It’s not easy being on the left at this time of year. The annual Remembrance season unleashes a massive social pressure to conform to a national narrative of respect for the troops who’ve ‘sacrificed’ their lives for the nation in its wars in the past, and support for those currently fighting its wars in the present.
For those in the public eye this pressure is especially pronounced, with TV presenters, celebrities, and studio guests ensuring on pain of public opprobrium that they have a poppy pinned to their chests. A notable exception to this is Channel Four’s Jon Snow, who in the past has described it as ‘poppy fascism’. I recall this time last year George Galloway telling me how he was put under pressure by Sky to wear a poppy when he was on to review the papers. Of course, he refused, but it does illustrate the hysteria that is whipped up and of how the poppy and Remembrance Day has been politicised.
A few days ago I had a piece on Remembrance Day published at the Huffington Post. It’s an amended version of an article I posted on Socialist Unity this time last year. I have to admit I thought twice before deciding to send it in, anticipating a hostile backlash. I’m happy to say the response to the article has been overwhelmingly positive, with over 400 people clicking on the ‘Like’ icon thus far.
I also appeared on BBC Scotland’s ‘Call Kaye’ phone-in show last week to debate the politicisation of the poppy with Ian McGregor, Chief Executive of Poppyscotland. When I was contacted about doing the show the night before, I was told that McGregor had come out publicly and stated that people can wear the red poppy and still be antiwar. They were trying to get me to say the opposite – i.e. that you can’t wear the poppy and be antiwar. I realised immediately that this was a set-up, so I responded to the producer that conceivably you can be antiwar and wear anything you like, but that the red poppy cannot be considered an antiwar symbol, given that it’s been so politicised. Anyway, I went on the show the following morning and lo and behold they did their best to make me out to be against the poppy and therefore against the troops and their families, etc.
You can listen to the debate here. The item starts at around 47.00 in.
As a result of the Huffington Post piece, I received a tweet this morning from someone who’d read and liked it. She drew my attention to the furore that’s broken out in response to the decision by Daniel Cooper to refuse, in his capacity as Vice President of the University of London Union, an invitation to lay a wreath at the University of London remembrance service. Daniel, a socialist, wrote an outstanding letter laying out the reasons for his decision not to participate, which everyone should read.
Regardless, his decision has met with condemnation bordering on anathematization, consisting of a dedicated Facebook page demanding his resignation and this article in the Daily Tab, a London newspaper I’ve never heard of.
This to me emphasises the need for the left to challenge the conventional narrative surrounding the poppy and Remembrance Day no matter how hard or difficult it might be. The alternative is to cede ground in the battle of ideas to the right when it comes to setting the narrative not only in terms of the history of Britain’s wars, but more importantly over fomenting support for its present and future wars.
Overall, this week leaves me even more in awe of those giants in the history of the left who paid a far heavier price than any of us have had to pay for maintaining an antiwar stance in the face of such nationalist hysteria and patriotic fervour surrounding the militarisms of their respective countries. I’m thinking here of people like John MacLean, Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, and Eugene Debs.
As Liebknecht wrote: ‘Capitalism is war; socialism is peace’.
A simple statement, one he dedicated himself to upholding, and ultimately one that cost him his life.