THE LAST POST – by Daniel Powell
As the clock strikes eight at the Menin Gate in Ypres every evening, its arch resonates to the familiar somber sound of the last post. Yet the most grave prospect that echoes from the bugler’s call is that just as its remembrance of the ‘war to end all wars’ at this iconic location is never the last, the conflicts will continue too.
This commemoration for the casualties of the First World War has been conducted at Ypres daily since 1928; the only interruption being the years of German occupation during the Second World War, when the service was relocated to Britain. Here, the armistice of 11th November and conflicts since are remembered annually with the traditional wearing of artificial red poppies produced and sold by the British Legion to raise funds for armed forces veterans and their dependents. The symbol was adopted from the USA where Moina Michael began wearing one of silk on her lapel in 1918 to remember the war dead, inspired by John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Fields.
Initially the British poppy’s centre bore the words ‘Haig Fund’, eponymous for the Field Marshall. In 1926 The Legion refused the No More War Movement’s proposal that the centre bear the words ‘No More War’, though it was replaced with ‘Poppy Appeal’ in 1994. The Co-Operative Women’s Guild began producing an alternative white peace poppy in 1933, with the idea of remembering casualties from all wars and a hope for their end. The Peace Pledge Union (PPU) has since continued this practice. The British Legion has no objection to white poppies, or any group expressing its views: “We see no conflict in wearing the red poppy alongside the white poppy. We do ask that the items are not offered alongside each other however as this would confuse the public.”
Last October, the Daily Telegraph reported that former Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan Colonel Richard Kemp had expressed indignation at a decision made by the NUT (National Union of Teachers) who had endorsed the selling of white poppies alongside red ones in schools. Kemp opined that although it is permissible for schools to allow the discussion of different political perspectives, they should not be “indoctrinating children with a left wing political agenda.”
The story gives pause for consideration. The wearing of a white poppy is not explicitly a left-wing agenda; granted, perhaps a majority of wearers may tend towards left-wing views, but either way, the symbol itself is simply an acknowledgement that many people have died in wars, some of whom apparently did so defending the right for others to have the freedom of expression – something the Colonel now wishes to deny if he is adamant that children should not be given the option wear a white poppy. Given that these supposedly dangerous ideological symbols produced by the officially secular PPU are yet supported by Quakers and Anglicans, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the NUT decision endangers “indoctrinating” children with a Christian agenda – but presumably that would not sound quite menacing enough for the Colonel’s own agenda, which is to discredit the white poppy movement. Kemp evidently believes that characterising the white poppy as “left-wing” gives the sufficient air of peril to invoke the stern opposition of right-minded patriots across the nation.
The accusation that patriotism is absent from the politics of those who regard themselves as left-leaning is an old one.
George Orwell once wrote “England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings.” Whilst Orwell was wont to lend himself to a degree of hyperbole, his opinion is clear: too many on the left are hesitant to embrace the idea of nationhood. The reason is perhaps made clearer in his review of Hitler’s Mein Kampf: “The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do.”
Other commentators have rebutted of the charge. Tony Benn, who surely fits into the mould of Orwell’s quintessential English leftist intellectual, was keen to make the point that on the contrary, the values of socialism are inherently patriotic. The emphasis on collectivism, unity, the historical struggle for fairer distribution of wealth plus better working and living conditions for all are natural patriotic aims; that socialists argue for such things but reject what they see as jingoistic foreign policy is no contradiction. Benn often provided a personal anecdote to reinforce the point, telling of a conversation he had with a fellow serviceman on a troop-ship during the Second World War. If all of these vast resources galvanised by Britain’s wartime planned economy could be created for the purpose of killing Germans, asked his comrade, why could they not be utilised for building more schools, homes, and hospitals?
Simple as the question may be, the question was answered in 1945 when Labour’s landslide was followed by mass investment in the sort of infrastructure Benn’s interlocutor spoke of. Many who lived through this period spoke of a new optimism for the “Spirit of ’45” as the Ken Loach documentary is titled. Today, in the midst of a resurgence of democratic socialist politics, some speak nostalgically of this era citing Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee as a premier whose legacy should be aspired to. However, if Attlee represents the sort of politics Colonel Kemp worries the N.U.T. seeks to “indoctrinate” children with, then let us consider. Attlee was a member of the wartime coalition cabinet; although his quiet, studious personality was far from the ‘bulldog’ caricature of Churchill, Attlee was also responsible for guiding a fully militarised Britain through that most costly war. Granted, it will be argued this conflict had to be fought – and its status as a paradigmatic ‘just war’ is reflected when it is cited as a reason why everyone must wear a red poppy on Remembrance Day, even if reservations about British involvements in other conflicts are warranted. Nevertheless, admiration for the achievements of his Labour government must not be tempered by amnesia. It was under Attlee that Britain entered NATO and the Malayan and Korean Wars. During a cabinet meeting in October 1946 Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin said of the atomic bomb: “We’ve got to have this thing over here whatever it costs.. We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it.”
Democratic socialism’s history cannot be wholly separated from militarism. Nor should it be forgotten that trade unionists, socialists, and communists travelled to Spain to fight Franco’s fascism during the civil war there, under the banner of the International Brigades. Those Brigaders are emulated today by leftist British volunteers who have travelled to Syria to fight against Daesh (ISIL) for the International Freedom Battalion of the Kurdish YPG, who are the armed forces of Rojava, an autonomous zone carving itself out with progressive values of feminist equality, ecology and Democratic Confederalism which had its roots in Marxist-Leninism.
Leftist politics are not necessarily pacifistic; they contain a long tradition of protests and confrontations with the far-right, some of which have been immortalised in history such as the Battle of Cable Street in 1936. Indeed, the revolutionary aspect of Marxism is de facto linked to upheavals that necessitate violent overthrow of tyranny and subsequent redistribution of wealth. However – this is not to say that all left-wing politics are necessarily connected to violence, of course. A glance at movements such as the CND and Stop the War show a strong left-wing presence; though as with the white poppy movement itself, they are not explicitly left-wing and nor do all subscribers to such movements necessarily commit themselves to absolute pacifism. The PPU’s white poppy manifesto proposes that all casualties of war be remembered. When representative Symon Hill was invited onto Good Morning Britain to debate with Colonel Kemp, presenter Ben Shepard attempted to corner Hill by suggesting that remembrance of all casualties includes members of ISIS. Hill countered that the point of the white poppy was primarily to remember the vast numbers of civilian casualties of wars internationally, since the red poppy represents members of Britain’s Armed Forces only.
Given these considerations, we should question Colonel Kemp’s consternations. Avowedly right-wing, he writes for the Sun, Express, Mail plus the far-right website Breitbart. In his criticism of the NUT’s endorsement of the white poppy, a key target of his vitriol is likely the most prominent leftist figurehead of our time, Jeremy Corbyn, who appears in Kemp’s crosshairs as former vice-chair of CND and longtime critic of aggressive foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2016 Corbyn was forced to recant on a suggestion that he might wear a white poppy alongside a red one on Remembrance Day, and his visits to the Cenotaph have provoked ire from much of the right-wing leaning press (thus almost all of it.) Bizarre criticisms emerged that he had not bowed correctly at the Cenotaph or was dressed in the wrong suit, a groundhog day throwback to Michael Foot’s ‘donkey jacket’ moment in 1981. Cobyn’s opponents attempted to force into the national narrative that his leanings (no pun intended) were dangerously pacifistic. This was reflected during the BBC’s pre-election special during which several members of the public did their utmost to barrack him into pledging a 100% commitment to launching a nuclear strike; not so. On the other hand, Theresa May responded with a shameless “Yes” when asked in the Commons by the SNP’s George Kerevan “Are you prepared to authorise a nuclear strike that could kill hundreds of thousands of men, women and children?”
The Tabloid press has made much of Corbyn’s positions on politics and conflict; they wax and wane between false extremities: He is hard-left, a Communist! – (shock!) No wait, he is an anti-Semite, a Nazi – (horror!) Also he’s a terrorist – (gasp!) nay, even worse, a pacifist! – (even worse!) One of the most disgraceful attempts to smear Corbyn came on Remembrance Day 2016, when both the Sun and Mail ran online stories featuring a photograph purportedly showing the Labour leader ‘dancing a jig’ on his way to the Cenotaph. It soon emerged that the photographer had selected a frame that had simply captured him in the middle of making an emphatic gesture to a friend whilst walking. That friend was former constituent George Durack, who has remained close to Corbyn since successfully nominating him to run as a candidate for the seat of Islington North, which he has been MP for since 1983. Mr.Durack, who was then active with the Communication Workers Union, is also a 93 year-old Normandy veteran who partook in the liberation of Belsen concentration camp. The Sun and Mail had callously cropped Mr.Durack out of the photograph and reinvented it as a completely false story, attempting once more to defame Corbyn as behaving disrespectfully on his way to the Cenotaph; truly lower than gutter press.
The poppy as symbol of support for veterans of Britain’s long war in Afghanistan is somewhat ingloriously ironic given the factor the opium trade plays in that conflict. Prior to the invasion of 2001, the Taliban had outlawed the growing of poppies and cultivation had fallen to a record low of 8,000 hectares; following the US-led invasion it surged massively and stands at over 200,000 hectares, some of which is guarded by British troops. It is not only foreign policy executed in distant regions such as Helmand that has caused rejection of social pressure to wear a red poppy.
On Remembrance Sunday 2014, footballers across Britain wore red poppies in commemoration. One Wigan player’s refusal to wear the symbol caused a controversy that led him to pen an open letter of explanation. Countering claims that he was disgracing those who sacrificed themselves for Britain in its most perilous hours, James McClean said he had complete respect for those who fought and died in both world wars, yet: “the poppy is used to remember victims of other conflicts since 1945 and this is where the problem starts for me.” McClean continued: “For people from the North of Ireland such as myself, and specifically those in Derry, scene of the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre, the poppy has come to mean something very different.. when you come from Creggan like myself or the Bogside, Brandywell, every person still lives in the shadow of one of the darkest days in Ireland’s history – even if, like me, you were born nearly 20 years after the event. For me to wear a poppy would be as much a gesture of disrespect for the innocent people who lost their lives in the Troubles – and Bloody Sunday especially – as I have in the past been accused of disrespecting the victims of WWI and WWII. It would be seen as an act of disrespect to those people; to my people.”
In 2016, the international football governing body FIFA fined all four UK home nation teams for wearing the red poppies, deeming them ‘political symbols.’ After much outcry, compromise has now been reached by which the symbol may be worn if both teams plus the organiser at a match agree. This year, England have permission to wear the symbol in their match against Germany the evening before Remembrance day.
Not all opponents of the red poppy symbol are benign pacifists; as the clock struck 11.00 in Kensington on Remembrance Day 2010, the two-minute silence was broken by chants of “British soldiers burn in hell” from protestors belonging to a group named Muslims against Crusades, (MAC) who simultaneously set two large plastic red poppies ablaze. They were then challenged by members of the English Defence League (EDL) including its leader Tommy Robinson, who was subsequently arrested along with others from both sides of a clash which saw one policeman hospitalised for head injuries (received from the EDL leader.) The MAC was banned just prior to the following year’s Remembrance Day. Some months prior they had held a funeral prayer for Osama Bin Laden outside the US embassy upon the occasion of his death, and were reportedly planning a protest named ‘Hell for Heroes’, a spin on the Help for Heroes charity that raises funds for veterans. The EDL leader has since left the group, citing concerns that it was a vehicle for far-right extremism, though he has frequently espoused such views and believes that it is not just Salafist-type extremism that is problematic, but Islam per se. The EDL continues to organise rallies, which are often countered by Anti-Fascist protestors in physical confrontations. In the wake of the Westminster bridge terror attack in 2017, leftist and anti-fascist British volunteers for the Kurdish YPG’s International Freedom Battalion fighting Daesh (ISIL) in Syria released a statement that included the dry remark “For all the sound and fury, we don’t remember seeing anyone from Britain First, EDL, UKIP, or their like, by our side in battle,” and added “the only way to defeat the Islamic State, and groups like it, is with ordinary, moderate Muslims on side.”
The highest irony of Colonel Kemp’s charge that the NUT is attempting to “indoctrinate” children with the white poppy is that the British Army actively advertises in schools, including to under-16 year olds with a view to recruiting them as trained killers ready for deployment to war zones where they may be expected to take lives or sacrifice their own for whatever agenda Queen and Country asks of them – even if the war they find themselves embroiled in is one that not only may be viewed as immoral and faces mass domestic opposition here, but is ruled as illegal under international law. It is for similar reasons that some here hesitate to wear a red poppy – lest the gesture be interpreted as an implicit acceptance that all of Britain’s military exploits fit the conditions for jus ad bellum, the just war.
As the Peace Pledge Union has highlighted, the U.K. government has spent over £45m promoting militarism in schools, with Armed Forces visits targeting the poorest areas. Sixth form scholarships are offered in exchange for a commitment to join. In endorsing the presence of white poppies in schools, the NUT is simply offering children the chance to make their own decisions on how to remember the casualties of war, be that by wearing either poppy, neither, or both.
The white poppy as peace symbol is also remembrance that however ambitious such goals may be, a gradual de-escalation of aggressive foreign policy, nuclear disarmament and the halting of malignant arms trading should be the ethical standards to strive for. Taking some bold first steps can lead to wonderful things in the long run. Progress towards such a future may seem a distant utopia, but perhaps only as incomprehensible that the humble seed grows to become a beautiful flower, whatever the colour the petals.