Donald Clarke: Let’s not start another war over the wearing of the poppy

Wear it or not, as you please, and ignore the multitude of whingers in both camps

Can we please stop shouting at one another?

Eight years ago, Jon Snow, the brightly tied Channel 4 newscaster, coined the phrase “poppy fascism” to describe the practice of berating anybody in the public eye who dares to venture out without wearing that symbol before Remembrance Sunday. In the interim, the comments have been taken out of context to suggest that Snow believed the wearing of the poppy was itself fascist.

Of course, he meant no such thing. “I do , in my private life, but I am not going to wear it or any other symbol on air,” he clarified. Snow had no particular beef with the poppy. He merely objected to the insistence that broadcasters must don the flower.

If you were in any doubt that poppy fascism had eased you need only look to the comments of Barbara Windsor this week. The indestructible cockney sparrow was asked what she would say to anybody who chose not to wear a poppy. “They can sod off for all I care,” she told Sky News. Earlier on this year, members of the parliamentary Labour Party – who should have more important things on their mind – found time in their first meeting with Jeremy Corbyn to ask whether he would wear a red poppy or the pacifist white version. (Mr Corbyn wore the red flower at this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions.)


Snow is correct. Aside from anything else, the symbolic meaning of the poppy – whatever you take that to be – is rendered irrelevant if you are wearing it merely because you must. The gesture is then no more significant than appearing on television with your trousers on.

People who whinge about others not wearing the poppy should be ignored.

Elsewhere, the opposing camp was yelling at Conor McGregor, bearded Ultimate Fighting champion, for wearing a metallic poppy. (To be fair, anybody who dares to take issue with Mr McGregor is not short of courage.) “Comes out to 1916 song The Foggy Dew then wears a poppy remembering the men who fought to kill and suppress them and the ideals they fought for,” somebody from the Seán Heuston 1916 Society posted. The hashtag “#?CroppiesDontWearPoppies” appeared beneath the comments.

McGregor was uncompromising in his response. “I know where my allegiance lies and what I do for my country,” he replied. “I don’t need a stupid little flower with 100 different meanings to tell me if I do or do not represent my country.” Just when it looked as if he might have the Daily Mail on his side, he continued: “F*** you and the queen.” Whatever you say, Conor. Please don’t hit me.

People who whinge about others wearing the poppy should be ignored.

We have insufficient space to work through the arguments in full, but any reasonable person would admit that there are more nuances at play here than either Barbara Windsor or the Seán Heuston people pretend.

Inspired by John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields, the tradition grew up as a way of honouring those who died on the wretched battlefields of the first World War. “In Flanders fields the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row,” it begins. The later sections do gesture towards jingoism, but contemporary remembrance ceremonies rarely involve celebration of victory in that messy imperialist catastrophe. Like the powerful Vietnam memorial in Washington DC, the Armistice Day events are in the business of mourning.

Opponents of the poppy point out that proceeds from their sale go towards the Royal British Legion, which cares for members and veterans of the British Armed Forces. It is suggested that wearing of the flower therefore implies blanket support of all the British army’s activities. Viewed from that perspective, it is understandable why a Northern Irish nationalist might choose to defy the poppy fascists and leave his lapel unadorned.

The footballer James McClean, raised in Derry, has spoken articulately about why he chooses not to wear one on his West Bromwich Albion shirt. “We are coming up to Remembrance Day and I won’t wear a poppy on my shirt,” he said. “People say I am being disrespectful, but don’t ask why I choose not to wear it.” Fair enough.

Few people who choose to wear a poppy would accept that they are implicitly approving of the paratroopers’ actions on Bloody Sunday. Few who refuse to wear the item would accept that they are offering any disrespect to those slaughtered at the Somme. The problem, as Jean-Paul Sartre would surely agree, is other people. Neither class of fascist is really making a point about the symbol itself. They are using the controversy to foghorn their own political beliefs.

No offence to Barbara Windsor, who is (at least) as terrifying as Conor McGregor.