Poppies and the National Anthem: outward forms and inward truth

By Jill Segger
September 22, 2015

The relationship between outward forms and inward truth has been at the heart of dissent for centuries. In a secular society, the nature of those forms may have shifted, but the potential for coercion through intolerance remains.

Red poppies and the National Anthem are now objects of idolatry in our culture and both have been recently cast into sharp relief by Jeremy Corbyn's choices. That spectrum of society which is generally called the 'establishment' has its own view – to which it has as much right as those who dissent – on the importance of conformity in regard to what they see as symbols of respect and loyalty. But the arbiter is the individual conscience and that must be respected.

What has been rather unpleasantly described as 'poppy facism' seems to be less acute than it was even five years ago. I have had several mutually respectful conversations with past and serving members of the armed forces about my choice to wear a white poppy at remembrance-tide. Despite the indignation of those who would have us believe that such a choice is 'disrespectful' of men and women who have had their lives taken in war, there is a growing awareness that things which go deep are rarely simplistic. To believe otherwise is to close down the free conversations essential to democracy.

I had thought that declining to sing that dreary galliard and its words of narrow supremacy which is our National Anthem was less contentious than the colour of one's poppy. It seems not. I was raised in a family for whom refusing, quietly and without show, to sing or speak words to which we could not give assent, was both a religious and moral duty. I hold to that belief. It has nothing whatsoever to do with received views on patriotism or respect for the dead.

Among the Battle of Britain pilots, at whose commemoration the new Leader of the Opposition aroused indignation by his respectful silence during the National Anthem, there would have been a significant number who were republicans. There would also have been many who were tormented in conscience about having undertaken combat roles. To co-opt them all into a particular world view is to show the very disrespect condemned.

Fidelity to, and examination of, conscience is a sign of a morally mature individual. Conforming to the constructs of others for fear of unpopularity represents that failure of a politics so clearly rejected by people who have placed their hope in a new leader.

Advices and Queries, our Quaker book of discipline, has this to say: “If pressure is brought upon you to lower your standard of integrity, are you prepared to resist it? Our responsibilities to God and our neighbour may involve us in taking unpopular stands. Do not let the desire to be sociable, or the fear of seeming peculiar, determine your decisions.”

You don't have to be a Quaker to see the value of that. I hope Jeremy Corbyn will hold fast to his convictions.


© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

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