Toxic hate of far-Right must not be allowed to hijack the poppy
‘In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow, Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky, The larks still bravely singing fly, Scarce heard amid the guns below.”
So reads one of the most moving, and most well-known, lines of Great War poetry. It was written during the First World War, to mark a lost generation of fathers, husbands and sons.
Today, Remembrance Sunday, I will be at the Cenotaph, to mark my respect, and to give my thanks, for the immeasurable sacrifice made over the years by all those brave servicemen and women in many conflicts who have fought to protect our values and our freedoms. As a famous inscription says of them, “for your tomorrow we gave our today”.
Many of us across the country over the past days and indeed weeks have proudly bought and worn a poppy, on what is, this year, the 99th anniversary of the end of the Great War. This was the hardy flower that somehow managed to survive and flourish in the devastated Ypres battlefields. The work of The Royal British Legion – supported by funds raised from the sale of poppies – is as vital now as it ever was, both in helping members of the Armed Forces community and in keeping alive the memory of the sacrifice of our brave soldiers.
What I am appalled by is the concerted attempt in recent years by far-Right groups to hijack some of our, much respected and indeed loved, British symbols and institutions for their own warped ideals.
Britain First has deeply ignoble form on trying to “hijack” the poppy, to increase their popularity and donations. The opprobrium heaped upon them for doing so was wholly justified. But their attempts to con decent patriotic Brits remain there – subtle, insidious efforts to draw others in. We have all seen their images on social media: a picture of a soldier, a message about remembrance, a promise that “Liking” their page shows support for our Armed Forces. But behind this thin veneer of respectability lies a toxic blend of intolerance, lies and propaganda. The vast majority of Britain First’s followers on Facebook would be disgusted to know that they had unwittingly sponsored the page of a movement linked to Nick Griffin’s vile, discredited British National Party.
Britain First, the English Defence League, the British National Party and the National Front are all guilty of using British symbols and institutions (notably support for the Armed Forces) to attempt to further their own deeply objectionable beliefs. And yet it is in doing so that they expose the inherent flaws in what they are trying to peddle.
Pervasive “whites-only” policies and hateful narratives could not be further from the values that underpin our Armed Forces: those of integrity, respect for others, and having the bravery to do the right thing.
In the First World War, at least 1.3million Indians volunteered to fight for the British Army, including 400,000 Muslims. Polish Squadrons fought and died alongside the Royal Air Force in the Second World War (indeed my own father had many brave comrades) as did many from the largest volunteer force in history from the Indian subcontinent. Johnson Beharry, originally of Grenada, was in 2005 awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military honour for valour in the British and Commonwealth Armed Forces. Remembrance Sunday is a timely reminder that, in what may be some of Britain’s darkest hours, it is the bravery of millions of ordinary people from all races, religions, and backgrounds that have kept our country’s flame burning and stood up for the values we hold dear.
What those who preach hate and extreme views of any political hue want is for us to become fearful, to become divided, and to turn away from each other. We see it in sickening displays of neo-Nazism, of Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and Islamist extremism. Every display of these must be challenged – for I do not for a second believe they remotely resemble the sort of Britain the vast majority of us want to live in.