I’ve always been a supporter of Remembrance Sunday and have never held much truck with this white poppy nonsense that has always seemed more like a pose than a genuinely ethical position. This is because, for me at least, the day has always represented a reflection on the awfulness of war and the sacrifice that everyone pays – be they soldier, conscientious objector or civilian – when it sweeps across the world. It’s a act of solidarity, and walking around with a white poppy has always seemed, intentional or not, like flicking a v-sign at anyone who wishes to participate in a collective national experience. But I didn’t wear a poppy this year (although I did stand for the two minute silence despite not thinking I would).
There are two main reasons for this. The first is my shock and disgust last month at learning that Sir John Kiszely, the then President of the Royal British Legion, had been caught on camera offering to lobby government ministers at “boring” remembrance events on behalf of one of his prospective clients as a lobbyist (in this case a fake company pretending to be attempting to sell the UK government military drone aircraft). He swiftly resigned and no one at any stage suggested that the Royal British Legion in any way condoned his actions, but what does it say about the organisation that such a man was free to rise to their most senior and prominent position? Either way, I don’t think this scandal received anything like the level of attention that it deserved.
The second is this discussion about marking the centenary of the First World War, which appears to be big on history, looking backwards and even producing a kind of theme park version of the war, complete with poppy fields and token football matches, all of which looks suspiciously like a celebration. After 2012, I’ve truly had enough of all this bread and circus business and am weary of the prospect of turning such an important occasion into yet another backslapping jamboree.
As we approach the centenary, the key question we need to ask is what the purpose of remembrance is once the generation that made that sacrifice are all dead? This is universally true in the case of the first world war and increasingly so in the case of the second. Walking through Kings Cross station yesterday, I was struck at how they’d got Barbara Windsor to be the “voice” of the poppy appeal – she was 8 at the end of WW2, and far more associated with the swinging sixties. However well intentioned, having someone like that simply lacks the resonance of, say, Thora Hird.
Over the course of my life, the TV coverage of Remembrance Sunday has shifted from pictures of a dwindling parade of war veterans to pictures of a bunch of politicians doing their best to look solemn. We seem to be sleepwalking on with an annual ceremony which no longer has the same meaning, and yet there is no attempt to take a comprehensive look at how we might make it matter for a new generation. What has happened instead is that an event that was supposed to mark a dreadful, world changing war, and which could conceivably be expanded to commemorate its depressing sequel 20 years later, has come to be used to mark the low and steady hum of military conflicts which the UK as periodically get itself embroiled in in the 65 years since.
We talk about “sacrifice” but that word has acquired a different meaning over the years. 90 years ago, people were talking about the self-sacrifice of a few for the benefit of the many. But the sacrifice that is being made now looks suspiciously more like a more Old Testament style sacrifice: a blood letting to appease the Gods and maintain the status quo.
The 20th century World Wars weren’t about fighting for the status quo, regardless of the hopes of those in power at the time. Their great cost lead to a social revolution, and rightly so. Are we really that comfortable about investing its legacy into the hands of a few politicians and professional tinpot generals (I originally wrote “professional soldier” but none of the people I’m referring to have seen the front line in decades)? What was meant to be a communal event has been privatised by stealth.
Remembrance Sunday’s meditation of the dreadfulness of war has been replaced by a focus on its inevitability and relentlessness. I find that a troubling shift and an effective takeover by an industry and professional class with an interest in its continuance.
Would I be endorsing all this if I wore a poppy? No, but it’s enough to make me want to abstain for at least one year. I only hope that over the next couple of years we can, as a nation, get our heads together and subvert David Cameron’s Theme Park Centenary with something more sombre – perhaps the cancellation of the Trident replacement? That, at least, would mean something.