Poppies: a praiseworthy choice, not a moral obligation

Before writing this piece, I should say I am wearing a poppy. Sort of. It fell off, as they are wont to do, and I accidentally rolled over it in my office chair, but I’ve salvaged it and it’s sticking out of my jacket pocket. I’ll lose it in a few hours, though, so I’ll buy another. I should also say that I am a huge supporter of what the Royal British Legion does, and I stand silently for the two minutes’ silence every year.

The annual poppy appeal began the other day, in the build-up to Remembrance Day on 11 November. David Cameron has bought his already, and no doubt Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg will follow suit, and probably at some stage a BBC presenter or a politician will be filmed without one, and there will be a minor uproar.

Having got my first-paragraph disclaimer out of the way, I want to say that, for a poppy to mean anything, it has to be a choice to wear it. The point should be that we praise Mr Cameron et al for doing it, not that we watch with beady eyes for the first sign of a public figure who leaves the house without one. There has been a gathering sense, in recent years, of a change of emphasis: instead of it being a laudable act to wear the poppy, it has become morally unacceptable not to. Three years ago, Marina Hyde in The Guardian pointed out that 15 football clubs in the Premier League put poppies on their shirts over the Remembrance Day weekend – but that the big story was that five did not. The situation has not improved since then. The meaning of the act is lost if you are expected to wear one, if it is a mark of shame to go unpoppied in early November: you are not remembering the dead, you are avoiding social stigma.

More than that, it’s a distortion of the charity marketplace. Every pound spent on a poppy is one not given to St Mungo’s or the RNLI. People only have so much money to go around – and rather less than usual at the moment – so we can assume that their charity budget is limited. Normally, you imagine, they would give money to whichever cause they feel is most deserving. (Some strange streak of British sentimentality does mean that a donkey sanctuary gets more money than several domestic abuse charities combined, but that’s the free market for you.) If the poppy moralising makes people feel unable to spare their usual monthly £5 to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, that’s bad news for the bittern. More specifically, smaller regimental charities have been struggling to make funds. Gen Sir Mike Jackson, the former Chief of the General Staff, said last November that they have been “forgotten in recent years”, and has backed an umbrella charity, The ForceSelect Foundation, which will support them. It is not fanciful to suggest that the overwhelming focus on the poppy campaign and Help for Heroes has diverted attention away from other service charities.

None of this is, I stress, to denigrate the fantastic work that the RBL does, nor to tell anyone that they should stop wearing poppies. Buy poppies, and remember the very real sacrifice of the men and women who have fought and suffered in wars around the world. But angry bluster over people who don’t – see the outrage over Fifa’s semi-rescinded decision to prevent England’s footballers wearing one during a match against Spain last year – is not only ugly, it’s counter-productive. Admire the people who do wear them: don’t criticise the ones who don’t.


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