Another November and another outrage about the poppy. To kick us off this year FIFA have decreed that when England meet Scotland at Wembley on Armistice Day that the teams will not be allowed to wear poppies on their shirts or on armbands. You might be thinking it’s one of those EU ‘elf and safety gone mad stories, perhaps due to fears that those dangerous wee pins might fall out and injure someone, but no, you are mistaken. It’s due to the poppy being deemed a political symbol, and FIFA (Not to be confused with UEFA, the SFA or the FA) don’t permit political symbols to be displayed on shirts during international matches. This isn’t a new rule, it’s not been passed specially to have a go at Britain due to Brexit or anything, it’s just how it is, and how it’s been for for years.
If you cast your mind back to 13th November 1999 England and Scotland met in a UEFA championship match the day before Remembrance Sunday, and there wasn’t a poppy in sight. Nothing stitched on the shirts, not an armband, nothing. So why the big hoo-haa 17 years later? Were the teams more disrespectful 17 years ago? Or have things changed regarding how the poppy is viewed?
As someone who had been taking part in Remembrance Parades since I was a child it seems to me as the years have gone by and we have lost the veterans of The Great War, we appear to have lost the dignity which went with them. Quiet reflection and respectful silence has been replaced by brashness and loudness. The small paper poppy made by veterans is no longer enough to show how much we respect our veterans. Nothing says Lest We Forget like a manky plastic two-foot wide poppy cable-tied on to a truck radiator grille, begging the question: is it a remnant of last year or is it early for this year? Jewel encrusted poppies are attractive, there’s no doubt, but they are just one of a range of products which are available many of which are less than dignified. How about an official poppy dog food bowl with matching food mat? Not tacky enough? There’s tea cups, tea towels and t-shirts. Gaudy, tacky, blingy, the dignity and respect which the poppy had represented has been commercialised. It’s now a marketing image and a year round industry.
If its fairly harmless commercialisation doesn’t offend you then what does? The message which was always there was Lest We Forget. So how does an RAF Tornado resplendent in Poppy livery fit in? What part of Lest We Forget does that come under? Or how about a Somme Poppy Pin as worn by Nigel Farage, made from shells fired at the Battle of the Somme? One pin manufactured in remembrance of every British soldier who was slaughtered in that battle. There were 57,470 casualties on day one alone! In what way is it dignified to gather up old shells from the actual battlefield, turn them into memorials? The British Legion who sell them say that the “Minor surface imperfections and flaws may exist in the Somme 1916 Poppies due to the use of century old ex-battlefield metal, but such only adds to the item’s character, individuality and charm“. Charm? Charm! The Somme was one of the most bloody offensives of the Great War! This is just bloody offensive!
Remembrance Sunday has been expanded to remember all our war dead from The Great War onwards and therein lies the problem: some of those wars were less than popular. The Iraq War was one of the most divisive in living memory and was opposed by huge swathes of the British public. Once it started we were told that we should “Back the troops, not the war”. This oxymoronic statement was intended to soften public angeragainst the action of the government by using our sympathy for the poor buggers who were out there implementing British foreign policy by force. Remembrance Sunday broadcasts took on a new role during Operation Telic in Iraq, with live broadcasts linking up British troops and their families back home, again to use our sympathy to dampen criticism of the campaign itself. The most heart-rending manipulation I can recall was on Remembrance Day 2013 when a young girl who had just sung the Poppy Appeal song live on air was given a surprise when her father appeared from behind the scenes, secretly flown back to take part. Remembrance Day reduced to a Surprise-Surprise style television event; a bridge between old and new remembrance. Surely something that would have been better left to Armed Forces Day where we recognise the current efforts of our troops?
Now almost every newspaper masthead carries the poppy, almost every celebrity is adorned with one, almost every newsreader comes with one fixed on for weeks beforehand, and woe betide anyone who appears on a news or current affairs programme without one. For instead of being a symbol of someones respect for the fallen it has been hijacked, by those who wear it all year round to display their patriotism, their Britishness, and to display their support for “Our Boys” as the Sun likes to call them. They have politicised it, like it or not. Those self same individuals will be first in line to unleash hell on social media against anyone who appears without one, yet come Remembrance Sunday where are they? More than likely not at the cenotaph paying their respects. If those who demand that poppies be worn by all, and who castigate those who don’t were to actually attend Remembrance Day parades then they would have to sell tickets to limit the numbers. It wouldn’t be a football match on at Wembley on the 11th, it would be a Remembrance Service instead. I heard one complaint on BBC Scotland’s ever reliable Call Kaye radio talk-in that FIFA were out of order for not allowing the poppy to worn on the shirts of England and Scotland as people just want to pay their respects. Here’s a novel idea then; drag your arse out of bed on a cold Sunday morning and make your way to the cenotaph and pay your respects there. Or does that require too much effort?
On Remembrance Sunday I’ll wait until the pomp and the pompous have departed and I’ll go to the cenotaph and remember those who fell in the slaughter of The Great War and those who fought to keep us free from the Nazis. I’ll do it quietly and with dignity: as it should be.