COMMENT by Ann Strauss

White Poppies — Red Poppies?

A few weeks ago an interesting discussion took place after the formal business at a meeting of WDC — would we be wearing Red Poppies or White Poppies? We had been talking about Remembrance Day and we found that every point of view was represented. “I cannot imagine wearing a red poppy because of its militaristic connotations”. “I wear a red poppy because I wish to remember and pay tribute to those in my family who were killed in the war”. “I always wear a white poppy because it is a symbol of peace and commemorates the civilian as well as the military casualties of war”. “I could never wear a white poppy because I am not a pacifist”. “I want to wear a white poppy because for me it stands for the futility and tragedy of war — but I do not wish to offend anyone, and wear both”. Clearly there is a place for every strongly held conviction on this subject.

Red Poppies have been sold since the 1920s by the British Legion, to raise money for their work for ex-servicemen which aims to relieve hardship and distress where these exist and to assist serving men and women in their return to civilian life. The seeds of the red poppy lie dormant for years and spring up in abundance when earth is disturbed, as it was in the trenches and battlegrounds of the First World War. The flower has become a powerful symbol of remembrance, associated with those who died in the armed forces and with gratitude for their sacrifice. There is less stress on the millions of civilians who have died, suffered or been displaced by war every year, but clearly the symbol of the Red Poppy brings people together in their remembrance and builds on their generosity. But does it need to compete with the White Poppy? Are attitudes changing?

The wearing of the White Poppy on Armistice Day came about through the Co-operative Women’s Guild, which ‘was founded in 1883, to give public voice to working-class women, who were widely exploited at work and at home. The Guildswomen spoke out strongly against the First World War and maintained their pacifist principles and commitment to the peace movement throughout the interwar years and beyond. In 1933 a number of branches asked for an emblem to express their opposition to war, and at the suggestion of Edith Pavitt, former CWG President, the Guild decided to produce White Poppies.’

It was in the following year that Dick Sheppard wrote his famous letter to the Manchester Guardian and other newspapers in protest at the climate of rearmament which was building up at the time. He invited men to send him a postcard giving their undertaking to ‘renounce war and never again to support another’. Within two days 2500 men responded, and in a few months the numbers grew to over 30,000. From this initiative the Peace Pledge Union was formed in 1936. As part of their work for peace the PPU focused on finding an alternative way of marking Remembrance Day, with its context of military parades and gun salutes, and they joined the Women’s Co-operative Guild in promoting the White Poppy. This, they believe, is a symbol of grief for everyone who has been harmed by war, and a symbol of hope that people may work together for good.

This year, in the UN International Year for the Culture of Peace, a number of local peace groups have made contact with their local branch of the Royal British Legion, and some are working together to make November 11th this year not just a day for remembrance but also a time for reconciliation and hope for a future without war. Can this Remembrance Day really be the beginning of a new tradition — aiming not to compete or contradict other points of view, but to open up dialogue and debate? One new development is the programme that has been arranged at the Imperial War Museum — further details can be found elsewhere in the Newsletter.

NMD demonstration, US Embassy, Grosvenor Square, October 7th

This was almost literally a washout, but WDC/CND was represented by a truly heroic Helen Jones who writes “We were greeted by a policeman outside the American Embassy with the words ‘You people must be committed to come out on a day like this’. Two dozen or so of us had marched from Marble Arch to join a hundred other protesters against the National Missile Defence System. It was one of the worst downpours any of us had experienced on a march or vigil, but most people stayed, good-humoured but serious in their mission.”

November 11th

We explored the possibility of an joint Armistice commemoration with the local branches of the Royal British Legion, in keeping with the declared spirit of all this year’s remembrance events: a day of ‘Reflection and Hope’ for “remembrance, reconciliation and a future without war”. We found that we were making our approaches far too late to have any realistic expectation of influencing what are hallowed annual traditions, but it was good to feel that we were at last making contact over the red poppy/white poppy divide and we were pleased at the lack of animosity.

Many WDC/CND members plan to support the events at the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, SE1. The Museum is not far from Waterloo or Lambeth North underground station.

Saturday 11th November
Two minute silence. Peace poems read by Andrew Motion, Poet Laureate. Short recital on violin made out of trees destroyed on the Western Front.
“War as an institution: the rôle of human aggressiveness”. Talk by Professor Robert Hinde of Cambridge University.
Sunday 12th November
Two minute silence. First World War songs played on the Western Front violin.
“I remain your loving son....” A talk by Nigel Steel and readings from letters written by soldiers to their parents in the First World War. [Tickets for talks: 020 7416 5320 10am–5pm]

Our neighbours in Kingston Peace Council/CND have organised an event on November 11th starting at 10·30am in the Eden Street Quaker meeting house, where a two minute silence “to remember the victims of all wars everywhere” will be followed by an open discussion on ways to peace.

Here in Wimbledon there are the usual civic ceremonies on both the Saturday and Sunday at the local war memorials, and perhaps the best way we can build bridges for the future is to go and support the Royal British Legion, wearing red poppies as well as white. As Councillor Ian Munn, Mayor of Merton, writes: “It is right and proper that we should remember the sacrifices made by so many men and women of different faiths and ethnic origins who gave their lives, limbs or sanity so that we can live our lives in peace today. We should always remember them, for if we do not learn from the past we will repeat past mistakes.”

Local Royal British Legion events:

Saturday 11th November
   Civic Centre, Morden
Sunday 12th November
   Nelson Hospital
St Lawrence’s Church, Morden
Wimbledon Village war memorial

Hiroshima Cherry Tree

We are very pleased that the Merton Council has arranged an immediate replacement for the Morden Park Hiroshima tree, regrettably removed in error by contractors working on the new Registry Office. Sad though it is that the original tree planted by Lord Jenkins of Putney no longer survives, we are promised that the replacement will be an identical double white Japanese cherry of semi-mature size, and we are taking the opportunity to re-site the tree in what is undoubtedly a superior position, right next to the Registry Office where we hope that it will appear in many a wedding photo to come. In consultation with our colleagues in Mitcham CND we have decided to retain the original wording on the plaque but to add an additional line “rededicated in the UN Year for the Culture of Peace, November 2000”. We have regretfully concluded that a large public ceremony would draw the tree and its plaque to the attention of local vandals, so we plan that the rededication should be a private occasion. Please contact Joanna (8543 0362) if you would like to be there.

“My A-Bomb Experience”

The WDC/CND meeting on October 10th heard a fascinating account from local UNA activist Karl Miller of his experiences as a member of the UN Millennium Forum in New York last May. Karl spoke about UN reform and renewal and answered lots of wide-ranging questions, but the episode that sticks in the memory is the moment when Karl was handed an A4 sheet by an elderly Japanese man which turned out to be a first-hand account of the bomb on Hiroshima. We reproduce this in full with our Newsletter to remind ourselves what we are here for — see enclosed sheet.

The Lord Advocate’s Reference

WDC members will already know the background to this appeal by the Government following the acquittal of the three Trident Ploughshares activists in Greenock last year. (The Crown is arguing that the women did not have an adequate defence under international law to the charge of malicious damage).

The hearings were intended to finish on Friday October 13th but the proceedings took longer than expected and the court will re-convene on Tuesday 14th November. The Judges intervened with many questions during the Trident Ploughshares submissions, e.g.

  1. Does the fact that Trident is armed and deployed mean that it is a threat?
  2. Is Trident a danger to us and to the whole world at this very moment?
  3. Are we talking about nuclear weapons in general or Trident in particular?

This may seem like legal nit-picking (Angie Zelter pointed out that you could ask any three Edinburgh children whether they think that it is legal to plan mass murder and ruin the Earth — and it wouldn’t take them a fortnight to make up their minds!) but what matters is that the real issue — the legality of Trident — is being perused and dissected in the highest court in Scotland, and Scotland is the home of Trident. The judges are feeling their way through the quagmire of international law and whatever happens at these hearings will cause international reverberations.

Urgent Appeal

There is one big problem — the court will not allow the proceedings to be tape recorded nor will they order an official transcript. “The judges raised several questions which must have answers and there are four weeks to find good ones. So we must have a complete record of last week’s proceedings and of what happens when the High Court re-convenes in November.” World Court Project UK has decided that there is no choice but to hire a firm to record the proceedings in shorthand and then transcribe them — at a cost of almost £4,000. This cost cannot possibly be borne alone by such a small organisation. If you can send some money, however small a sum, please make cheques payable to World Court Project UK and send to 67 Summerheath Rd, Hailsham, Sussex, BN27 3DR as soon as possible.

Nuclear Weapons and the UN

Once again this autumn the influential group of seven states known as the New Agenda Coalition (NAC) has introduced a draft resolution at the UN General Assembly. It proposes moderate incremental steps towards disarmament and has been virtually built around current British policy on nuclear weapons — Britain being seen by many as having the greatest potential among the nuclear weapons states to play a leading rôle in the cause of disarmament.

The Resolution was passed overwhelmingly in 1998 and 1999 but the nuclear weapons states (including Britain) voted against on both occasions. Last year most NATO states chose to part company with their nuclear allies and abstained.

Discussion of this year’s Draft Resolution began in early October and the final vote will take place in the General Assembly in December. A letter to Robin Cook urging that Britain should seize the opportunity to build on its contribution to the NPT Review Conference in May produced a lofty and patronising response. “We do not want to see the positive, ambitious NPT agenda undermined by efforts to distort its meaning or add to it proposals which did not command consensus after four weeks of hard negotiations in New York.

I became involved in a lobbying exercise organised by Abolition 2000 UK, contacting NATO states directly through their London embassies and ‘respectfully urging’ that their governments consider voting ‘Yes’ at the UN. I found it an eye-opening experience. I am used to the mass ignorance which reigns on the subject of nuclear disarmament even among educated and humane people, but I had assumed that among diplomats it would be different. But no, I found myself explaining the background to the NAC Resolution from first principles every time.

The Danes were very dubious about the whole business. Eventually I was advised that ‘they didn’t deal with this sort of thing’ in London so I should FAX all the information directly to Copenhagen, which I did. The Italians were courtesy itself and I had a long conversation with one Counsellor Scarantino before sending the letter prepared by A2000 and all the background papers to the Italian ambassador. I like to hope that Counsellor Scarantino, who is no doubt in a very junior position at the moment, will eventually become Italian ambassador in his turn.

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