Brendan O’Neill

What the rise of the Poppy refusenik tells us about Britain

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Is there anyone smugger than the poppy refusenik? I don’t mean people who don’t wear poppies. That’s absolutely fine. Knock yourselves out. I mean people who don’t wear a poppy and who tell everyone they don’t wear a poppy. At every opportunity. ‘It’s poppy-fascism time of year again but I won’t be falling for it because I actually have a brain, unlike you idiots’, they don’t quite say but definitely mean.

Poppy refuseniks have replaced poppy fascists (Jon Snow’s uncouth phrase) as the most irritating people of the Remembrance Day season. Sure, the poppy police who take to internet discussion boards the second they spy a newsreader or celeb sans poppy can be grating. But not nearly as grating as the people who virtually point to their blank, flower-free lapel and declare to any poor sod within a 10-metre radius: ‘Look! No poppy! How cool am I?’

This year the poppy refuseniks are lining up behind Stoke footballer James McClean, who, once again, will be poppy-less at games over the next couple of weeks. McClean is from Derry, a city with a very recent troubled relationship with the British Army. He says he doesn’t wear a poppy out of respect for the victims of the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1972.

I respect McClean’s decision. Footballers are not just lumps of meat who kick a ball around for our entertainment — they are individuals, with individual consciences, and they must enjoy the same right as everyone else to exercise their conscience. What’s more, you get the impression McClean would rather there wasn’t such a fuss around his unwillingness to wear a poppy. His poppy-free football top is not a showy, narcissistic thing, but a quiet, personal statement. The online poppy cops mauling him and calling him ‘Fenian scum’ should be ashamed of themselves.

But then there are the poppy refuseniks who spy in the McClean controversy yet another opportunity to remind us how superior they are. Yet another stage they can clamber on to tell the world: ‘I DON’T DO POPPIES.’ Yet another chance for a bit of public moral preening. They’re all over Twitter. ‘Poppy fascism is back’, they declare. Why should we wear poppies for wars we weren’t even alive for, they ask, as if the struggles and sacrifices of the past had no impact on our lives today.

A few months ago, Laura Kaminker, a candidate for the New Democratic Party in Canada, caused a stink when she referred to poppy-wearing as ‘collective brainwashing’, where the plebs are duped by their ‘masters’ into partaking in ‘the ritual of war glorification’. Kaminker only said explicitly what many poppy refuseniks think: that poppy-wearers are donkey-like cheerers of barbarism, led by political demagogues or social pressure to wear a symbol of war. And so in not wearing a poppy, the refuseniks are making a pretty clear statement: ‘I’m better than you.’

This is why poppy refuseniks tend to sound so snobby. The poppy is now a symbol of ‘pub-bore nationalism’, said a writer for the Independent. We know who that’s a reference to: the non-Waitrose-patronising sections of society, who probably read one of the tabloid newspapers, and who might even have a St George’s flag hanging from a bedroom window. The poppy is a ‘symbol of racism’, thundered Robert Fisk a couple of years ago. And yet people lack the nerve to ‘break this fake conformity’ and ‘toss their sordid poppies’ in the bin. There it is again: the idea of collective brainwashing. We’re all so dim.

The young are the least willing to wear a poppy these days. Research found that a third of under-25s are reluctant to wear the poppy, partly because they don’t want to feel ‘bullied’ into supporting Remembrance Day. How telling. Once again the rejection of the poppy comes off like an advertisement of one’s own ability to withstand social pressure, a self-involved stance that says: ‘I don’t go along with the throng.’ The irony, of course, is that the more that poppy refuseism grows, the more it becomes its own throng, a new kind of conformism.

Indeed, very often the kind of people who make vain display of their poppy-free existence are more than willing to succumb to other kinds of lapel fascism. I bet they would have worn AIDS ribbons back when they were obligatory for all PC people. They’re the kind of people who leap with relish on every passing virtue-signal bandwagon. Indeed, Jon Snow, who first moaned about the ‘unpleasant breed of poppy fascism’ in 2006, insisted on wearing the Make Poverty History wristband a year before that. That wristband was ‘beyond contention’, he said. Really? Was it? Or is it simply that where you balk at the social pressure to wear a poppy you cave in to the social pressure to decorate yourself in other, more right-on, Hampstead-approved political signage?

And don’t get me started on white poppies, the ‘pacifist’ symbol. These strike me as tools of moral distinction, another way for people to separate themselves even more clearly from the ‘collectively brainwashed’ red-poppy-wearing hordes. For those worried that their lack of a poppy might not actually be noticed, there’s always the white poppy to pop on. ‘I’m not like you pub-bore war-lovers’, it says.

What the rise of poppy refuseniks really speaks to is an estrangement from Britain’s past. Especially among the young. There is now a tendency to see everything Britain did in the past as wicked and bloody and pointless. Whether it’s student officials threatening to paint over murals of young men who were slain in the Great War or Corbynistas insisting that the horrors of Empire be taught to schoolkids, there’s a palpable disgust with British history and traditions. This isn’t radicalism — it’s misanthropy disguised as radicalism; it’s a narcissistic disengagement from British society and its founding events dressed up in the lingo of anti-war. I have never worn a poppy before. This year I think I will.

Written byBrendan O’Neill

Brendan O’Neill is the editor of Spiked and a columnist for The Australian and The Big Issue.

Topics in this articleSociety