Sunday, November 06, 2011


On Saturday November 13th 2010  England’s Rugby team played Australia at Twickenham. This reference is not about that match but about the date and the shirts. Take a look at the photograph of Chris Ashton scoring a try. Anything remarkable about Chris-Ashton-celeb-England-v-Australia-2010_2526743it? True England appear to be playing in the wrong colour shirt and shorts but this is the RFU remember and for reasons best known to themselves they often send England out in the wrong kit. No the point here is the flower on Ashton's chest. It’s a rose – as you would expect. Do you see any other flower on display? No? No poppy then.
Now whatever venalities the RFU can be accused of a lack of patriotism or insensitivity to the importance of our Armed Forces past and present is not one of them.  Indeed the military presence at Twickenham is usually very significant indeed as the  “Help for Heroes” charity is often at the match. So if the RFU had thought it appropriate to put a poppy on the shirts of the England players last year because the match v the Aussies fell between Remembrance Day and Remembrance Sunday you can be sure that they would have done it. Whether it occurred to the Rugby bosses to do this I’ve no idea. But they didn't do it largely I suspect because there is no tradition of National sports teams wearing poppies - and there was no reason to create a precedent.

On Saturday November 12th 2011, the day after Remembrance Day and the day before Remembrance Sunday, England’s Football team take on Spain at Wembley and some bright spark thought it would be a good idea for them to wear an embroidered poppy on their shirts. There is no precedent for this any more than there was last year for the Rugby team. The suggestion has led to an unsavoury and unnecessary confrontation with FIFA who say that it would be against the regulations for this to happen. I have no view on whether this regulation is right or wrong but I do have a view as to whether the idea was a good one in the first place – or not.
Remembering our war dead is one of the annual rituals that helps define us as a Nation (that Nation is the United Kingdom, by the way, not England). I have always respected it and found it deeply moving – especially the service at the Cenotaph. And the Poppy is the traditional and highly respected symbol of our remembrance. “In Flanders fields the poppies blow, Between the crosses, row on row…” John McCrea’s 1915 poem was the spur for this. But in recent times there have been occasional media stories about the wearing of the poppy (or not) which have created rather more heat than light. A Newsreader’s decision not to wear a poppy was a cause celebre a year ago and his coining of the phrase “Poppy fascism” really riled some. Aside from my belief that the decision to wear a poppy (or not) is a personal one I don't feel particularly strongly about the issue. I wear a Poppy – but not in October, as some did this year,  and not every time I venture out of the house in early November either!

So what is the objection to the England team wearing poppies on their shirts at Wembley? Traditions have to start somewhere I suppose - but do we really want to create one like this? Because you know what will happen. Next year there might be a full Rugby and Football programme on 10th/11th November. And the England cricket team might be playing a match somewhere. And all of these teams will feel obliged to wear Poppies because the tradition has been established and they don’t want the “Poppy Fascists” on their case. And before long anyone doing anything collectively at this time will feel obliged to follow the newly created rule that poppies are mandatory.   The key word here is “Collectively”. As I have argued wearing a Poppy is a personal choice and it is wholly inappropriate to compel anyone to do so - whether they be sportsmen or anyone else.   

Now some might argue that the beneficiaries of Poppy Day are the Royal British Legion and that anything that helps them raise more money for a good cause is worthwhile. And similarly they could argue that to give the Poppy prominent display on an England team’s shirts will raise awareness of the Legion – as well as being a sign of respect for that cause. Poppycock!   The wearing of Poppies in early November is so widespread that I cannot believe that anyone can have missed it – and if they have eleven footballers wearing poppies on their shirts is hardly likely to make a difference. And will it raise any extra money for the Legion? I doubt that as well. The chances to give to the British Legion are many and varied - and anyway collectors could be present inside or outside Wembley Stadium on 12th November whether the players wear poppies or not.

So why should we invent a tradition that sports teams on or around 11th November should wear poppies? Eric Hobsbawm has said     
“Invented tradition is taken to mean a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past.... However, insofar as there is such reference to a historic past, the peculiarity of 'invented' traditions is that the continuity with it is largely fictitious.”
And that, for me, along with the other arguments I have made in this piece, is enough.