Lots of us have personal stories when it comes to remembrance. I come from a family of service men and women. My mum and dad serve; my uncle serves; both of my grandads served; and my cousin intends to serve. And for as long as I can remember, Remembrance Sunday has had a deeply emotive, personal significance to me. And that is because, every time this day has come around, I have stood on the road in which I grew up- on which are located my childhood home, my primary school, my church, and the pub where I got my first job - and I have watched my parents, with my mum at the front as a lieutenant commander in the Navy and the local chair of the British legion, march with numerous other service personnel and veterans, through our village.
It has always been a moving experience, one of great pride and dignity. I am humbled by what my parents and so many others do, because in the background of this day of remembrance is the powerful sense of sacrifice and loss- not only of those that have indeed sacrificed and lost, but also of those people, like my parents, who are explicitly prepared to do this too in serving in our armed forces today.
And it is obviously not just me who feels this way; in fact, what makes Remembrance Sunday so special, and this year’s so sad, is that it is an opportunity to stand together with others, shoulder to shoulder, strangers and friends alike, and mark our gratitude for what others are prepared and have been prepared to do for us. It is a cruel truth that the people who probably most wished to participate in communal remembrance ceremonies are the most vulnerable to the thing that is keeping us all apart at the moment, because there is something so powerful about sharing that profound sense of gratitude with others.
It is not just important for those of us that watch remembrance ceremonies that we do it together. It is important for those service personnel and veterans participating in it too. It is poignant that my grandad, a former major in the army, has travelled all the way up to London from his home in Plymouth in recent years to partake in the service at the Cenotaph. I know, for a man that doesn’t really like using public transport over long distances, that he is moved to do so by the fact that it means so much for him to participate in the Remembrance Sunday service in London with others who have had the same experiences as he had; others who understand what is demanded of you in serving in the armed forces.
Why do we wear the poppy- this symbolic flower that grows in disturbed, churned soil? I think, wrongly, that the poppy is nervously associated with the valorisation of war- that the poppy is a version of jingoism, albeit a sanitised version. There is an argument that if you object in principle to war and violence, then you ought not to wear the poppy.
However, this is not a specific enough account of what it is we remember- what it is that the poppy symbolises. What we remember is the unambiguous, unequivocal fact of sacrifice.
In wearing the poppy, we are not remembering the particular decisions of particular politicians who we may more or less agree with; we are not glorifying war as something that has conferred greatness on our country; we are not, maybe, harping back nostalgically to a time with specific societal values that we think today are being challenged.
No. What we remember is the fact- the fact that people from different creeds and walks of life did choose to give up their lives in service of this country, and that people today choose to work in a line of business where they too may be required to do exactly the same. We remember the undeniable selflessness that exists in laying down one’s life for others. And this is irrespective, really, of intentions. What we confront during remembrance is not straightforwardly why people have made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of this community we share, but simply the fact that people have indeed done so. We remember, in essence, the deed, and that these deeds took place is incontrovertible and unambiguous. We remember the very real choice of individuals who gave up their today’s, so that we could have our tomorrow’s.
This fact of sacrifice imposes moral obligations on us that would not hold if we were remembering the political choices of individuals or acts of violence that characterise war. If we were remembering those things, you could legitimately disagree with the ceremonies of remembrance. But this is not what wearing the poppy is about. It is about acknowledging the undeniable truth that men and women in a particular time and place, did in point of fact give up their lives, and that it is incumbent on us, as the beneficiaries of those sacrifices, to recognise that truth. It is about the uncomfortable, grim, painful fact that the place we inhabit and the lives we lead today were secured at tangible, concrete costs for other generations.
Why is this so important, this “fact of sacrifice” as I call it? Well to me, it is important because the burden that we carry collectively, of the debt that we owe to those who have given their lives for us, is a deeply unifying thing, that exists only so long as we recognise it in our hearts and minds. It is, of course, a platitude to say we live in deeply divided times. Those things I mentioned above that are sometimes associated with poppy-wearing- the decisions of politicians, acts of war, societal values and virtues from a previous time- all these things might well be potential subjects of legitimate debate, and in hyper polarised times like our own, they may even become subjects of intense dispute.
But what we are remembering should not be considered as disputable nor divisive. We may disagree on why people had to make sacrifices for us, many of us will do. But surely we cannot disagree on the debt that we have to those that did sacrifice, whatever the reason. You could be a conscientious objector, and you could simultaneously wear the poppy as a sign that you remember what others have had to go through, and to sacrifice, even if you abhor the reasons. That is coherent to me. Indeed, the message with which the earliest poppies were distributed after the armistice in 1918 was: “never again”. We can commit ourselves to avoiding ever repeating those scarring events of the twentieth century. But we can at the same time acknowledge those who were not able to avoid such nightmarish, harrowing moments.
Recognising our debt to these people is something that brings us together, because it is a moral burden that we all must bear. Remembrance is not something else that can just be weaponised as part of the cultural wars that are a lamentable presence in our politics today. It goes far beyond that- and we should respond robustly to those who manipulate the poppy in the service of repugnant ideologies, rather than simply conceding the symbols of our collective remembrance.
Remembrance is one of the things, and there are not many of them, that can transcend division and disagreement in this country, and the fact that we do it together is symbolically important. That is why the Prime Minister and leaders of the Opposition and all the major parties, together with former prime ministers, representatives from different commonwealth nations and from every faith group all lay wreaths at the foot of the same memorial. It is why the Royal Family lay wreaths with them. It is why we all wear poppies together. It is a statement of something that underpins our own sense of ourselves. Our collective commitment to remembrance can be a moral compass that can give us direction when all else seems so disorientating and unclear. It is a very human expression of gratitude and debt that we share in common, even when much else seems to drive us apart. It is an anchor.
People have still been buying poppies in their droves. Selling these little red flowers in Lion’s Yard Shopping Centre, you come across all sorts of people wanting to do their bit to mark the occasion and donating generously. There was a young girl who had just started secondary school and had joined the army cadets; a father of three; a man in a wheelchair; some university students; a lady who had been searching all across the local area just to get her hands on a red paper poppy.
Most of these people had very little in common. They looked different, they were of different ages, led different sorts of lives. But they all felt compelled to wear a poppy. This sentiment is very powerful, and I believe it is very healthy for our society. It binds generations, regions, and classes together. And I profoundly believe in the importance of protecting those institutions and customs that cut across the things that separate us, and that fosters a basic sense of togetherness. It is something that we are losing, but it is exactly what wearing the poppy is about, togetherness. Let us not forget that.