The poppy: to wear or not to wear?

Sunday 21 October, 9.30am until 10.15am, Conservatory

Many people wear Remembrance Day poppies as a sign of respect for British soldiers who died in the two World Wars. More recently, the Royal British Legion, which sells the poppies to raise money, has highlighted the cause of soldiers killed and injured in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For some, wearing the poppy is like wearing an AIDS ribbon or a Make Poverty History wristband; all are generally understood as non-political expressions of compassion. Yet every year the period for wearing poppies seems to grow longer, and those who refuse to wear one, like broadcaster Jon Snow, are frowned upon. Celtic supporters who unfurled a banner in opposition to the poppy at a football match in 2010 were roundly condemned and demonised.

Is it time to subject this apparently ‘non-political symbol’ to some political scrutiny? Those Celtic supporters saw themselves in a tradition of anti-imperialism, challenging a celebration of British military power. And radical Islamists have even burned poppies as a show of opposition to what they see as anti-Muslim wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the past, many pacifists also objected to what they saw as the glorification of war, and wore white poppies instead as a symbol of peace. So in seeing the poppy as non-political, are we in danger of historical amnesia, even whitewashing Britain’s sometimes barbaric imperial past? Or should we deliberately put Remembrance beyond politics, distinguishing between the soldiers who risk their lives and the politicians who command them? Are those who object to the poppy as a symbol of imperialism as stuck in the past as those who celebrate it as such?

Why do we remember the war dead, and would it be such a bad thing if we forgot? In recent years, some have called for those who refuse to observe Remembrance or minute’s silences to be banned from football matches, or even jailed. Is their intransigent attitude an intolerable insult to the British military dead and those who remember them? Or should we insist on the right not to conform and go along with public rituals, for political, ethical or any other reasons? Is the expectation that we all wear the poppy a valuable expression of social cohesion, or an ugly form of moral blackmail?

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David Cox
children's writer; actor; screenwriter; close protection specialist; martial artist and cage fighter

Ruth Dudley Edwards
historian and journalist; author, The Seven: the lives and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish Republic (forthcoming)

Ted Harrison
artist, "Innocence Betrayed", St Paul's 2011 Remembrance Day piece; author, Remembrance Today; poppies, grief and heroism

Kevin Rooney
politics teacher and head of social science, Queen's School, Bushey; co-author, Who's Afraid Of The Easter Rising?

Produced by
Kevin Rooney politics teacher and head of social science, Queen's School, Bushey; co-author, Who's Afraid Of The Easter Rising?

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