Ahead of the England cricket team’s flight to Australia before this winter’s Ashes, the Professional Cricketers’ Association (PCA) tweeted a picture of the 16-man squad suited up with the series trophy and the historic urn. The photo was something of a botched job: certain players were shoddily dressed, with a casual approach to footwear and featured a startling pair of socks worn by Stuart Broad on the front row.
However, the response to this tweet was not one of support for the squad. Instead, all eyes were on one player in particular: Moeen Ali.
Travelling in a squad containing fifteen white men, of which nine attended fee-paying schools, and one British Muslim with a full beard, Moeen is used to standing out.
But this time, Moeen wasn’t being heralded as an inspiration to British Asian children in the UK. Instead, he found himself as the target for a mountain of vitriol and criticism.
“How come Mo isn’t wearing a poppy? Please, how do I explain this to my teenage son who loves him?” read one reply. “Disgrace that Ali wouldn’t wear a poppy…it symbolises those who gave their lives so idiots like him can play cricket” said another.
This sort of trolling is nothing new for those who live their lives in the public eye. News presenters Charlene White and Jon Snow are put down on an annual basis, labelled ‘unpatriotic’ and ‘disrespectful’ for their refusal to wear the symbol. Northern Irish footballer James McClean is booed all year round at English stadia by fans who consider his choice to not wear the red flower as a demonstration of anti-Britishness. It’s no surprise then that when searching his name on Google, the top suggestion is ‘IRA’.
Indeed, wearing a poppy from late October to mid-November has become compulsory for those who face media attention – failure to do so inevitably leads to an onslaught of poisonous vitriol from self-proclaimed patriots.
In Moeen’s case, the abuse stopped soon after England landed. The team’s account tweeted a handful of pictures of the players arriving, and it was pointed out that whilst Moeen was wearing his poppy in Perth airport, various other players weren’t – “Poppy fell off!” he tweeted.
But the intense anger directed towards Ali shows not only the extent to which the poppy has become politicised in the past few years, but that it is now being used as a symbol of division.
For example, take the interview that then-UKIP senior advisor Raheem Kassam was subjected to by Sky News anchor Dermot Murnaghan last November. In a bizarre three-minute conversation – which was meant to focus on Nigel Farage’s meeting with Donald Trump after the US Election – Murnaghan repeatedly asked Kassam why he hadn’t been wearing a poppy. Kassam responded with a series of reasonable explanations: the poppy was on his other coat, it had become “a bit tatty”, and emphasised the difficulties of finding a poppy in New York.
But despite this, he was attacked as some sort of traitor by Murnaghan: “Well you can tell that to the Royal British Legion, can’t you? Would you like to apologise for it?”
It was a display of the toxicity attached to the symbol that has had its meaning gradually eroded away over the past decade. Kassam had, it transpired, donated £300 to the Royal British Legion that very morning, But somehow, that didn’t seem to matter.
The virtue-signalling few that try to make poppy-wearing compulsory miss the point: if everyone wore a poppy all the time, its meaning would be undermined to the extent that the symbol became meaningless.
Indeed, wearing a poppy should and must remain an issue of personal choice. For some, it ignores the millions of civilian deaths at the hands of wars involving Britain. Equally, others object to commemorating wars that they believe should never have happened – after all, the poppy honours those who have died at war, including in recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, not just those involved in World Wars.
The victimisation of those who choose not to – or forget to – wear a poppy must stop immediately: if we fail to respect personal choice, then we risk turning a symbol of respect
into an excuse for division.