Joyce McMillan: Poppy's symbolism is under threat

Annual tribute is at risk of being hijacked by those with no respect for the basic liberties our dead fought for, says Joyce McMillan

Hearts always pay fitting tribute to those lost in the Great War, including many of their own players, but others have questionable motives for promoting the poppy.

To the Festival Theatre Studio, on Tuesday night, to watch one of many plays that have been staged, over the last two years, to mark the centenary of the First World War. This one, co-produced by the Edinburgh-based company Wee Stories and Fife Cultural Trust, traces the fortunes of two young Hearts fans, both miners from Roslin, who in 1915 follow the club’s first team members into the Royal Scots, and - eventually - into the nightmare of the Somme.

It’s a simple play, delivered by just four actors. Yet it has to be said that it compared very favourably with the notably poor piece of political theatre that took place during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons this Wednesday, when some populist Labour MP decided that his top priority this week - faced with extreme poverty among some of his constituents, child refugees sleeping rough in Calais, and the apparent mounting threat of direct armed conflict with Russia - was to invite Theresa May to condemn the action of Fifa in banning English and Scottish footballers from wearing poppies on their shirts. Mrs May was delighted to comply, describing Fifa’s conduct as “outrageous”, and whipping up a bit of sentiment about footballers desperate to honour Britain’s war dead, being prevented from doing so by an international body which cannot even put its own house in order.

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It was difficult, really, to say which of their two performances was worse, such were the levels of synthetic outrage on view; but what was clear throughout was that this was a fairly small (and probably resolvable) matter being deliberately inflated into a huge news story because it so neatly fits the current wave of atavistic nationalism sweeping across some parts of the UK. MPs wrapped in Union Jacks rant about restoring the Royal yacht and forcing BBC1 to bring back the nightly national anthem, enthusiastic Brexiteers dismiss the 48.1 per cent who voted against it as “remoaners”and traitors, and the German embassy advises its citizens in the UK not to speak their own language on the streets.

And meanwhile, in a veritable explosion of constitutional incoherence from the party of absolute British parliamentary sovereignty, a man from Ukip is heard arguing that the High Court judges who ruled that parliament should have a say on the triggering of Article 50 should simply be sacked from their jobs. Independence of the judiciary, anyone? Or any of the other basic principles of democracy that the west once tried to export to the world? No, not in the emotional world of post-Brexit hyper-nationalism, where - as in Donald Trump’s America - ideas like the rule of law are simply tricks devised by “experts” to deprive ordinary people of their natural right to hate anyone who seems even slightly different, and to act on that hatred.

So perhaps some of us who have worn our poppies with love and sorrow, over many decades, can be forgiven for feeling just a touch sceptical, when this same noisy coalition of hate-mongers, tub-thumpers and unapologetic proto-fascists suddenly come over all sentimental on the issue of the poppy, and everyone’s right - nay duty - to wear one. As it happens, Remembrance Day has meant a great deal to me ever since I was a child, brought up by my parents in the full knowledge of what the two world wars had meant to the ordinary people of Britain. My mother’s birthday fell on 11 November, and we would always watch the wonderful Cenotaph ceremony before going on to celebrate. And for years, on the British left, I persisted in wearing a red poppy as my own way of standing with all the bereaved, although I sometimes wore a white peace poppy alongside it.

Since 2014, though, and the ruthless attempt of some on the Tory right to reframe the slaughter of 1914-18 as a necessary and glorious patriotic sacrifice, I find myself increasingly disinclined even to try to wear the dismal little sticky-backed thing that now passes for Britain’s red poppy. The more they are worn, demanded and pontificated upon by Ukip politicians, hate-mongering newspapers, arms-industry profiteers without conscience, and preening, empty-headed television presenters, the less I am able to see them as conveying any real respect for anyone or anything; and the more kinship I feel for those who know a bit about the suffering of ordinary soldiers, and who decide that this noisy parading of an absolutely empty patriotism is not for them.

For in the end, patriotism is about love for the people, not as you think they should be, but as they are. It’s the kind of love shown, patiently and without ostentation, by Clement Attlee’s 1945 Labour government, as it set about building the good and dignified society it thought ordinary British people deserved. That government also, of course, explicitly set about making British citizens “citizens of the world”; people who might look forward to living in a world at peace, where we would recognise and revel in our kinship with those we once called “foreigners”.

What they wanted and achieved, in other words, is the exact reverse of the shallow, hate-driven pseudo-patriotism of today’s loudest poppy wearers, people who speak of respect while treating benefit claimants as criminals, doing precious little for real war veterans, drumming up xenophobic hatreds with a contemptible disregard for the consequences, and dismissing half of their own nation’s voters as traitors whose views should be ignored. Three years ago, the Second World War veteran and left-of-centre tweeter Harry Leslie Smith announced that he would no longer wear a red poppy, because he felt that the symbol had been misappropriated by apologists for Britain’s new wars.

And this year, for the first time, I feel like joining him. Because in my view, some of the people now shaping Britain and its politics have gradually besmirched that little red flower almost beyond repair; not least those who, with such shrillness, demand that we wear it - or account for ourselves in the virtual kangaroo courts of a society bent on reaction, and increasingly both ignorant and intolerant of those basic liberties for which many of our war dead fought, and were willing to give their lives.