Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Poppy Populism

The moat of the Tower of London has been filled with a display of 888,246 ceramic poppies – one for each British and Empire death in World War One – which included my Grandfather.

Poppies are transient flowers and fade, and this display was due to fade after Armistice Day. To fund the display and to make some money for service charities it was announced that these poppies would be for sale to the general public.

Living some distance from London it was not possible to see this display, but watching the coverage in the press and on television I was caught by the tribute and bought “my grandfather’s poppy” – to be despatched after the installation ends on 11 November 2014. I imagine that several hundreds of thousands of others have done the same.

Now the Mayor of London and the Prime Minister have intervened in what looks like smoke and mirrors spin and pure populism and “changed the rules”. I expect nothing more from these two.

So what is happening? Just a week ago I (and presumably all the rest of us who had purchased a poppy to support this installation and service charities) received from Historic Palaces (the charity that manages the Tower of London) the following message:

Dear Sir/Madam,

Thank you for supporting Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, the major art installation of 888,246 hand-made ceramic poppies in the Tower of London’s moat to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. …

Where are the poppies now?

Right now, the poppies are in the Tower’s moat forming part of the spectacular display. Each poppy will have weathered in the sun, wind and rain creating a unique piece of art that was once a part of this important First World War centenary installation and funds raised from their sale are on the way to our charity partners.

What happens to the poppies next?

The final poppy will be planted on 11 November 2014, after which Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red will close and we will begin the huge task of removing all 888,246 poppies from the moat. The poppies will then be cleaned, individually packaged and sent to you along with an exclusive commemorative booklet. …

Thank you again for buying a poppy and supporting our service charity partners – the Confederation of Service Charities, Combat Stress, Coming Home, Help for Heroes, the Royal British Legion and SSAFA.

I do not doubt that this installation has created quite a reaction. As a result:

Cameron said the installation, created to mark the centenary of the start of the first world war, had become a “much loved and respected monument” in a short space of time. He said the Weeping Willow and the Wave would stay in place for longer, before being sent on a tour of sites across the UK until 2018. They will then go on permanent display at the Imperial War Museum.
The Guardian 8 November 2014 : Parts of Tower of London poppy display reprieved

This is a typical mix of spin and populism.

Claiming that they had intervened to ensure that parts of the installation stayed in place longer (until the end of the month) is pure spin. It has taken months to install the poppies; it was going to take weeks to remove them – so parts of it were always going to be there beyond the end of the month. Spin

Sending two parts of the installation on tour “across the UK” is populism. The moat is currently filled with 888,246 poppies and those visiting can appreciate the awful scale of the sacrifice made and appreciate the echo of the fields of Flanders covered in poppies where the land had been disturbed. Sending a fraction of the installation on tour across the UK allows people to see part of a sculpture and actually detracts from appreciating the awful scale of the sacrifice that the original installation was commemorating. It is tokenistic populism and philistinism.

It means that some of us will not get the poppies that we have bought. The London Mayor and Prime Minister are not depriving a commercial organisation of rights under a contract, they are confiscating from tens of thousands the commemorative act that they have made in “buying a poppy and supporting our service charity partners” – often in remembrance of one of those 888,246 who fell. It is confiscatory populism and stinks.

The tour is “being funded from Libor fines” – so that makes it OK apparently. The Libor fines are not a “windfall” that the government can then distribute as acts of political largesse. The Libor fines should be compensating (albeit only partially) the nation for the loss to the economy caused by the buccaneering acts of these so-called traders. Presumably the Libor fines will also compensate “our service charity partners” for the amounts they would have received in respect of the poppies which will now not be going to those who purchased them.

If “Boris and Dave” feel the need to be seen to be popular they could have commissioned extra poppies from the factory in Derby which could then form the “permanent display” and have sought sponsorship of the cost from some of their friends who have done so well from their administrations. But no, as with most populist actions they are ill-thought out and trample on the feelings of others. But should we expect anything better?

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