THE BLOG

White Poppies Don't 'Indoctrinate' Children, They Open Up Debate

16/10/2017 17:34 BST | Updated 16/10/2017 17:34 BST
Toby Melville / Reuters

Since yesterday, I have been accused several times of indoctrinating children.

The original accusation was levelled more at the organisation I work for - the Peace Pledge Union - than at me personally. The Sunday Telegraph quoted Richard Kemp (retired colonel and go-to gung-ho militarist) attacking our plans to promote white poppies in schools.

Kemp said that red poppies and mainstream Remembrance Day practices should be supported because they are "institutions of the state". This is a rather authoritarian statement for someone who went on to accuse us of "indoctrinating children".

This morning's attack was more personal. UKIP MEP Tim Aker accused me on BBC Essex of "indoctrinating children" and insulting the "fallen". He said, "If I see a box of these white poppies, I'll throw them in the bin".

But we are not asking schools to endorse white poppies. We are asking them to make white poppies available. This will generally be alongside red poppies.

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We are appealling to schools to discuss issues and controversies around Remembrance, so that young people can consider different points of view and make up their own minds on complex ethical and political issues. This is what education should be about.

Our critics want school students to hear only of red poppies and to see Remembrance portrayed as uncontroversial. The Royal British Legion argue that white poppies should not be sold alongside red ones. A school in the West Midlands that was planning to sell white poppies as well as red ones decided earlier today to sell only red poppies out of fear of criticism.

So it's rather odd that we are the ones accused of "indoctrinating children".

School pupils who are aged 15 years and seven months can apply to join the army when they turn 16. They can join cadet forces and learn to fight and obey orders without question. But they should not, according to the likes of Richard Kemp and Tim Aker, be allowed to hear the arguments for white poppies.

They are regarded as old enough to kill, but not old enough to be allowed to think.

Today we formally launch this year's white poppy campaign. This includes a number of new initiatives, including our White Poppies for Schools pack and a two-minute online film about why people choose to wear white poppies.

White poppies were founded in 1933 by the Women's Co-operative Guild. Today, they are produced by the Peace Pledge Union.

White poppies have three meanings.

Firstly, they stand for remembrance for all victims of all wars. This includes both civilians and members of armed forces. It includes people of all nationalities. In contrast, the Royal British Legion, who produce red poppies, argue that Remembrance should be solely concerned with members of British and allied armed forces.

Secondly, white poppies involve a rejection of attempts to glamorise or glorify war. We don't refer to people who have died unimaginably painful deaths as "the fallen", as if they had just tripped over. We don't argue that everyone sent to die by the powerful was fighting "for freedom".

Thirdly, white poppies represent a commitment to peace. Most people will say they want peace, but if we really want it, we must work for it harder than we work for war. So we have no shame in saying that a white poppy demonstrates a belief in campaigning for peace and against war.

Most people who wear red poppies have a sincere desire to remember victims of war. The British Legion, however, talk increasingly about "supporting our armed forces" and suggest that those who have died while in the British armed forces have died fighting "for freedom" (all of them?). A minority of red poppy supporters are keen to shut down debate and insist that theirs is the only way of doing remembrance.

To talk of remembrance while ignoring difficult issues is a disservice to the victims of war. It seems to be more about forgetting than about remembering - forgetting civilian victims, forgetting non-British casualties, forgetting the horrors of war and forgetting the need to learn from the past. And those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.