It’s late October and I know we’re nearing Remembrance Sunday because every BBC presenter and studio guest has suddenly sprouted a poppy. Even Countryfile presenters are not immune; Adam Henson was filmed herding his sheep while wearing a poppy. Did he poke a pin through his waterproof jacket and will it now leak when it rains? The BBC must have a huge supply of poppies for studio guests – do the guests pay for them or do they give them back at the end of the broadcast? We need to know. An alien, taking the BBC as a yardstick of human behaviour would draw the conclusion that poppies are ubiquitous in human land.
It hasn’t always been this way. After British military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, public support for the Armed Services was at a low ebb. The promotion of the Poppy appeal by the BBC therefore appears to be part of a coordinated campaign to change public opinion. Latterly this campaign has included Princes William and Harry, whose military service has frequently been highlighted – the BBC have made much of Harry’s deployment to Afghanistan and subsequent championing of the Invictus Games for disabled ex-servicemen and women.
I have distinctly mixed feelings about the Poppy appeal; from its purpose, to the pressure placed on us to conform, to the way remembrance can spill over into jingoism. On the one hand I feel sad at the terrible suffering and loss of life, while on the other hand I’m angry at the waste of life and the enthusiasm with which many politicians propose armed conflict, often on quite spurious or tenuous grounds to ‘defend the realm’ On remembrance Sunday we’ll no doubt hear once again the phrase ‘lest we forget’ from politicians. It’s these same politicians who recently eulogised the maiden voyage of HMS Queen Elizabeth, Britain’s biggest ever aircraft carrier as a projection of ‘British power on the world stage’
For the Royal British Legion, which organises the production and sale of poppies, the purpose of the Poppy appeal is to fund its charitable activities. The same goes for organisations such as Erskine Hospital, Help for Heroes and various military charities. However, the Military Covenant, drawn up in 2000 recognises that, in return for putting themselves in harms way, the UK has a duty of care towards military personnel who are injured, who fall ill in the line of duty (for example PTSD) or, in the event of their death, towards the families of those killed. The recent extension of the widows pension to those who remarry after losing a partner is a welcome addition to this duty of care.
So why then do we need to support all these other charitable organisations and their various fund-raising if there is this Military Covenant? Help for Heroes states that ‘funds raised are to provide services which can’t be provided by HM Govt’ Help for Heroes stresses that what it provides should not be seen as a substitute for Government support and will hold Government to account on that score. But surely it can’t be anything other than a substitute for Government funding? If ex-servicemen or their families are in want, then this suggests that HMG is not fulfilling its Covenant. By their very nature therefore, the existence of all these charities is both an indictment of Government failure to meet its obligation under the Military Covenant and must mitigate the financial commitment of HMG. It seems hypocritical that politicians who stand at the Remembrance Day commemoration at the cenotaph in Whitehall, all wear poppies which would not be necessary (except perhaps as a mark of respect) if Government funding was more generous. Meanwhile across the Atlantic, Donald Trump threatens to ‘totally destroy North Korea if it moves against the U.S. or its allies’ It seems that ‘remembrance’ is just a one day event before politicians get back to business.
When it was introduced, the Military Covenant was described as “…an informal understanding, rather than a legally enforceable deal, but it is nevertheless treated with great seriousness within the services” The reason it is a promise rather than a statutory obligation appears to be to avoid litigation by military personnel in the event of seemingly inadequate reparations. One case cites an ex-soldier receiving £152K as a result of life disabling injuries which, had this been a civilian case would have resulted in an award at least 10 times as much.
Veterans finally win right to asbestos payment (i Newspaper 1.3.2016)
The announcement is a victory for the Royal British Legion and others, whose concerns over the unfair treatment of veterans – who had been denied the six figure compensation given to civilians with the same condition – were revealed by this newspaper last year. Service personnel suffering illness or injury before 1987 could not previously sue the MOD for compensation.
Some people wear a poppy to pay respect to those who died, others wear the poppy out of patriotism, a phenomenon that seems to be growing in inverse proportion to Britain’s prestige on the world stage. There is of course the desire to show compassion; however this is in the context of a society that seems less compassionate, quietly acquiescing to cuts in welfare benefits and the bedroom tax – which ironically sometimes hit disabled ex-servicemen. Wearing a poppy can also be controversial, for example when the footballer Roy Keane wore a poppy while appearing on a TV Champions League highlights programme in 2015. As an Irishman was he aware of the numerous atrocities committed by British troops in Ireland immediately prior to Irish independence, including those at Croke Park in Dublin and during the troubles in Northern Ireland when British troops deliberately fired on unarmed civilians (Bloody Sunday)?
One of the reasons I support Scottish independence is so that we can distance ourselves from what seems to be a British addiction to foreign wars. Apparently for the past 120 years, since the start of the Boer War, British troops have been continuously on active service somewhere around the world. Pro British propagandists tell us that British troops are fighting for freedom and democracy; all too often however, in countries such as Kenya, South Africa, India, Egypt (Suez), Aden (now part of Yemen) and Cyprus, British troops were used to deny the peoples of these places the right to self-determination.
Finally, though the wearing of a poppy commemorates the deaths of servicemen, we should remember that from WW2 onwards, civilian casualties far outstrip the casualties among servicemen. For these people there is no commemoration or honours. Are they to be regarded simply as ‘collateral damage’