Angus Parsad-Wyatt is the Chief Executive of ConservativeHome
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana’s words (often misquoted) ring with a prescient warning. Yet as I journeyed through the streets of London this week, just days before Armistice Day, the absence of poppies stirs concern. It raises the question: are we, as a society, in danger of forgetting remembrance?
During my morning commute one day this week, amidst reading the latest on protests and potential disruptions over Remembrance Weekend, I found myself reflecting on the nature of remembrance itself. For many, the act of purchasing and wearing a poppy is habitual. As is observing the two minutes’ silence on 11th November to honour those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.
However, a glance around my train carriage revealed a different story: of the twenty or so passengers I could see, only two sported the iconic red symbol of remembrance. I thought this both concerning and surprising, leading me to conduct a further observation on my journey from the station to my office. On this walk, of the forty-six individuals I passed, a mere three displayed poppies.
This reluctance to wear a poppy spans generations and communities – there was no discernible trend linked to age, gender, or race. It was difficult not to consider this a collective step back from a tradition of commemoration.
Recent incidents in London and Edinburgh – which saw individuals subjected to verbal and physical attacks, seemingly for the mere act of wearing (or selling) poppies – are alarming. They suggest that the remembrance symbol is becoming entangled in contemporary conflicts and culture clashes, potentially deterring people from wearing it.
This year, against the backdrop of the ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict, a large pro-Palestinian march is planned for Armistice Day in London. This is a stark reminder of the complexities of modern conflict and the challenges of upholding traditions of remembrance in a world where the geography of war and its political contexts are ever-evolving.
Furthermore, the poppy, with its roots firmly planted in the mud of the First and Second World Wars, may no longer resonate with a public for whom these conflicts are a receding memory, which sadly wanes like those who fought in them. Are we in danger of constraining the act of remembrance, of focusing too much on historically distant wars, at the expense of acknowledging recent sacrifices?
We have a collective responsibility as a society to ensure that the legacy of remembrance is neither diminished by time nor overshadowed by present-day conflicts. We must strive to retain its relevance through education, ensuring the act of wearing a poppy remains a personal and respected choice, free from fear of confrontation or misunderstanding.
How then do we rekindle the flame of remembrance in these changing times? The answer may well lie in the adaptability of remembrance itself. As society evolves, so too must how we honour our history. Staying relevant might require us to broaden our perspective of remembrance to encompass broader sacrifices for King and country, and to give more prominent acknowledgement to recent conflicts and peacekeeping missions.
As Armistice Day approaches, we should wear our poppies not merely as an act of remembrance but as a pledge to carry the lessons of the past into the future. After all, the poppy is much more than a red piece of paper pinned to a lapel; it is a symbol of resilience, a bridge between generations, and a silent ‘thank you’ to those who gave their tomorrow for our today.
In preserving the significance of the poppy, we honour not only the fallen but also those who continue to live in the shadow of war, and those striving for peace. In that sense, the act and symbols of remembrance are perhaps even more important today, not less; and should be seen as a unifying act in an otherwise divided world.
As we gather in communities across the United Kingdom this weekend, let us do so with a renewed commitment to educate, to remember, and to never let the distant past be a forgotten memory, but a guide for our future. In doing so, we do not simply avoid the risk of forgetting to remember; we actively choose to remember to never forget.