Poppies on cakes, poppies on buses, poppies on hawks, and even Liz Trusses. Every poppy season brings a new heightened sense of surrealism, but this year feels different. This being the last poppy season before the implementation of Brexit, the relationship between ‘remembrance’ and British identity feels particularly pronounced. British identity has, in some respects, always been tied up with notions of militaristic heroism and bravery in the face of, seemingly, insurmountable odds. Shot through the ripples of Brexit, it has taken on a more constitutive role.
In his last published essay, Theses on the Philosophy of History, Walter Benjamin presents an understanding of history in which remembrance is not simply a neutral act of recollection. Rather, to recall history is conceived as a political act in which particular interpretations of the past are mobilised to advance and inform present-day actions and ideas. Central to Benjamin’s understanding of historical analysis is the concept of ‘Monad’. Benjamin describes Monads as aspects of history that can be redeployed as a revolutionary opportunity to put history to work in present day politics:
Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it crystallises into a monad. A historical materialist approaches a historical subject only where he encounters it as a monad. In this structure he recognises the sign of a Messianic cessation of happening, or, put differently, a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past
Monads, in short, are instances in which the past can be refracted through politics and society in the present. This is why remembrance is so pivotal in a Britain on the eve of Brexit. Not only does it provide a clear link between valour and the British state, the focus on remembering the First and Second World Wars harkens back to a particular idea of Britishness prior to its perceived Europeanisation. As such, remembrance does not constitute a collective recollection of war, it is a collective imagining of war that, increasingly, helps people construct and reinforce a particular essence of Britishness. In this respect, it is crucial that we reflect upon how this performance of remembrance imagines war, and the type of British identity it hopes to bolster.
In Maja Zehfuss’s work on memory and war, she asks what does it mean to remember?
What does it mean to remember, and what does remembering tell us about how we understand the reality we live in? Memory retrospectively produces a past while claiming merely to invoke it, drawing attention to numerous complications regarding how we conceptualise truth, ethics, emotion, subjectivity and time.
For Zehfuss, like Benjamin, historical recollection is a means through which we understand ourselves and the societies we live in. In other words, how we imagine the past, is instrumental in helping us understand our present.
The imagining of war occupies a particularly important place in British identity. Not only does war define empire and Britain’s sense of global prestige, it also informs a modern history of bravery and resolution in the face of tyranny. This conception of war has witnessed the wholesale absorption of WWI within the WWII narrative, particularly during the past few decades. During this time the imagination of WWI has shifted from horror at mass needless sacrifice of young men, to a misty eyed celebration of those who ‘died for our freedom’. 20th Century War, in this respect, is imagined as a manifestation of British heroism and moral righteousness.
War, however, cannot be imagined in this one way. It can be imagined as a national shame, a manifestation of colonial brutality, a crime, and various other less celebratory meanings. The narrow form of British remembrance, as such, takes a multifaceted and challenging phenomena, and transforms it into a singular narrow narrative. Any deviation or questioning of this narrative is met with charges of besmirching the memory of brave service men and women, and the old chestnut of politicising the non-political. For example, this year the journalist Aaron Bastani has been dragged through the poppy ringer for arguing that the appeal enables the British state to neglect veteran social care. In this way, the sombre celebration of ‘remembrance’, combined with the backlash dissenters face, helps cement a very particular, and uncritical, imagination of war. One that, in turn, feeds into an imagination of Britishness which has underpinned Brexit and the transition era.
Nigel Farage’s Brexit victory speech was visibly couched in the language and imagery of WWII, and Britain’s heroic rescue of Europe from Nazism:
We have fought against the multinationals, we have fought against the big merchant banks, we have fought against big politics, we have fought against lies, corruption and deceit … And we’ll have done it not just for ourselves, we’ll have done it for the whole of Europe. I hope this victory brings down this failed project and leads us to a Europe of sovereign nation states, trading together, being friends together, cooperating together, and let’s get rid of the flag, the anthem, Brussels, and all that has gone wrong … Let June 23 go down in our history as our independence day.
Britain has not only saved itself from the EU, it has opened the door to the rest of Europe following suit and reveling in collective independence. In turn, the imagined victory of the plucky Brexit underdog is shot through the prism of the British imagination of war: escaping from being forced to speak German, rescuing its cultural and political identity, and reclaiming its sovereign power. While it is troubling that Brexit is couched in this imagery, it is more problematic that post-Brexit British identity is increasingly imagined in terms of a return to that of the post-War era. The return to a Britain that stood strong and alone as a major player on the world stage. Where health and wealth for all, and the stiff upper-lip reigned supreme. Even within the rhetoric of Jeremy Corbyn’s plan to bring British manufacturing back from its new ‘foreign’ homes we can see echoes of this theme.
Nevertheless, this is an entirely mythical imagination of post-war society in which Britishness meant a very particular variant of White-Britishness, and racism was systematically endemic. Despite defeating fascism, the British state maintained structures that denigrated minority communities and cultures. This more problematic understanding of post-war society is whitewashed from the narrative to facilitate a romanticised dream of Britishness. In turn, this dream of Britishness is contrasted to modern ‘snowflake’ Britain, where multiculturalism and dangerous foreign influences run rampant. This, of course, is another imagined British identity, one that is constitutive of the longing for a return to the Britain of yore.
This imagined British identity is becoming the core of how Britain sees its post-Brexit identity. A society in which racism and sectarianism are growing in both prevalence, visibility, and normalisation. Britain is not unique in this, and much of the Western world is experiencing similarly disconcerting shifts toward the right. We should not, however, neglect the role of poppy performativity in galvanising the belief that this imagined British identity is authentic and, in some way, natural. Remembrance is performed in Britain in way that subsumes all other imaginations of war and identity, and presents us with an uncritical and shallow representation: Britain was always heroic, valiant, and just. The mass yearly effort to depoliticise Britain’s violent past is geared toward cultivating a heroic imagination of Britishness that has been, and will be used again, to advance political positions and platforms. In seeking refuge behind the idea of respect, the British right has sold people a one-dimensional depiction of war, and created a context in which challenges to this depiction are viewed as absolute treachery. It is only by embracing it’s complicated, and often brutal past, that Britain can begin to imagine a progressive identity to come.
 Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zorn (London: Pimlico, 1999).
 Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, Op. Cit., p. 254.
 Maja Zehfuss, Wounds of Memory: The Politics of War in Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), xi-xii