Poppies, republicanism and Republicanism

It’s hardly surprising that a Republican like Chris Donnelly has problems with poppy-wearing. But is it really the reinforcement of British militarism that it has – admittedly – been allowed to become?

Aside from their fundraising role, poppies are part of a national contemplation of the sacrifice of service people. It’s not a universal activity by any means though.

Isolationists, people with a pragmatic objection to particular conflicts, or people – like Chris – who challenge the legitimacy of the British state in the first place sometimes either refuse to participate or do so grudgingly. I would argue that – in doing so – they are misunderstanding the potential that national remembrance can have in the context of the social contract.

In a representative democracy, we vote for people who then enact the general will. And the general will currently is that British troops are fighting in Afghanistan (whatever opinion polls at any given point say) paid for by British taxpayers (including Chris). Even if I were to have opposed that war, a wholehearted democrat should, I believe, conclude that the limits to legitimate opposition to it are boundaried by my right to protest legally and my power to vote for it’s opponents next time.

For this reason, the slogan ‘Not In My Name!’ is a heedless – even dangerous – one. When a country goes to war, it is always in all of our names – no matter what our personal views are. You can’t pay for something one minute and deny responsibility for it the next. If you wanted the criticise this position, probably the best charge would be that it is ‘too republican’ in the classical sense of the word.

When a democracy sends people to fight and die on it’s behalf, it’s citizens acquire a debt to those people, whatever our personal views on the conflicts concerned. It’s not just a financial debt either, but one where they are thanked for doing our bidding and where the casualties and their families know that the public are contemplating the sacrifice that they made.

When people go to fight on our collective instructions, they need to know that we have considered and weighed the sacrifice that they are making. That they aren’t just chaff or cannon-fodder sent off on a whim. This is why the trend towards the poppy becoming an unthinking act of public cant is so damaging. What Brian Walker here has called ‘poppy fascism’. As long as poppy-wearing is an act of conformity rather than reflection, it betrays the most valuable aspect of remembrance.

When we buy a poppy, we provide a few coins, but more importantly, I would hope that we pledge to take part in a national programme of contemplation.

Good democracies need to do this because, put crudely, our electoral decisions effectively name the price that we put on the lives of service people. I may have supported this war but not that one, but that should be immaterial. No-one is obliged to express personal support for any national venture, but when we hold our pre-election debates, we frame the nation’s attitude to war – and this has a bearing upon future casualties (among other things).

The quality of pre-election public debate is crucial though. To illustrate this, compare two issues (*picking the first one out of the air*): The NHS and ….. er… GM Crops.

Elections put a price on the value we place on the health service. They do this because politicians know that there will always be a lively debate on this subject because their constituents are either regular users of the health service, or are friends-and-relations with people who are. Most of us have the opportunity to pick up enough experience to be informed spectators on the pre-election NHS debate. For this reason, it’s a sign of a healthy democracy that the NHS is an important battleground.

GM Crops, on the other hand, are a much more complex issue – one that most of us don’t know enough about to pronounce upon – and one where self-interested pressure groups have the capacity to promote policies that may not serve the widest public interest. It’s a question for the distributed moral wisdom of Parliament rather than a necessarily simplified public debate.

Putting service people in harm’s way should be an NHS-ish issue rather than a GM Crops-ish one. It’s one that we should all have contemplated, and the annual remembrance season is a good opportunity for this conversation to take place.

Governments will, surely, make better decisions if this is the case? A desire for better policymaking is something that should unite us all – regardless of our attitudes to particular conflicts. It follows that an improvement in the quality of policy debate will result in fewer deployments of British troops to further less defensible war-aims.

For this reason, surely Irish nationalists and republicans living in the UK should join the collective act of remembrance for people who make sacrifices at the behest of elected governments?

And the problems with this argument? I can see three:

1. The money goes exclusively to British service charities.
No-one is stopping parallel commemorations for the causalities who were sponsored by movements other than the British state.

2. You can’t criticise Sinn Fein supporters for ignoring this ‘republican’ notion that all citizens of the British state bear collective responsibility for it’s actions because of Sinn Fein’s continuing selective abstentionism

Good point. However, that selective abstentionism is, in itself, a fudge. You can no more be ‘a bit abstentionist’ than you can be ‘a bit pregnant.’

3. Remembrance may ostensibly be about the noble aims set out above, but in reality, it’s just another opportunity for pro-Union chauvinism in the north of Ireland (the contrast between the way that poppies are worn in the north of Ireland and how it is worn elsewhere in the UK illustrates this) and tub-thumping jingoism elsewhere
Yes – ideally the way that this remembrance is conducted should be modified to accommodate those those who don’t currently engage with it. Unionists may complain that this would be an unwarranted act of appeasement, but I’d counter this by saying that the modification is not just something that should be aimed at Irish republicans, but at all of those who are ambivalent or hostile to acts of remembrance on the grounds that it seems to endorse foreign policy decisions that they don’t like.

Experience tells us that appeals to tone this down are likely to be fruitless as well. But if a minority of prominent republicans to start wearing poppies themselves, I suspect that this particular thorn would be removed?

A better, more engaged discussion about how military force is deployed can only be a good thing. The way we instruct the armed services is the cornerstone of that debate, and remembrance is a very potent opportunity for reflection. One that we should all influence. It would be a gamechanging move for Gerry and Martin to be wearing poppies next year.

Living in London but working all over Britain and Ireland. A left-leaning Labour Party member and blogger. I’m on twitter as @paul0evans1 and I blog mainly at the Local Democracy blog though I’m in lots of other places as well. I’m a massive fan of Google Reader – please follow me and share the better posts from your feed?