13 November 2011


Yesterday, squashed between Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday, like a burp between dinner courses, was an international football match. This being a friendly game that no-one gave England much chance of winning, the news instead focused on whether Our Boys would be allowed to wear a poppy commemorating Our Men on their football shirts. "No" said FIFA, citing their law forbidding the wearing of political symbols by member countries' teams. Ever quick to spot a bandwagon, our Prime Minister thought it a worthwhile use of his time to plead for flexibility from FIFA. Eventually a compromise was reached that satisfied everyone's sense of self-importance: FIFA could save face, The FA got its chance to appear respectful, and the Daily Mail got three days of foreigner-baiting headlines.

Two things struck me about this wholly manufactured story. First, if I were the Royal British Legion, I'd be desperate not to talk about it - and the rather cool statements issued by the RBL rather back this up. If you think of the values of the poppy: honour, sacrifice, selflessness and duty, it would be hard to think of a less appropriate group of brand ambassadors than those over-indulged, feckless popinjays: English professional footballers. The sight of alleged racist, serial philanderer and user-of-disabled-parking-spaces John Terry braying at his mates on the bench with a poppy on his chest is a toxic brand association.

The second, more important point is the whole issue of the poppy as a political symbol. Of course it is, and why are so many people so horrified to admit it? For David Cameron to claim there is no political link between war and remembrance might be charmingly naive in someone more charming.

One simple proof of its potency as a political symbol among many I could cite is the furore caused in their native Ireland by talent-dodging pop stars Westlife, who were used to promote the poppy in 1999. Whether you agree with the interpretation is irrelevant; the interpretation, as with beauty and goal-line clearances, is in the eye of the beholder.

I believe it should be embraced as the ultimate political symbol, understood in the context of the noble exercise of politics, as opposed to the less noble politicians it is sometimes tainted with. Politics is the attempt to resolve conflict without resort to war. It's the evolutionary triumph of the human brain. War is when politics breaks down. In that sense war and politics are two sides of the same coin, inextricably linked - so to call the commemoration of the consequences of war apolitical is disingenuous.

The poppy is the symbol of politics gone wrong, and the impact that has on millions of people when elites too proud, mad or deluded consider risking the lives of each other's children is a price worth paying. Sometimes it is, mostly it is not. The poppy serves to remind us what happens when politicians of all colours on all sides fail to do their job. So when a politician tries to tell you remembrance is not political, he's trying to get off the hook.

1 comment:

Tony said...

Very well said indeed. Many will agree with every word.

All good wishes.