Poppy Rage: punching sacred cows.

Last week I wrote a piece for Indy Voices about how it was time to retire the poppy and reinvent remembrance for a new generation. It’s something I have mulled over in my head during the last few years and had previously written something very similar – but a little more personal in 2015.

That earlier piece had a few hundred hits and generated some interesting conversations. My platform was bigger this time around. I have more twitter followers and the Independent has a far bigger reach than my blogs. I gave the article a lot of thought. I read a lot of tweets under posts about Moeen Ali and chose my words carefully. I purposefully took the personal out.

I calculated that by suggesting poppies should be retired I would garner a lot of hits and make a lot of people angry. Yes, I admit it, I like a fight – but I also believed what I was saying; I was being controversial yes but not, I hoped, deliberately controversialist.

But then as the  the comments started to come in and strangers accused me of deliberate provocation I began to doubt myself. Were my motives entirely pure? Had I in fact crossed the line I regularly accuse other people of crossing? Was I contributing to the curse of clickbait and outrage in an attempt to raise my own profile?

I was invited on to a number of radio stations to discuss the article further. If you have ever listened to talk radio, you know how it works. I was set up as the bad guy and then people rang in to say how horrid I was. Barry in Hertfordshire thought I should be shot, a nice old man in Wales said I should be euthanized – a lot of people invoked long dead relatives who had done this, that or the other and almost nobody addressed anything I had actually said in my article or on the air.

BBC Wales followed my interview with a lengthy chat with Simon Weston – survivor of the RFA Sir Galahad bombing. I was a child when the Falklands War happened and grew up with his story. The man has overcome incredible adversity and  is a proper, iconic hero – however the balance of any actual debate on my standpoint was eviscerated instantly once he was deployed. Simon too accused me of wanting to “get attention” and generally being one of the usual suspects who oppose all those things that Britain holds so dear. It was like getting ticked off by Mother Theresa.

I sat in my kitchen and listened to what he said and thought about my motives all over again. Was I indeed guilty of doing all those things that I hate Katie Hopkins for doing?

I am still thinking about it now. The honest answer has to be yes. Yes – because I think anyone who starts that particular fight or busies themselves about the internet as I do is to some extent expecting attention.  But also no. No, because my anger is real. I do believe the poppy has become tarnished and appropriated and when I see Farage with his arm around veterans – the gurning damned villain Farage – who backs far right groups and who used to march around singing Hitler Youth songs – I feel like the past has been betrayed and I want to head-butt my phone. Ethics are complex things when you’re a centrist.

I’m not very interesting; the wider poppy debate and the way it has been conducted is. Since my article came out a rash of other ones have appeared both for and against and I began to notice that in almost all similar discussions on t.v. and radio those chosen to defend the symbol are, as was the case with me, ex servicemen and that almost always the poppy doubters were cast as the bad guys. That way of course the broadcaster creates drama and comment but by inviting veterans on, they simultaneously shut down the moral authority of the poppy doubters and thus the debate before it had even started. The reason for that is very simple. Britons are conditioned to “respect the services.”

There are many sacred cows in this country but the military is the holiest, fattest calf of them all. We are told, taught, expected to venerate our servicemen and women and there is next to no diverting from that line anywhere in the media or public life.

Ex-servicemen in particular are elevated to the status of secular saints. Why? The idea that we should confer respect on all soldiers, no matter what they did, simply because they were once in uniform is widespread but fundamentally odd. Where does it stop? Mass murderer Dennis Nilsen was a former soldier should we also respect him? Idi Amin was a lieutenant in the KAR – should we lay a wreath in his honour every November? The case of Marine A still concerns me. Several serving soldiers are currently under investigation for alleged far right terrorism offences – should we let them go with a smile and a wave and a cheer because they have chosen to work in our army?

Britain and indeed all advanced countries need to give themselves a thorough MOT every now and then. We need to examine our entrenched attitudes and prod, prick and poke our untouchable tin and flesh gods. In the process it is beholden upon the irritating people who start the fight to do that responsibly – but it is also absolutely essential that the wider media hosts these debates in a grown up manner that doesn’t reduce everything to the level of the playground.