It is that special time of the year again: the days are getting shorter, the temperatures are dropping, Christmas decorations are beginning to adorn the high street, and James McClean is being hounded by the British public and media. Yes, poppy season is back in force.
From the lowest corner of a frayed t-shirt, too the dizzying heights Phillip Schofield’s left breast pocket, the Poppy has once again resumed its almost elementary omnipresence in the British psyche. Those who rally feebly against the tide of red are eloquently reminded to “respect the poppy and wear it with pride if not keep mouth shut or leave our country” [sic]. Indeed, in post-Brexit Britain the Poppy has further cemented its iconic status as a national emblem of unity and comradery.
Alas, the Poppy once again faces an old foe: the charge of being a political device. Two years ago the enemy was Guardian culture critic Jonathan Jones, who derided the Poppy themed art instillation titled Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red for being a “fake, trite and inward-looking – a Ukip-style memorial”. This time round the adversary has targeted a far more culturally resonate object than a ruddy art instillation. The national pastime itself, football. Once again, the deviously corrupt global football authority, FIFA, has affronted British remembrance by banning English and Scottish football players from embroidering their shirts with the Poppy emblem. FIFA’s justification is that the Poppy is a political symbol, and no international side is permitted to emblazon their kit with political, religious or commercial messages.
Back in 2011 a similar row erupted, and a compromise was reached with the English national side wearing black armbands displaying the poppy. This truce, however, has not lasted, and FIFA has not permitted England or Scotland to wear Poppy armbands this time round. In turn, the stakes have been raised by the context of the forthcoming match: not only is this a game between two British nations, it is also being played on Friday November 11th, Armistice Day; the apex of the remembrance calendar. Queue national outrage, including a petition demanding that FIFA let the sides play displaying the Poppy gathering over 200,000 signatures, and culminating in the English FA and Scottish SFA intimating that they will defy the ban and display the Poppy despite the threat of punishment.
Poppies and the Political
The crux of the argument against FIFA, and against anyone who attempts to question the wholesale ubiquity of the Poppy, is that it is not a political symbol. The Poppy, we are constantly reminded, is a simple but sincere act of remembrance of to the sacrifices of British Armed forces, and a gesture of solidarity toward those currently serving. In turn, the monies collected through the Poppy Appeal are primarily used to aid veterans struggling with economic hardship, health problems, and social isolation. In other words, the appeal allows us to remember sacrifice by helping those who have sacrificed.
In Jacques Rancière’s analysis of politics and the political, he contends that political moments arise when those who are not considered to be properly political subjects appear in public and speak as if they have the right to be viewed as political subjects[i]. The poppy debate, however, brings to mind a different tangent of this motif: the political arises in moments where there is a strong wholesale desire to deny that any politics is present. The very fact that it is taboo to question the Poppy Appeal should tell us that there is something overtly political afoot. Where does this desire to silence the politics of the Poppy come from? And how have we come to this binary ideal of remember with pride or stay silent?
There are some clear political dimensions to the Poppy appeal. Most immediately, there is a politics to remembrance itself. As Henrique Furtado reminds us, there are multiple different ways to remember: in the service of state interests, as a form of resistance to the perpetuation of violence, or even as part of a healing process[ii]. As such, it is necessary to ask how Poppies perform remembrance; what type of remembrance do they echo. In this respect, the overt link between the Poppy and support for current Military service personnel indicates toward a form of remembrance that tacitly endorses contemporary British defence policy. To wear a Poppy is to support the troops, and it is difficult to support the troops without endorsing what the troops are fighting for. A more visible question during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but no less problematic at a time when the British Military is actively engaged in a bombing campaign in Syria.
In addition to the politics of remembrance, the Poppy also contains elements of nationalism in its sole focus on British Armed forces, the normalisation of everyday militarism[iii] through the proliferation of military symbology in the public arena, increasingly the politics of violence as poppy protagonists take it upon themselves to silence criticism, and so on. In short, Poppies have political dimensions regardless of the pervasive desire to believe otherwise, and it remains perplexing as to why there is such resistance to acknowledging these political aspects.
The Politics of Responsibility
The desire to sever the link between politics and the Poppy resonates at the very highest level of British government. During a recent round of Prime Minister’s Questions, current incumbent Theresa May launched a scathing attack on FIFA. “I think the stance that has been taken by FIFA is utterly outrageous,” stated May, “our football players want to recognise and respect those who have given their lives for our safety and security. I think it is absolutely right that they should be able to do so“. As cross party reverence at yearly wreath ceremonies attests, it would be politically unconscionable (and suicidal) for an elected official to show anything less than uncritical support for the Appeal. Thoughts go back to last year’s Poppy controversy when self-proclaimed pacifist Jeremy Corbyn was criticised, despite donning the Poppy, for not bowing low enough during the Remembrance Sunday wreath ceremony.
In many respects, mainstream Poppy politics revolves around the idea of who can be the most reverent, the most respectful, and popularity points are not awarded for questioning or criticism. Nevertheless, the sweeping show of remembrance performed annually by the British political elite sweeps an important political aspect of the Appeal firmly under the rug. To understand this dimension of Poppy politics, we have to go back to the first Poppy Appeal. The Poppy was launched in 1921 in the aftermath of WWI. The reason for the Appeal was to solicit funds to assist veterans who had been left physically and emotionally scarred by the war, and financially destitute by British society. The Appeal, as such, sought to fill the vacuum of social assistance created by the governmental refusal to provide for returning veterans. Soldiers sacrificed under the banner of the British state, but the state would not sacrifice for its veterans.
This pattern of state neglect for veterans has been persistent throughout the lifetime of the Poppy Appeal. In modern Britain thousands of veterans are homeless, veteran unemployment is a major problem, particularly for those with short periods of service, and many suffer from debilitating physical and mental injuries. Perhaps most damningly, in 2014 the Poppy’s custodians, The British Legion, found that 310,000 elderly veterans admitted to a chronic lack of financial resources.
So what can the British State’s neglect of veterans tell us about the politics of the Poppy Appeal? The Appeal prides itself on being non-political, a neutral symbol of remembrance. Yet, even with the 30 plus million pounds raised by the Appeal every year, British veterans remain in dire economic conditions. Without these funds veterans would undoubtedly suffer more far reaching socio-economic, and health related costs. The Poppy Appeal papers up some of the cracks on the façade of Britain’s love and respect for its veterans. In this respect, the rationale for governmental desire to view the Poppy as non-political becomes increasingly apparent. The Appeal allows successive governments to pay symbolic respect to military service, while, simultaneously, facilitating the donation of funds that allow them to undercut governmental funding to deprived, vulnerable and destitute veterans. Not only does the British state receive adulation for this performance, they are protected from criticism by the shield of the Appeal’s self-proclaimed non-political stance. Strip away this shield (and the millions raised by the appeal every year) and you will find a state machinery willing to commit its citizens to the sacrifice of military service, but unwilling to pay the costs of this commitment.
When Theresa May bows low to place her wreath this year, remember not the fallen, but how this gesture absolves her and her government of responsibility. Remember how the symbolic token masks a politics of neglect and alienation; a bow that symbolises how far they will go to duck the bill.
[i] Jacques Rancière (1999) Disagreement, Julie Rose trans. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), pp.27-30.
[ii] Henrique Furtado (2015) “Against smilitarismtate terror: lessons on memory, counterterrorism and resistance from the Global South,” Critical Studies on Terrorism, 8(1), pp.72-89.
[iii] For more information on everyday militarism see, Linda Åhäll (2016) “The dance of militarisation: a feminist security studies take on ‘the political’,” Critical Studies on Security, 4(2), pp.154-168