My father was possibly the world's most conformist man, except in one regard. Despite being a non-commissioned officer of the Royal Air Force, he wouldn't wear a poppy in November.
His reason was that, at the time, the black stud in the centre of the poppies said "Haig Fund" on them and my dad, rightly in my option, felt that??Field Marshal Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, KT, GCB, OM, GCVO, KCIE, ADC was a mass murderer. My father couldn't bring himself to wear something that celebrated the ultimate donkey who led the lions of 1914-1918 to their deaths. He still donated to the fund itself – the good works the Royal British Legion does are amazing – but he refused to advertise the Butcher of the Somme. Nobody ever questioned this – it was his right to take a stand on something he believed in strongly and nobody in the armed services would argue with that – the services are there, the men died, to protect our right to take a stand on something we believe in strongly.
Flash forward now to the early 21st century. Something has changed. It appears that the poppy is no longer voluntary. This has been coming on for a long time; it started over a decade ago when the popular press, always eager to grasp at a stick to beat the BBC with, started watching BBC programmes very very carefully in the first two weeks of November, looking for instances of people not wearing one and then lambasting the corporation for not being patriotic or for having too many "hard left" people on screen (as if the Right had a monopoly on??patriotism, and as if the poppy was anything to do with??patriotism??at all). The BBC responded in the hamfisted way the BBC responds to irrational criticism. Pre-recorded programmes that might be shown in early November suddenly had presenters wearing poppies, even if the piece was filmed in July. The date that newsreaders began to wear poppies on the BBC got earlier and earlier, with presenters now often sporting one from mid-October onwards.??Accidental lapses were hurriedly concealed by the BBC, with Diane Abbott MP even managing to magically grow a poppy during a hurried cutaway whilst sitting on the This Week sofa. It didn't matter – the tabs still beat the BBC for it.
This type of nonsense has led to the poppy, a symbol of the futility of war, a reminder that twice in the last century the entire world went to war and millions upon millions of people died, to now become a political symbol with so much being read into it that it is losing the true meaning: we remember the dead of the past lest we repeat such pointless slaughter again in the future. We're already not very good at that part as it is, as we wind down from being involved in one morally dubious civil war, one strategically impossible civil war and one immoral and illegal war of our own making that has left a civil war behind it.
The??politicising??of the poppy allowed the attention-seeking representative of nobody except himself??Emdadur Choudhury to attempt to make himself into a martyr last Remembrance Day by burning some publicly, getting arrested for breach of the peace and ending up in front of the beak and getting a ??50 fine. This was pointless behaviour by both sides – Choudhury for being an idiot and the law for being an ass.
Then, this week, three teenagers in Northern Ireland recorded themselves fucking about in a park, like bored, stupid teenagers do, including them setting fire to a poppy. They posted a picture on a social networking site, as teenagers do, but this picture got seen by an adult with nothing better to do than trawl social networking sites looking for pictures of teenagers fucking about; he called the police. That's where it should have ended. But the police arrested the boys – there must be very little for police to do in Northern Ireland so this was some excitement for them – and they found themselves up in front of another beak in another show of idiot-meets-ass.
Earlier this week saw another storm, when an old article by Laurie Penny was republished by the Stop The War Coalition and was picked up by social media, given a 140 character spin that didn't reflect the words actually written and brought damnation and hellfire down on the columnist. All she was doing was noting that the poppy is so easily misused and that there's an irony in plain sight ever time we see a politician piously wearing a poppy: all of our prime ministers since 1979 have involved us in other peoples' wars, usually to little effect (the exception being John Major, who went out of his way to avoid us being involved in several wars where our presence as part of the UN would've been legal, morally right and above all useful in stopping bloodshed). Laurie Penny had the joy of being attacked by all sides, in the name of patriotism, for simply writing about poppies making her feel uncomfortable. That's not good; it also tells you something when you see just how loudly the howls came from Liberal Democrat bloggers – what fascinating changes power has??wrought.
I'm not a very conformist person, quite the opposite to my father. But I do wear a poppy (in the week before Remembrance Day, not for the now-mandatory month). I have friends who wear white poppies as a symbol of pacifism, which they're entitled to do. It wouldn't suit me – it seems just as pious as Tony Blair wearing his red poppy along with his "solemn" face – but I'm not keen to force my standards on to anybody else. I also know people who don't wear one at all, and I never care about that either. It's a personal choice whether you give money to the British Legion and it's another personal choice whether you wear a poppy to show that you've done so (that's how they began, as a form of "flag day" pin so that the fundraisers would know you'd donated and wouldn't press you again).
The pressure from the media, from the easily-outraged blogosphere and from the "patriotic" right to wear a poppy is counterproductive, however. The more you force people to conform to anything, the more you push people into standing up against you. Making the poppy seem mandatory will just lead to more people who previously wore one (and, more importantly, previously gave to the Legion) stepping back because of the??coercion??and thus less people wearing one.
The wearing, or not wearing, of any symbol is voluntary and must remain so. Of course there will always be social pressure to conform to what it seems the majority want. But forcing people to conform by shouting them down or dragging them in front of a magistrate is a very Bad Thing, not least because it sullies the memory of those who died to give us the freedom of to choose not to conform by fighting against??regimes??that killed millions in the name of conformity.