Jayne Dowle: Political battle over poppy misses its true meaning

Picture by PA
Picture by PA
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IT’s a personal choice, wearing a poppy for Armistice Day. Why, then, has the decision become such a political statement?

The fact that Fifa has banned the England and Scotland football teams from wearing the simple red flower on their shirts at the World Cup qualifier on November 11 brings the controversy right into the global arena.

Fifa, the international football association famed for its own moral rectitude, forbids players from sporting any political, religious or commercial messages. The only time teams were allowed to wear the symbol was in 2011 when Prince William and the then Prime Minister David Cameron joined forces to protest at the ban.

Meanwhile, on Remembrance Sunday itself, at football games up and down the land, players will pause at 11am and observe the two minutes’ silence.

Every year I see it. And every year I am moved by the sight of boys bowing their heads in communal respect to the memory of the millions of people who have died in conflict.

Many of these youngsters would struggle to pay attention in history lessons at school. Yet there is something about the simple act of remembrance which seems to hit home. One year, I asked my teenage son what he was thinking about. “All the people who died,” he replied.

If only we could all remember that.

This year the Royal British Legion says its campaign will urge us to rethink remembrance in general. In this, it will be asking us not just to remember those who died in the major conflicts of the First and Second World Wars, but to think of the thousands of men and women whose lives have been lost since.

The aim is to make the campaign more “relevant” to the 21st century.

A survey of 1,000 adults, commissioned by the charity, showed that the public most commonly associate Remembrance, the poppy and the Royal British Legion’s work with the First and Second World Wars and elderly veterans. Just over a third of those surveyed identified Remembrance with those currently serving. Clearly, they didn’t talk to any of the boys my son plays football with.

This year, there’s a series of videos, for instance, which cut from those who served in the Second World War to soldiers today. With respect, I think the Legion could be accused of trying too hard.

The millions of people who turn out across Britain to pay their personal respects to fallen soldiers at Armistice events speak for themselves. And many will carry within their own hearts a small flame of remembrance for a son, or a brother, a father or a niece lost in battle in recent years.

The bitter divisions which have come to characterise what is essentially a fundraising event also speak for themselves. Never has the issue of wearing a poppy – or not – been so contentious.

When I was 17, I remember a momentous argument with my grandfather, a stalwart poppy-wearer.

As an A-level history student, I took it upon myself to protest at what I saw at the militarism of the symbol and opted for a white flower instead. After fierce debate, my grandfather persuaded me that the red poppy was always meant in peace.

To twist it into something more loaded, to suggest that it represented something more antagonistic, was to go against its very nature. He was born in 1901. I decided, on balance, that he knew what he was talking about.

I can’t imagine what my grandfather would think of today’s state of affairs. While the Fifa decision hits the headlines, my Facebook feed is full of local outrage. I hear through this grass-roots grapevine that a popular fast-food restaurant in town is refusing to allow a poppy collection box on the counter. I also hear that certain supermarkets are huffing and puffing at the presence of Royal British Legion poppy sellers on their premises.

What are they afraid of? That allowing poppies to be sold will incite an outbreak of politically-correct protest? By making such a stand, the only sure outcome is that the flames of controversy will be fanned. Sides will be taken. Gauntlets thrown down. And what Channel Four newsreader Jon Snow calls “poppy fascism” – the insistence that all must sport the symbol – begins to prevail.

Mr Snow famously refused to wear a poppy on air when all around him colleagues and celebrities were outdoing each other with their earnest badges of allegiance. The only sure outcome of this is that the true spirit of the poppy is further lost. And all the clever interactive videos the Royal British Legion launches will come to nothing.

Surely, this is the absolute opposite of what should be happening? Thanks to the sacrifice of those who lost their lives defending our liberty, we are lucky enough to live in a free country. What we support, what we buy and what we wear is essentially our own decision. And that is why we should respect the poppy as a personal choice, and not be complicit in the act of turning it into a political statement.