Jim Slaven of the James Connolly Society explains why socialists and antimilitarists do not wear red poppies on November 11th, especially as the British ruling class is getting ready to launch its centenary of the First World War. This celebration of the UK and British Empire is part of their campaign against Scottish self-determination.
I won’t be wearing a poppy this year. Of course this revelation is some considerable way short of a shock. However as we are entering that time of year it is worth being clear about why we do not wear a poppy. Republicans do not support the British military and despite all the myth-making wearing a poppy is all about supporting the British military. It’s not about World War One and it’s not about remembering the dead. It is all about supporting the UK state’s war machine. Despite the near compulsion which accompanies poppy wearing in public life there are actually many very good reasons not to wear one. But after recent events in Scotland we also have another reason.
The decision of Police Scotland, the Procurator Fiscal and the military hierarchy to do nothing over the racist and sectarian hate-fest at the Ibrox ‘Armed Forces Day’ has convinced even more people that there is something seriously wrong with this country. Through social media the shocking scenes of hundreds of state forces joining in with thousands of football fans in singing sectarian and racist songs was shared throughout the world. Despite this the country’s politicians remain silent and no action has been taken. We are being encouraged to move along quietly.
However something significant has happened here. This is not just another example of football fans singing songs that other fans do not like. Although this happened at a football match this has very little to do with football. This is about state forces engaging in racist and sectarian behaviour in full uniform at a fully sanctioned event as the military hierarchy watched on from the stands. This is about the complicity of our politicians. This is about the failure of the police and investigating authorities to act. This must be a watershed moment, if not for Scottish society then certainly for our community.
Much of the commentary on this hate-fest has concentrated on the fact it took place at a football match. Many have highlighted the fact that Police Scotland did nothing. In the context of the SNP’s Offensive Behaviour Bill and when contrasted with their continuing harassment of the Green Brigade and other working class football fans this inaction is shameful. In the context of this flawed legislation the fact that state forces can sing about being up to their knees in our blood and the police turn a blind eye is scandalous. Or perhaps more accurately would be scandalous in any other country. The fact that the police have since said they were on their tea break at the time just adds to the view that they support such behaviour and cannot even be bothered making up a good excuse for their inaction.
Silence of politicians
These points are of course valid, particularly about the inconsistency of the policing. The Offensive Behaviour Bill was always directed at the Irish community and at expressions of Irish republicanism in particular. These events merely serve to prove that point. However this dreadful law would not be made any better if the cops arrest a few Rangers fans. Reducing this issue to a debate about football fans being offensive moves the debate onto terrain that suits the state. It also lets the military and the politicians off the hook. This is about state forces racist and sectarian behaviour and the decision of the police to do nothing about it. It is also about the silence of our politicians (SNP and Labour). Can you imagine if thousands of people were singing about being up to the necks in the blood of Jewish people or Africans? Politicians would be falling over themselves to quite rightly condemn it, yet when it’s directed at Irish people there is silence.
They have nothing in their whole imperial arsenal that can break the spirit of one Irishman who doesn’t want to be broken.
– IRA Volunteer Bobby Sands MP
Another issue which as received much debate has been the songs of hate about Bobby Sands. This is a red herring. That state forces and supporters of pro British death squads at Ibrox should sing about Bobby Sands is directly linked to their fear of Bobby Sands. They fear Bobby Sands and his comrades because he represents the polar opposite of themselves. Bobby Sands selflessly chose the path of struggle in full knowledge that in such an asymmetrical conflict such a path would lead to either prison or death. For Bobby Sands it meant both and as he hungered to the death for his beliefs over 30,000 people voted for him to be their member of parliament. Bobby Sands exposed the lie of the state’s criminalisation policy and internationalised the republican struggle. Bobby Sands is an international revolutionary icon. If this was a debate about the courage, dedication and sacrifice of Bobby Sands and the IRA compared to the British Army there would only be one winner. They sing about Bobby Sands because they fear republicanism.
However this is not about Bobby Sands, this is about the nature of the state. This episode has revealed to a broader audience the racist nature of the British ideology and how the construction of Britishness and Scottishness continues to posit Irish as the Other. However for republicans our opposition to the UK state, its militarism and its ideology are long-standing and resolute. To wear a poppy is to endorse British militarism and no amount of mythmaking and misrepresentation can altar that fact.
One of the most frequently repeated myths is that the poppy is only about the First World War and not about subsequent conflicts. While the origins of the poppy may lie in WW1, it most definitely is used to promote subsequent and present day British militarism. Indeed the poem from where the poppy symbol originates, In Flanders Field by Canadian John McCrea, is very clear on the issue.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
I should be clear at this point I would not wear a poppy even if it was only about the WW1. A war about which James Connolly said:
Yet this is war: war for which all the jingoes
are howling, war to which all the hopes of the
world are being sacrificed, war to which a mad
ruling class would plunge a mad world.
James Connolly, along with others like John MacLean, was correct about the First World War. He was correct then and remains correct today. People may ask what of the many, many Irishmen who went to fight for the British Army? Well, I’m sure many of them were fine young men and if their families wish to remember them as individuals I have no problem with that. But let’s be clear they are on the wrong side of history. Many believed British propaganda that this was a war about the rights of small nations. Many others believed British claims that following victory in the war Ireland would be granted self determination. However the British state lied, deceived and reneged just as Connolly predicted they would. The Irishmen who fought for Britain were, in Connolly’s words ‘duped’. Connolly’s analysis of the First World War was correct and the people who fought for the British Empire were wrong.
Should the working class of Europe, rather than slaughter each other for the benefit of kings and financiers, proceed tomorrow to erect barricades all over Europe, to break up bridges and destroy the transport service that war might be abolished, we should be perfectly justified in following such a glorious example and contributing our aid to the final dethronement of the vulture classes that rule and rob the world.
– James Connolly
Neither is the poppy only about remembering. You only have to look at the royal family lining up with the political elite at the cenotaph to see that this is state sponsored glorification of British militarism. It is also a huge fundraising drive which allows the state to abdicate its responsibility to war wounded and instead allows the state to redirect money into new weapons and new training to boost their current wars. This is not about remembering as an act of saying never again. This is not an act of remembering the horrors of war. This is an act of endorsement for Britain’s war machine, past and present.
So my advice is don’t wear a poppy. Wear a badge of James Connolly or Bobby Sands instead.