'Poppy-dissenter' hunting season begins again

By Simon Barrow
October 28, 2010

It was with a rather heavy heart that I got my first media call today about the annual "red poppy" dust-up - which usually revolves around attacks from the Daily Mail and its kindred spirits on broadcasters, public figures and politicians who don't wear the British Legion Appeal symbol or who raise questions about what the practice means.

This time the 'debate' (which feels more like a well-rehearsed ritual, but nevertheless has important issues behind it) has been kicked off by two things. The first is the coincidence of the launch of the Appeal today with the tragic return to this country of yet more war dead from Afghanistan. The second, apparently, is criticism of the BBC for presenters wearing them "too early" this time, and therefore "recycling" old ones. (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1323540/BBC-presenters-criticise...) Really, you can't win!

Anyway, I will be on Three Counties Radio at lunchtime (they approached me, I didn't go to them), saying that the social and political pressure to conform over poppy-wearing exists and is a negative one. We need to be reacting less tribally, and thinking more openly about what kind of Remembrance we need in the C21st Century - especially in the light of two recent wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/13008), where armed intervention has led to bloodbaths and seemingly endless conflict, rather than lasting solutions.

This is not, I tried to emphasise in my pre-record, about lack of respect for the victims of war, including the young men and women who our governments send in to do their dirty work for them. Far from it. It is about looking more deeply at how we handle conflict today, about non-violent alternatives, about ending rather than perpetuating cycles of violence... and about recognising that this is a political issue (it is about how we use and abuse power), though it does not have to be a partisan and unpleasant one. We have to learn how to disagree without 'coming to blows', either metaphorically or literally. That's the whole point.

Ekklesia's initial involvement in this debate several years ago came as a result of someone taking a pot at us over my colleague Jonathan Bartley's Church Times column suggesting that churches might make white poppies available as well as red ones - to emphasise the positive role churches and other civic bodies, religious and non-religious, can and do play in transforming conflict without guns and bombs. It also raised concerns about the one-sided sacrificial language involved, and about increased 'militarisation' of the red poppy symbol - which has been even more evident lately through the use of service personnel to market them.

This was used by two newspapers to claim (utterly falsely) that someone was trying to "ban red poppies"... and the same kind of hostile approach, equally unsubstantiated, has come back each year since.

Inevitably, mud gets thrown at anyone who wants to raise questions rather than 'wave a flag' uncritically. This is sad, because in the final analysis it's about how we stem the tragic flow of blood and find a better way of resolving the major issues and conflicts of out time. But it's also an opportunity to promote creative ideas for broadening remembrance to look at all the victims of war and alternatives to it, and to involve those who feel alienated by a tub-thumping approach.

That was precisely what our 2009 report Reimagining Remembrance was aiming to do (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/research/reimagining_remembrance). We need to move on from tabloid agendas and the pressure to conform without thinking. That is the very least we owe to the many tragic victims of war, including those young men whose bodies are being returned today.


(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He will, as usual, be wearing both a red and a white poppy this year.

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