that in giving to the appeal, they are doing something very worthwhile. However, I fully recognise and respect that, for some, it’s just not that straightforward. The poppy means different things to different folk, for a host of different reasons. That’s the dilemma the poppy can pose.

There is undeniably some unease that the poppy has, or could, become a political symbol. Some feel its custodians are demanding, even enforcing, its ubiquitous, all-but-mandatory display on people’s lapels, on our TV screens, on newspaper mastheads, all across the land. Some sense an implicit accusation that, should they consciously choose not to wear a poppy, they are spitting on the flag, despising those who made these sacrifices. I’d say that is definitely not the case.

The poppy has its origins on the blood-soaked battlefields of the Great War. Though its colour is redolent of blood and suffering, its growing so doggedly on soil continuously disturbed by shellfire was seen by soldiers as a symbol of hope and renewal, despite the horror and carnage. Over the years, some have sought to extract political capital from the poppy, but they have been widely and rightly despised for doing so. The poppy remains an enduring, unchanging symbol that enables people to pay tribute to and remember those who lost their lives in conflict. It is not, and never has been, a political symbol. Wearing a poppy does not mean one approves of war. It seems to me quite evident that the public long ago sent the clear signal that it supports and empathises with our troops, but that support, and the wearing of poppies by millions of us at this time of year, does not equate to support for the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.

In remembering each November, people very understandably contemplate the human cost of war and waste of lives. Their thoughts are frequently coloured by their own families’ experiences. One of my grandfathers fought at Gallipoli during the First World War. He would never talk of his experiences. The other was, in contrast, a conscientious objector, a deeply committed Christian who felt the commandment not to kill was just not open to debate. I am immensely proud of both. Their combined legacy was that I was raised to regard wearing the poppy as a symbol of respect, gratitude and remembrance, but also as a very pointed reproach, to politicians for allowing wars to happen, and to commanders who were hideously wasteful of lives. Not everyone will agree with that, but I still see things very much that way. I suspect quite a few other people will too.

Anyone deciding not to wear a poppy is exercising their freedom of choice in a free society. As far as I’m concerned, there’s not much point to having freedom if people don’t exercise it. As the apocryphal Oxford don said when given a white feather during the 1914-18 war: “Madam, I am the civilisation men are fighting for.” A civilised society must permit people the freedom to dissent lawfully, without fear of any consequences.

Poppyscotland, as the charity behind the Scottish Poppy Appeal, firmly believes wearing the poppy is a matter of individual choice. People who do not wish to wear a poppy shouldn’t feel pressurised into wearing one. Our role is to acknowledge the reality of war and to work to deal with its impact on the lives of servicemen and women and their families, whom we exist to help. That brings me on to the other, very practical side to the poppy. As well as being the symbol of remembrance, it raises much-needed funds to help those injured or damaged in conflict, and their families. Though Poppyscotland fundraises all year, we rely wholly on public donations and the appeal accounts for the great bulk of our income. We thus aim to be as visible as possible each November, because we need to raise as much money as possible.

Demands on our services show no signs of diminishing. A small but significant number of veterans leaving the armed forces continue to have difficulty in adjusting to civilian life. Some may have suffered horrific injuries, some may struggle silently with psychological issues and, for others, the loss of the security of the armed forces means dealing with everyday issues, such as finances, finding a job or housing, becomes completely overwhelming and isolating.

Veterans’ problems won’t evaporate when UK forces leave Afghanistan. Poppyscotland will need to be there for them for the long haul. The simple act of people giving a donation makes it possible for Poppyscotland to address veterans’ problems. When someone joins the armed forces family, they can take comfort in knowing they will always be part of that family. But to know they are also remembered and supported by the public means a whole lot more.

• Ian McGregor is chief executive of Poppyscotland, the charity that runs the Scottish Poppy Appeal