In this centenary year of remembrance I had intended to create an impressive display of poppies grown on a patch of recently disturbed ground in the Meeting House gardens but for whatever reason they failed to appear. Perhaps the seeds I scattered in the summer’s dry earth fell prey to birds and beasts before they had the chance to germinate. Still, a handful that had grown up in one border persisted later than expected, almost to remembrance day itself, still blooming in late October.
Earlier this year a request by the mayor of Skipton to permit the inclusion of white poppies in the remembrance wreath to be laid this week was rejected by the town council’s finance and policy committee. Using words such as ‘shocking’, ‘disrespectful’ and ‘pseudo-populist rubbish’, the committee’s Councillors blocked the mayor’s proposed gesture, intended in his words to recall the celebration of peace rather than victory at the end of the first world war.
As controversies go, differences of opinion about which poppy is appropriate to wear seems both tiresomely regular and, in my view, wholly unnecessary. Created respectively in 1921 and 1933, the red and white poppies simply symbolise different aspects of remembrance – the first, honouring the courage and sacrifice of combatants; the second recalling all victims of war and calling for a culture of peace. Each achieve further practical goals, the sale of the British Legion’s red poppies funding support for injured veterans and the families of military casualties, whilst the white funds the Peace Pledge Union’s promotion of ‘non-violent approaches to conflict and challenging militarism’.
These goals need not be mutually exclusive. Whilst it’s true that by the 1930’s the originators of the white poppy, the Women’s Co-operative Guild, felt that the red had become associated with a growing militarisation of Remembrance events rather than a symbol of peace, 80 years on the context in which we remember both the 1914-18 war and all subsequent conflicts has altered radically, calling for and de facto resulting in new understandings and perspectives on what remembrance can mean. On the one hand, historic detachment from the events of a century ago makes it easy to forget the intentions of those who devised the first acts of remembrance – who constructed what they termed ‘peace memorials’, not war memorials as later re-expressed. On the other, the diversity of our present-day society, the growing depth of experience in non-violence and peace-building and conversely the support for arms exports by governments as a key component of our economy, mean that there must be room for acts of remembrance challenging political orthodoxies that lead to bloodshed, whether suffered by combatants or civilians.
Many people, myself included, want to support both causes – help for those who have made bitter sacrifices on our behalf; and challenge to the validity of the political decisions that placed them in harm’s way. But this is also not the only possible perspective. Whether one or more poppies are worn is an act of individual conscience and the decision to wear the red in particular is a gesture of charity. To make either a matter of uniform is to remove volition and ultimately the value of this gesture. Further, a refusal to accept the validity of this choice undermines the very freedoms that those who struggle through war, in whatever capacity, believed they were fighting for. Finally, to condemn another person’s means of honouring the dead of war as ‘disrespectful’, hence refusing to afford that person and any holding a different view to one’s own the same dignity claimed for another group, could itself be considered disrespectful in the extreme.
If we are unable to cope with the presentation of two colours of poppy in a wreath intended to express the response of our whole society to the losses incurred in war then the gesture is an impoverished one, sad, monochrome and unrepresentative of who we are and of what modern Britain has always been: democratic, politically diverse and above all a country in which alternative expressions are not only tolerated but celebrated.