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Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The poppy and pro-war propaganda

I have written on the poppy and the war before, and most of what I say below I have said before. But it needs to be said again.


These are my uncles – Peter and Edward McCluskey.

They volunteered as teenagers for service in the Great War – they didn’t have to fight, they weren’t conscripted, there was no military tradition in their family, they were both born in Glasgow, and both of their parents – my grandparents – were Southern Irish, and had no love for England or the UK. They fought for Scotland, the country of their birth.

Both died before their time, indirectly as a result of their injuries in that appalling war - Eddie at the age of 28 and Peter well after World War Two. I never knew my Uncle Eddie, but my Uncle Petie was a familiar figure during my childhood. He rarely spoke of his experiences, but was horrified when WW2 broke out and he saw his younger cousins Gerard and Peter, whom he had taken into his home after they lost their father, conscripted into the Highland Light Infantry and the RAF respectively. He spent the war crouched at the radio, following every report, devastated at the casualties and praying for peace.

Peter McCluskey was moved to tears each Armistice Day, and maintained the two minutes silence, but he would not have been seen dead wearing a poppy – he felt that this potent symbol of life, rising from the blasted earth of the battlefields, amid the corpses of his comrades, had been debased by its association with Earl Haig and that it had been hijacked by militaristic politicians.

Hence my identical feelings about the poppy, reinforced by experiences in industry and commerce, where people who never had a thought for others, or the dead, or any injustice, who never contributed a penny to funds for wounded and disabled ex-servicemen, suddenly acquired a poppy in November, and accosted me, asking “Why aren’t you wearing your poppy, Peter?” They wore their poppy like they acquired their golf handicap – it was the career-wise move.

They got a dusty answer, plus, on more than one occasion the challenge from me to write a cheque there and then for an ex-serviceman's charity and I would match it. I never had an acceptance …


If we send young men and women, in the flower of the youth, to place themselves in harm’s way, risking death or serious injury in the service of the nation, we owe them a duty of support.

We have a bounden duty to properly equip them, to properly pay them, to support their families, and in the event of serious injury to offer speedy, effective medical care and long term support for both physical and psychological injuries.

We have a duty to rehabilitate them, return them to appropriate duties in their chosen profession if possible, and to offer comprehensive help to find employment outside of the armed forces if this is not possible. In the event of their death, we owe them and their families full and tangible recognition of the supreme sacrifice they have made, including adequate financial and support provisions for their dependants.

But above all, we owe them the right not be placed in harm’s way by politicians in conflicts that are irrelevant to the security and defence of the nation, especially where such conflicts are based on a fraudulent premise and are illegal under international law. One egregious example was the Iraq War.


Where our armed forces are deployed and engaged in a conflict that seemed justifiable at the outset, we have a duty to constantly review the rationale for such an engagement, to constantly question its continuing validity, and to speedily bring it to an end and withdraw from it when it ceases to be either winnable, or relevant, or both.  Such a conflict is the ‘war’ in Afghanistan, now of nine years duration – greater than the total length of WW1 and WW2 combined – and forecast to continue, in the words of our new Prime Minister, at least for another five years.


The poppy is sold in a good cause – to raise funds for soldiers harmed by war - but it must not be hijacked by politicians and the British establishment for other reasons. There are deeply worrying indicators that this is exactly what is happening, especially in the behaviour of the Tory Party in the Commons, and over the FIFA poppy issue, including today at PMQs.

Politicians and military commanders are aware that the casualties and images from the weekly repatriation ceremonies influence public opinion.

Major-General Gordon Messenger, a military spokesman on Afghanistan, talked last year about “balancing opinion”.

"If I had a plea, I think it would be to better understand the reasons why they're there and the progress that's being made and to not simply view Afghanistan through the lens of the casualties," he told Sky News.

"I think it is incumbent on me and on everyone who has an understanding of the Afghan campaign to do all we can to better inform the public as to those reasons."

In other words, the Government, the MOD and some sectors of the military are worried that the public might be questioning the weekly escalating blood sacrifice that is being made by the flower of our young people in the name of a flawed, confused and increasingly irrelevant strategy in pursuit of confused and conflicting aims. Armed Forces Day has already been hijacked and converted to a PR propaganda exercise for a failing political and military strategy and the poppy has been heading the same way for some time now.

All the emblems, symbols and techniques that support the old lie will be deployed to this end – parades of military equipment and military might, the Union Jack, old men in berets and medals, flag-waving children, and a solid presence of members of the Royal Family, together with the insidious sub-text, that anyone who does not support the Afghanistan War is somehow unpatriotic and failing to support our servicemen.

This serves as a smokescreen to obscure to real failings of a failed state – the UK – to address the very real and fundamental needs of those on the frontline, and continuing to defend the massive drain on resources represented by Trident and weapons of mass destruction that are entirely irrelevant to the modern world and the defence challenges it presents.

It serves as a PR exercise to attempt to validate the UK’s increasingly false claim to be a major player in the geopolitical great game, when in fact it is merely a convenient puppet for US foreign policy, draining its resources in an increasingly nonsensical claim to be a great power on the world stage.

Meanwhile, the confused aims and contradictory strategy of the Afghanistan coalition will continue: generals will come and go, and little men like politician Liam Fox will strut and posture - and vanish - while young men die. Behind the scenes, cuts to budgets have been made that endanger our armed forces effectiveness, bribes will be paid to corrupt Afghani politicians, and secret talks will take place with the Taliban warlords, while innocent men, women and children will be killed by ‘friendly fire’.

I fear that Armed Forces Day, with all its parades and exaltation of military might, all its band and martial music, all its speeches about heroes and sacrifice, all its flag waving and cheering, was simply a colourful cabaret to conceal the ugly realpolitik that represents the real threat to our brave servicemen and women. I fear that the deaths and the maimings will continue - and will escalate - until the citizens of these isles see clearly the blood sacrifice of their children that is being made in their names, and in the name of Britishness.

Extract from Sept. 2011 blog


A sharp distinction must be made between why defence and foreign policy matter to Scottish unionist voters and why they matter to unionist politicians, including the Scottish variety.

Scottish unionist voters either have a vaguely romantic notion of Britain’s imperial glories, or they are afraid that Scotland could not defend its security against threat and its international interests independently of the UK. They are rarely, in my experience, clear about what such threats could be, and what Scotland’s international interests are. All they have to do to achieve clarity is to look at any small European or Scandinavian nations, something they rarely do, except to patronise or deride, e.g. the tired old ‘Arc of Prosperity’ jibes. From my perspective, Scottish unionist voters are the victims of 300 years of unionist propaganda and imperial myth, exactly the kind of paranoid, jingoistic narrow nationalism that they falsely accuse the SNP of displaying.

Unionist politicians believe that defence and foreign policy - especially the nuclear deterrence policy, nuclear weapons and nuclear bases - matter fundamentally, because they are the passport to global politics, international roles, power, prestige – and money, money, money

Tony Blair, a lawyer and subsequently an MP for an obscure North East of England constituency, Sedgefield, now has an estimated annual income of in excess of £15m, and a personal fortune variously estimated at £40/60m. Such wealth was not created by democratically representing the electors of Sedgefield or the interests of the electors of the UK as Prime Minister, it was built on the back of an international career involving death, destruction and war.

Peter Mandelson, an architect of New Labour, had to borrow money from a businessman to buy his first London house. He is now a Lord, an immensely rich man, and is in the process of purchasing an £8m house. Such a fortune did not come from his earnings as a Member of Parliament, nor from his modestly lucrative salary an perks as a European commissioner, not from his liberal daily expense allowance as a Lord – it came from international consultancies and directorships that relate directly or indirectly to defence and foreign policy.


Under Labour, the Ministry of Defence, the legendarily incompetent - but unfailingly lucrative - body that fails to adequately equip our young men and women in the armed forces, spent an average of £5.6m on entertaining each year under Labour and probably far in excess of that under the current regime. We don’t have to be told who they were entertaining, boozing and eating lavishly with while Scottish soldiers died – while Fusilier Gordon Gentle died because his vehicle was not fitted with an electronic bomb detector.

No defence minister has retired poor: no senior MOD official retires into poverty or even a modest pension. They slide effortlessly through a revolving door into lucrative directorships and consultancies with the merchants of death, or with brutal foreign dictatorships of the kind now being overthrown by the people of the Middle East in the Arab Spring.

Scottish MPs on the high road to Westminster head for the lucrative, blood-soaked pastures of defence like heat-seeking missiles – they know where the money and the power lie.

After all, the bloody trail has been blazed for them by their predecessors. Only a state with its operating principle as eternal war, fed by inducing eternal paranoia in the electorate, can satisfy the insatiable greed of the powerful, the privileged, the amoral bankers and the military/industrial complex that ultimately controls this sham democracy, bleeding the people dry in every sense of the word.

The unionist politicians are M.A.D. men in the acronymic sense – they are committing the reluctant component nations of their dying empire to mutually assured destruction.

R.I.P. Uncle Petie and Uncle Eddie


  1. Well said Peter. It is amazing that the general public are seduced by this and they continue to believe that, despite our economic situation as well as all of the other reasons, that the UK has to be a major military power. If only the facts were properly recognised in Scotland it would be significant in the discussion about independence when we could have a properly constituted defence force which wouldn't be sent to fight unnecessarily and where they would not have to rely on charity after the sacrifice is made.

  2. Hi Peter,

    I have been spared the trauma of having to go to war, but my father was less fortunate. He did however, get some excellent advice from an uncle of his who worked at the time in the Ministry of Pensions, and was responsible for assessing and authorising military pensions and payments.

    His advice to his newly married nephew was - do not volunteer - wait for the Daft and once drafted do not accept a Commission. Because, if you volunteer or accept a Commission the government decides when you can be discharged and can keep you in the Services as long as they like. If you wait for the draft they are required to let you go at the earliest opportunity.

    Great Uncle John knew exactly how well the government looked after its WWI and Boer War servicemen - with reluctance and always with the minimum allowances the rules would allow. Seems not much has changed in the last 100 years then.


  3. I rarely argue with your excellent music choices, Peter, but this one, I think, perhaps better matches the point of your post.

    As a citizen of an aggressive, war-mongering, imperialistic nation that learned all too well the lessons taught by the aggressive, war-mongering British Empire, it is sometimes hard to know what to say when these subjects come up. We have all paid some terrible prices for what we have, collectively, allowed to be done in our names.

  4. 'Roses of Picardy' has a special resonance for the First World War, Jeanne - and it was my Uncle Petie's favourite song.

    I've never been a fan of the Corries or their music (heresy from a Nat!) but I did use their most famous track recently. Socially relevant words alone are not sufficient - that's the job of poetry and prose. A song needs a dynamic marriage of words and music to cut to the heart.

  5. I found the family history fascinating.

    The poppy is for whom?

    We should not reduce injured armed services personnel to charity nor their families.

    The politicians who wear a poppy yet send people mindlessly off to die are vile hypocrites... or are they. Maybe they're being rather honest - soldiers will die to support whatever expedient foreign policy is enacted.

    The poppy symbol then becomes a badge of British nationalist arrogance and mercenary intent.

    You said this but I'm saying it in my own way, since the poppy thing has niggled me for years and this is the first time I've figured out why.

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  7. Thanks, Rab.

    It si always difficult to address this subject, because it is such a painful one for the bereaved, for military families, for veterans and for the comrades of the dead.

    But we serve them best, not by hollow condolences at PMQs, not by calling them heroes and not by parades and flag-draped coffins, but by not placing them in harms way, ill-equipped and ill-served, in misconceived conflicts to serve the vanity and the profit of venal politicians.

  8. Thanks Stevie.

    We mustn't forget that the poppy raises money that is applied to a good cause, money that otherwise would not come easily from the people.

    A separation has to be made between the poppy in its original intent - remembrance of the dead and relief - rather than what the politicians have made it - a vehicle for jingoistic British and Tory empire militarism and war - endless war.

  9. You're allowed to be heretical, Peter, although I'm quite fond of many of their performances. That is one of my favorite of that particular piece.

  10. I came across a poll by YouGov for Chatham House - a thinktank which claims to offer "independent thinking on international affairs". It makes depressing reading. Data here, figures from page 12.

    62% of people questioned agreed that "The UK should seek to remain a great power, with substantial armed forces..."

    51% agreed that "British foreign policy should pursue our national interest at all times, even if this means doing things that some people regard as unethical".

  11. It is depressing, until you remember that most of the people, most of the time, will respond in this way to certain question types, e.g. hang 'em, flog 'em, lock 'em up.

    But in a reasonably liberal political system, it doesn't translate into action, although it tolerates the unacceptable.

    But how long will we remain stable? Must get out and fast ...