First of all, here is a link to the Royal British Legion website, where you can donate money to their cause, which is to support the families of British service men and women injured or killed in armed conflict around the world. These are the stated values of the British Legion:
- Reflection – through Remembrance of past sacrifice in the cause of freedom
- Hope – by remembering the past, a younger generation has the chance of a better future
- Comradeship – through shared experience and mutual support
- Selflessness – by putting others first
- Service – to those in need and in support of the whole community
Now, forgive me if I spell this one out, but in foolishly attempting to state my case on Twitter yesterday, I have caused a minority to call me names, and I wish to clear the air in more than 140 characters: one way of showing your support to the work of the British Legion, and to publicly remember those British service personnel who have been killed since the First World War, is to wear a red poppy. Should you wish to donate money to the British Legion, either in person or via their website, and not wear a poppy, is up to you; it’s your choice. Is it, some might say, the very freedom of choice that servicemen and women fought for in the Second World War. (It is also your choice whether or not to donate, but that is a different matter.)
As I stated on Twitter, my views on war and servicemen and women are too complex to reduce to the wearing or not wearing of a paper flower, so I choose not to. This is not a stance, or a boycott, if anything it is an absence – the absence of a need to display my feelings in the street. The only reason I mentioned this on Twitter in the first place is that I am already feeling peer pressure and emotional pressure to wear one. Fortunately, I have not been on television during the run-up to Remembrance Sunday, so have not been in a position where it has been broadcaster policy and thus been coerced into doing so. (NB: See Chris Treece’s comment about BBC poppy policy below.)
The poppy is good. Its original meaning is sound: poppies grew in Flanders fields (as captured in John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields) and elsewhere after the First World War and so represents rebirth and positivity, and – for me, anyway – something natural and not man-made reclaiming the earth after the earth has been scorched and muddied and associated with death by something unnatural and very man-made ie. war. The poppy, introduced here in 1921, is worn for essentially good reasons: to remember the dead. I have no problem with it, or anybody who wears one. The outward display of a personal belief – that the dead should be remembered – is not a bad thing. It is just not for me. I would hope that anyone who knows me knows that I have a great deal of compassion for people and animals, and this is borne out in my worldview – and in the charities I support. For those who don’t know me, why should I worry about what they think? If they pass me in the street, see my lack of poppy (which, by the way, is not that uncommon – I must have passed 150 people between Tube station and the BBC yesterday and I counted four, two of which were worn by security staff; and only one today between Tube and library) do they come to conclusion, “Oh, he must be glad that men and women have died in wars”? I sincerely hope not.
I don’t wear badges or wristbands or ribbons or flags that denote which charities and causes I support, because I am happy just supporting them. I am at peace with myself, and with those that wear such things. I do not judge others for wearing a wristband or a ribbon. I might assume that they support a particular charity or cause, but that is their choice. I don’t think they are more compassionate than me because they tell me that they are in a coded way, but I assume that they are compassionate. But I assume people are compassionate unless given evidence to the contrary. I certainly don’t assume that anyone not wearing a Lance Armstrong wristband is pleased that people have died of cancer. So why should anyone seeing my lapel think anything negative about me?
Feelings clearly run high on this issue. Someone called Lisa posted a message here on the end of an unrelated entry calling me “a disgrace,” and effectively ordering me to wear one. (Someone on Twitter who felt passionately about the subject suggested I wear one and “do the decent thing.”) I really do object to being ordered to do something – this is one step away from bullying. It’s emotionally charged and unnecessary. Call me names for bad things I have done, not for supposedly virtuous things I have not done. I accept that, on a very modest scale, I am a public figure. Anyone who writes books and appears on radio or telly is. But that does not mean I have to set an example. I would rather influence people by airing my views on serious matters when the time is right and when the forum allows me to explain myself. I am usually caricatured as a woolly liberal, and to be honest, I am happy enough with that. It doesn’t cover all my views, or reflect all my opinions, but it’s a start. Certainly, I don’t feel like “a disgrace.” (I am hoping Lisa will engage in a debate under this entry, but I also hope she will withdraw her accusation of me being a “disgrace”. I save that word up for people who have done something to harm others.)
Please donate to the British Legion if you believe they are worthy of support, and please do not feel any self-consciousness about wearing or not wearing a poppy. Do what you please. I read an interesting blog yesterday from an ex-serviceman who said he chose not to wear a poppy because he couldn’t bear the hypocrisy of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown wearing one when they actually sent soldiers to their deaths under false pretenses. That’s a fairly extreme view, but one that he is entitled to. (Certainly, for politicians, it is an opportunity for them to appear to commune with the nation on an issue they consider beyond party politics, even though war is completely political, especially the wars we are currently engaged in.)
My brother was in the British Army for 15 years and put his life at risk, like many soldiers do. I admit, this colours my otherwise woolly liberal views, as do the numerous books I have read about the hard realities of war, from Waterloo to Iraq. I have not, nor will I ever, put myself willingly in an armed conflict, because I am a coward. That, thus far, has been my choice. Many who were conscripted from 1914 onwards in this country were probably also cowards, but stepped up when the situation required it. I respect them as much as I respect anyone who volunteers. Why? Because they are human beings. I happen not to believe in killing other human beings, which is why my stance on the military is complicated. I do not believe in the death penalty. Others do. I do not think they are a “disgrace” for believing in it. I just disagree with them.
In many ways, yesterday’s debate on Twitter was stimulating, but it was also, for me, infuriating, as I kept having to reiterate the same arguments, in 140 characters. I would much rather debate it here. Equally, I hope I have made my case clear enough, so that there is nothing else to debate, although I am happy to publish any views that do not cross the line of decency, and are posted under a name, even if it’s a made up one.
Please do not judge anyone by their poppy or their lack of poppy. We live in a free country, where feelings about war are complicated and full of grey areas, and where our service men and women are currently being killed and injured on a daily basis. It is possible to support them, and the families they leave behind, without supporting the wars they are fighting. It is also possible to support them without telling everybody.