In 1914 they began leaving the slums, taking the King’s shilling, to escape the dirt and the disease, to send some worthless pennies home to feed the wives and children they had left behind in buildings swarming with humanity and rotting with piss, shit, and vomit. You may think I’m being crass, but if we could revisit those dwellings, these rude words would be the least of our worries. The government that sent them to war had caged them like animals in these hell holes to work and to die for the good of the empire and the ruling class.
The common belief that Britain, acting as the policeman of Europe, went to war with Hitler to stop the Holocaust is an ex post facto justification. The Nazis’ “Final Solution” – the beginning of systematic murder as a solution to the “Jewish Problem” – did not begin until the Wannsee Conference of 20 January 1942. Adolf Hitler’s opinions regarding the Jews were well known long before the war. He wrote a book outlining his antisemitism and his plans to deal with the Jews of Germany. Britain may or may not have been comfortable with this development in Berlin, but it did nothing.
It is no accident that from 1999, with the opening of the Scottish parliament, there has been a marked increase in the popular cultural use of the symbols of Britain and Britishness. Before then, with the exception of a minority of nationalists and republicans, the union flag flying over council offices and other public buildings in Scotland hardly raised an eyebrow. The flag of the UK was a simple and largely inoffensive statement of political settlement and reality. It was rare, if ever, it was featured in popular entertainment.
Yet the poppy, from the joke it was – no matter how ordinary innocent people feel about wearing it, has been “hijacked,” or so we are told. It has now become the totem of hyper-aggressive, right-wing racist British nationalism. On the football field it has become the weapon of choice to be deployed against non-British outsiders; Irish Catholics and Argentinians – very much victims of British imperial and colonial violence – who play for English clubs. On the lapels of knuckle-dragging thugs it has become a compliment to the Nazi swastika tattooed on their necks.
Those of us critical of the cynical use of the poppy as a recruitment tool and a means of ramping up militaristic British nationalist sentiment have found ourselves under serious fire for daring to question the neutrality of the symbol. With the obvious exception of elected right-wing unionists, people are expected to meekly accept the unassailable truth of the poppy as an emblem of remembrance for everyone who has died in all wars.
Britishness – or at least the Britishness which they hold so dear – is a dying imperialist dream, wrapped up in its own delusional fantasies of cultural and racial greatness. The pomp of and nostalgia for what was once the largest empire in the world gives them a peg on which to hang and so construct their identity, a conceit of national meaning draped over what has become a shoogly peg. It is this, more than their shame at being Scottish, which fills them with hate.
Once upon a time “poppy day” was an annual event most of us slept through, marked by an irrelevant old woman putting down a wreath at a pointless monument to violence in London. A box of cheap red paper poppies would appear in our classrooms at the start of the month and the teacher would tell us some patriotic lies about brave soldiers and we could “remember them” at the cost of just 5p a poppy. It’s all different now.
This little blushing flower has nothing to do with memory, and even less to do with sacrifice. Who were these boys shooting, and what reason did they have to kill? Mindless slaughter – this is what we are celebrating in this November death cult festival of insanity.