Getting Shirty: the Poppy Wars Continue

An England Shirt with Poppy Badge.

Who needs a calender when you’ve got the media?

You know you’re at the end of June when Tennis inexplicably hits the front pages of the red tops. When our supposedly paedophile-hating press publish front-page pictures of groups of pretty young schoolgirls celebrating exam results, it’s the end of August. And when the first appearance of a story about a council replacing festive decorations with Diwali lights appears in the The Daily Mail, you know the Twelve Weeks of Christmas are drawing to their end.

Just as the year has seasons, so does journalism. And, just as surely as the fall of the first leaf heralds the coming of Autumn, so the appearance of a poppy controversy in the press tells us we’re in the first week of November.

This year’s controversy at least seems to have a little more substance than last year’s desperate Jon Snow-baiting for not wearing a poppy whilst reading the news.

The England Football Team play Spain in a friendly football match at Wembley on Saturday. Friendly feeling towards FIFA– the world football governing authority– has been hard to find in the press, however. This year’s poppy controversy has revolved around the wearing of poppy badges, which the English FA proposed to have embroidered on players’ shirts for the game. The news broke last weekend, when it was reported that FIFA had refused the FA permission to do so. All hell broke loose as Fleet Street rallied to the poppy-wearing cause, and FIFA stubbornly stood by its position that the wearing of political and religious symbols is banned in international football (commercial symbols, it seems, being A-O-K).

By midweek, the government had got involved in the sporting spat, with the Sports minister writing a letter to FIFA stating “the British public feel very strongly about this issue which is seen as an act of national remembrance to commemorate those who gave their lives in the service of their country. It is not religious or political in any way. Wearing a poppy is a display of national pride, just like wearing your country’s football shirt.” To which FIFA, by letter, replied: “”We regret to inform you that accepting such initiatives would open the door to similar initiatives from all over the world, jeopardising the neutrality of football. Therefore, we confirm herewith that the suggested embroidery on the match shirt cannot be authorised.”

By today, a compromise between the FA and FIFA meant that poppies would indeed be worn by the English football team, embroidered onto the black armbands that the England team had already been given permission to wear. The Sun declared victory: ‘Prince William forces FIFA climb-down on wearing poppies’.

And yet, amidst the arm-wrestling, quieter voices were at risk of being drowned out. The director of the British Legion said, when it appeared that the key concession of the players being allowed to wear a poppy would not be made: ‘There are other ways to honour the poppy than by wearing it on a shirt… The Legion never insists that the poppy be worn or insists that others allow it to be worn. We are grateful when people wear it as a sign of respect, but the decision must be a free one – after all, the poppy represents sacrifices made in the cause of our freedoms.”

The issue has generated a lot of heat, but not a lot of light. To read some contributors to the Daily Mail making the case for the poppy being worn, look here. To find a different point of view, read Marina Hyde in The Guardian.

The central questions surrounding the poppy controversy are worth thinking about, however. FIFA refused to allow the poppy to be worn because it was, in its opinion, a political symbol. Many in Britain seem to think it is not.  

What is politics, though– and what is political? A broad definition of the political would be those thoughts and actions which are related to the state, the people, and the power weilded by both. The question is whether the poppy can be seen as a symbol of a political world-view, or whether to see it as such a symbol is to distort its meaning.

The poppy, of course, began as a badge of remembrance for those who died fighting in the First World War. It has, however, become a more complicated symbol since then. Different people and different groups, often depending on their politics or worldview, apply different meanings to its wearing. So that for some it represents a remembrance of those who have died for Britain abroad; for others, all who have died in armed conflict, no matter what the country; some wear it with pride, some with regret. Some marginal groups actively seek to turn the wearing of the poppy into a political issue, like the racist EDF, or Muslims Against Crusades. The majority, however, probably prefer to leave its meaning a little fuzzy: to see it as an inclusive symbol, and live with the contradictions. Seen in this way, the yearly controversy about the poppy often seems to be a battle to establish just exactly what the poppy means– who should wear it, and why.

What do you think? What does the poppy mean to you? Is the poppy really politically value free (this vote in the left-leaning Guardian suggests not)? Is the act of remembrance of the war dead removed from politics– is it in some way higher than politics? Or is wearing a poppy an inevitably political act– a symbol that can represent a view of the world that others might reasonably reject or object to?

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12 thoughts on “Getting Shirty: the Poppy Wars Continue”

  1. Great post! Personally, I think I the England Team should just not wear shirts. At all. Ever.
    On a more serious note, I wonder why a poppy has to be the only form of respect. What of reading some of the poetry of the day in quiet consideration? That’s what I plan on doing. Suggestions welcome, Mr Griffiths.

  2. FIFA made a disastrous move and England acted in the right way.The poppy symbolises everything British and it is a choice.

  3. How relevant is a Poppy to the young? Many of the youth I’ve spoken to don’t even understand the meaning of the poppy. Someone needs to educate them from the beginning so that everyone can truly respect the reason behind the poppy.

  4. Personally I believe that it is despicable of FIFA to not allow England to wear the Poppy. A Poppy is symbolic of everything British, I believe it should be a matter of choice and no one should be forced to wear one, however if an individual wishes to wear one there should be no reason they cannot.

  5. Here’s a thing, Abdul and Sam– If the poppy symbolises Britain and Britishness, it’s possible to raise some objections:

    1) Doesn’t this make the poppy a patriotic symbol? Is wearing a poppy, after all, only a matter of remembering the British dead? Doesn’t seeing the poppy in this way diminish it? Personally, I wouldn’t wear the poppy if I thought it was simply a tribal badge.

    2) Given that the poppy began as a Canadian symbol of remembrance, inspired by Canadian doctor John McRae’s ‘In Flanders Fields’, isn’t there something a little arrogant about claiming the poppy for Britain alone?

  6. I think its a disgrace on FIFA’s part. The poppy is synonomous with the word RESPECT, respecting the men and women who have fought in past wars and present wars, and FIFA claim to be all about respect. FIFA must also be forgetting that if it wasnt for Britain, America, Australia and the other allied forces FIFA would probably not exist, seeing as the majority of FIFA officials are from countries like France, Belgium, Holland many other countries which would have been occupied by Hitler in the Second World War– if it were not for the sacrifices of brave men and women.

    Finally the poppy is not political, it is a sign of respect. If we are not allowed to respect the brave men and women of the armed forces, then surely FIFA should re-think thier stand on the RESPECT campaign.

    What does everyone else think?

    1. Ryan,
      Choosing who we respect and for what is surely a political act. Choosing which “brave men and women of the armed forces” we should remember is a political act. If the reunited German team wished to wear a symbol which memorised the German dead from two world wars we would undoubtedly object to it. If an Irish contingent wished to memorialise dead members of the IRA, we would object. Your assumption seems to be that we should have the right to remember “our” dead because we won. Well, we did so as part of an Allied force – does the poppy symbolise Americans, Antipodeans, Gurkas, etc? I suspect it would be meaningless in such an international context.
      Furthermore, if it’s truly for individuals to choose, would you accept the Captai of the English football team exercising their right to NOT wear a poppy (whether it be on a shirt, an arm band, or the team suits)?
      I’m with Fifa on this – and the British Legion. There are other occasions and other ways in which respect can be shown.
      Mind you, I’m also with Mr Griffiths in finding the wholesale acceptance of commercial symbols somewhat ironic in the circumstances.

  7. I personally feel FIFA are totally in the wrong. I dont believe they have any right to determine who can and cannot wear a poppy as a symbol of respect. I’d understand if what was going on was used in an overtly offensive way or in a way that could have caused extreme anger, if this was they case I’d totally respect any form of action Fifa felt necessary but I dont feel this is so, so I cant find any reason as to why this argument by Fifa is justifiable.

  8. In my opinion, anything that remembers a war or dead soldiers is political. These men and women died because their leaders did not agree with each other. That’s international politics. That doesn’t mean that I don’t agree in wearing it, I just think that FIFA’s reasons were completely justified. I agree with Steve here

    1. I think it’s very difficult to justify saying “the poppy just glorifies war”. It is, after all, a symbol, and symbols are multivalent things– they have many meanings. What you are doing is saying the poppy means one thing and one thing only: but in fact, many who wear poppies choose to “remember the innocent victims”. For most who wear the poppy, I think, this isn’t an either / or matter: you can remember both soldiers and “innocent victims” without hypocrisy.

  9. First and foremost, the poppy is a fund-raising mechanism for one particular charity, the Royal British Legion. It must be a matter of individual choice which charities people want to support, however valuable their work is thought to be. There is no overarching obligation to “give to charity”, let alone a specific charity. (Incidentally, only a very small proportion of the cost of the “posh” crystal and metal poppies that richer people like football managers, X factor judges and royals now choose to wear goes to the RBL – most goes to the manufacturer). It would be interesting to see what reaction would arise if any newsreader or TV guest chose to wear a white poppy (Peace Pledge Union). The white poppy indicates equal respect for the dead, but redirects the emphasis away from the celebration of war and blood sacrifice.

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