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Debate at Manchester University: That this house will not wear a red poppy

At the height of the 2014 poppy mania, Manchester University debated whether to wear or not to wear the symbol of remembrance for all who died in Britain's wars over the past 100 years.


THE DAY before I was due to participate in a debate at Manchester University on the motion 'That this house will not wear a red poppy', I was sitting on a bus being forced to listen to Joanna Lumley's recorded appeal to wear the poppy.

I was thinking we were going to have our work cut out to counter the arguments of those who aim to make the poppy an indispensible part of the late autumn wardrobe.

The promotion of the poppy has been impressive. Not just Orwellian announcements in  public spaces, but poppies thrown in to crowds at football matches, vitriolic twitter attacks on journalist who dare to go live with bare lapels, not to mention the Tower of London poppy extravaganza becoming the must-see cultural event of the season.

When the debate got under way the next day, my impression was reinforced. The pro-poppy team, which included Dr. Lynette Nusbacher, enigmatically billed as 'a former devil’s advocate for the Joint Intelligence Committee', appeared confident. An initial show of hands revealed only a small number of students supported the proposition we were defending: that this house will not wear the poppy.

What followed, however, was interesting. The opposition tried to pre-empt our arguments by saying we were being over sensitive, paranoid even, if we thought that the poppy was about anything more than neutral remembrance.

In the end this quite simply didn't wash with most of the audience. Their problem was that there is so much evidence that the poppy appeal is loaded with meaning. After all, it coincides with a major effort from multiple parts of the establishment to trash the 'Baldrick  version' of WW1 and rethink this savage slaughter in to a battle for civilisation.

This effort was being fronted up politically by Michael Gove and Maria Miller, both of whom have for other reasons thankfully been removed from the frontline of political life. But the drive goes on courtesy of Jeremy Paxman, Max Hastings, Sir Huw Strachan and a host of other broadcasters, journalists and writers. 

As I mentioned this effort is often based on obfuscations. I debated  with one ex-commando on the radio recently who tried to convince listeners that the WW1 was fought against communism and fascism, despite the fact that neither existed in 1914!

It coincides too with clear concerns in the military about the level of popular opposition to war. Last year the Guardian newspaper managed to obtain an MOD report  which admitted worries about public opinion turning against wars and recommended "a clear and constant information campaign in order to influence the major areas of press and public opinion", and inculcating an attitude "that service may involve sacrifice and that such risks are knowingly and willingly undertaken as a matter of professional judgment".

And then there is the nature of the ceremonies and the poppy appeal itself. It is not just that the whole thing is so energetically foisted on us, but that it is directly linked to militarism, never peace.

Uniformed soldiers selling the poppies in every station, a battleship moored in the Thames sporting an oversized poppy, and official ceremonies that never incorporate any of the most popular poems about the WW1 by Owen or Sassoon but are unremittingly martial in tone. All this is

designed to have an impact. And it is quite deliberate. Joss Stone's official Remembrance Day song in fact is a version of the Green Fields of France with the final anti-war verse edited out#

Finally the most important point: the people leading remembrance, including our Prime Minister and the much missed Tony Blair of course, are also actively trying to push us into more foreign wars. 

Of course none of this means that individuals wearing a red poppy are all pro-war. Far from it, as my eloquent co-debater and journalist Maddy Fry explained, what is happening is that the poppy has been co-opted by a pro-war establishment in an attempt to rehabilitate wars that they are struggling to justify with serious argument.

As we said, this is not about forgetting, we want an active form of remembrance of all the dead in all the wars. And we want to draw lessons from the past that can guide us in the present and future. That is why I at least wear the white poppy. 

At the end our arguments won the day. The problem for the pro-war party is that however much they try, they are having trouble erasing the terrible memory of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. 

Source: Stop the Wat Coalition