E and I give money to the Royal British Legion every year. We sit down towards the end of the year and talk about who to support, which direct debits to keep and which to swap out. The Legion is the one item in our charity basket that stays in with no need for discussion. It supports serving and former members of the armed forces, and isn’t choosy about which wars the veterans fought in. Its appeal is based on the need to keep faith with a life-long social covenant, rather than the dangerous conceit that all soldiers are heroes.
But most of the Legion’s funding seems to come not from regular donors but the annual November – now shading into mid-October – frenzy of poppy-selling. In its drive to sell as many poppies as it can for Remembrance Day, the Legion has allowed itself to become part of an increasingly nasty annual tradition of bullying of people who choose not to wear a poppy or are somehow ‘caught’ without one.
Today, the Legion announced an astonishingly tone-deaf campaign for celebrities to film themselves silenced by a poppy held across their lips, ahead of the official two-minute silence on Wednesday. The dark irony of using the poppy to literally silence people in public life seems to be beyond the ken of the Legion’s hyperactive communications team.
In 2013 and again last year, ITV newsreader Charlene White, fed up with being called a ‘black c—t’ by hordes of self-righteous Twitter trolls, felt the need to put out a public statement about why she chooses not to wear a poppy while doing her job. Last week, Siena Miller, whose job is to act in films and then publicise them on television shows, was subject to more manufactured and horribly misogynist outrage for the crime of not wearing a poppy while on a light entertainment programme, because the pin was tearing her borrowed dress.
It is no accident that women in public life, especially women of colour, are at the sharp end of the nastiest public abuse for failing to notice that wearing a poppy is no longer a choice.
Some of the most assiduous poppy wearers in public life are male politicians. The Prime Minister’s office was caught last week photo-shopping a poppy the size of an ostrich egg onto the PM’s lapel. Having failed to re-orchestrate the annual Remembrance Day ceremony to emphasise his own singular role, Cameron’s team made damn sure his virtual poppy was bigger than anyone else’s and even capable of time travel back to when the picture was first published in August.
Not that anyone really expects the appropriated symbol of remembrance for our war dead to translate into actually caring for the armed forces or veterans or their families. The current and previous governments have systematically hacked away at the things that make military family life possible; reducing educational allowances and inflation-adjusted wages, allowing housing stock to rot and privatising those responsible for it, farming out recruitment to a clueless private sector vendor, relying on charity to rehabilitate injured soldiers and house homeless veterans, and making about a fifth of serving soldiers redundant, even as some of them fought in Afghanistan.
The propensity of politicians to wrap themselves in the flag is in direct proportion to their eagerness to cut away at the quality of life of those who actually serve. As fellow Conservative David Davis puts it today, Cameron is exceptionally good at ‘being the Prime Minister’, rather than at anything substantive. Mere policies, including those that would help with current-day troops and veterans, are left to the tender mercies of the MoD, where ministers never last longer than a year or two.
Along with the hastily donned flak-jacket and tousled helicopter-hair, the poppy has been allowed to become a symbol of politicians’ lip service to the troops, an emblem of fake masculinity borrowed from forces men and women who often show real courage, the kind that comes with self-sacrifice. Service, that is to say.
The Legion is playing a dangerous game. It has allowed its main fundraising campaign to be aligned ever closer to party political PR games, while staying silent as people in public life are vilified for failing to conform to poppy-mania. The backlash has already begun, and the Legion risks being permanently associated with horrible behaviours that will harm both its fundraising and ability to do its job.
The poppy is both public and personal. That’s what makes it such a powerful symbol. On Remembrance Sunday I think about the tens of thousands of Irish men who left my great-grandfather’s army, the Irish Volunteers, and went to fight for Britain in World War I. I think of the thousands who deserted the Irish Army in World War II to go and fight against the Nazis, and suffered a lifetime of the peculiarly Irish flavour of public vilification and private punishment when they came home. I think of particular people I’ve known who didn’t come back from recent wars, and I think of the long but mostly silent kitchen table conversation with E, before his last tour, when we agreed that he wouldn’t write an ‘in the event of’ letter because there was nothing left for him to say.
The poppy – both red and white – is a broad and resilient symbol. It can accommodate my intent and my history, and those of many others. This year I decided to continue to buy the usual couple of red poppies, but only to wear one on Remembrance Sunday itself. I chose not to publicly declare on an overcoat my conformance to the ever longer season of official mourning. I don’t think I’m alone. It may just be where I live or the unseasonably warm weather, but there seem to be noticeably fewer poppy-wearers in London this year.
Those who sell the poppy to support forces families and veterans would do well to understand the poppy’s strength comes from its many meanings, and that aligning it with jingoism, bullying and officialdom will hasten both indifference and backlash, not just against forces charities but against military families. It is time the Royal British Legion acknowledged the darker consequences of its campaign and dissociated itself from them.