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Sorry, but Fifa are right about the poppies, says Alastair Campbell

Sorry, but Fifa are right about the poppies, says Alastair Campbell - Credit: Archant

No one wears their poppy with more pride that I do. But in the row over whether international footballers should wear them, Fifa are right. And the hot air the issue has prompted tells you everything about what is wrong with Britain today

Despite supporting an English football team, Burnley, to a degree that my partner Fiona considers to be an illness, when it comes to international sport, I have always been Scottish. This is the result of being brought up, in England, by two very Scottish parents.

And so, when the fixtures for the World Cup qualifiers were announced, there was only one place that my bagpipes and I were going to be on 8pm, Friday, November 11 … Wembley Stadium, England v Scotland.

Like most 21th century ‘citizens of the world’ – something Nelson Mandela deemed us all to be, but a concept which Theresa May has derided and dismissed (I know who I am with on this one) – I have a sense of identity which is anything but straightforward. I feel Scottish ahead of English, British ahead of both. I feel British ahead of European too, but European I nonetheless am.

I am also a poppy wearer. I always have been at this time of year. I am pleased that my sons, in addition to inheriting the Scotland-supporting thing despite being born and raised in London, have also inherited the poppy wearing habit, the understanding that there are some events so important they must never be forgotten, some people for whom respect must never be lost, some charities – and the Royal British Legion is one of them – that deserve the support of all of us.

The poppy itself is a powerful symbol. Wearing it, and paying a voluntary sum to do so, is one small way in which all of us can contribute to all of the above.

None of this is controversial. Yet this year, because of the England-Scotland match falling on Armistice Day, the poppy is at the centre of a controversy that risks being a bigger focus than either the football or the Remembrance of those who died. This has been a controversy we would have done better without, but alas is all of a piece with the brutish, insular and intolerant post-referendum country we are in danger of becoming.

FIFA, world football’s governing body, is one I will kick as hard as the next man when it comes to its poor governance, greed and corruption. But on the view that football strips in international matches should have little more than the emblem of the national FA, the date of the match and the name of the opponent printed upon them, they are right.

Looking at everything through a British-only lens, it is of course easy to say that the poppy is not a political symbol. But would we say the same if a British team was playing against another country whose FA wanted to remember their war heroes? How would we feel if Iran, say, or Serbia, wanted to emblazon their strips with what they claimed was their unpolitical, peaceful poppy equivalent?

Ireland commemorated the Easter Rising of 2016, also in defiance of the FIFA edict. FIFA was too slow to take action, but right belatedly to do so. As I know only too well from the Northern Ireland peace process, there are few things more political than anniversaries of major dates in history, flags and symbols. For most British people, the poppy is not political. But it is a symbol.

If FIFA say yes to the poppy, they risk opening the door to the FAs of countries ruled by a despot or dictator insisting that they can add, directly or subliminally, symbols of political intent. If England or, hopefully, Scotland, qualify for the World Cup Finals and play Argentina, we can hardly complain if the Argentinians claim the right to have some kind of Malvinas/Falkands message on their strip. Vladimir Putin is no doubt looking forward to his country’s World Cup with the same zeal with which Hitler looked forward to the Berlin Olympics in 1936. It is better to have rules in sport’s governing organisations which make exploitation difficult rather than easy.

It is not as though the FA and the SFA, and fans of both teams, have lacked the opportunities to commemorate the Armistice in other ways. Wreaths, a minute’s silence, such as those beautifully observed at grounds around the country last weekend, words of respect at press conferences, or in the match programme, poppies loud and proud in the buttonholes or on the tracksuits of players and coaches as they step from the team coach.

The Second World War was a fight to defeat fascism. It was also a fight against the extermination of an entire race. Listening to the phone-ins, reading some of the screaming editorials, I worry that among the people shouting loudest in anger about FIFA and the poppy are those who are shouting loudest to ‘crush’ anyone who dares to suggest Brexit is a bad idea, or pumping out racist and anti-semitic bile on social networks.

It is as though we want to fight to be allowed to remember our war dead in whatever way we want. But we forget the reason they died; just as so many seemed to forget why the EU came into being in the first place – to bring together in peace and prosperity great European nations whose history is largely defined by wars between them.

Brexit has unleashed a nastiness that risks becoming a normalized extremism, and the government is doing too little to confront it, and parts of the media all too much to fuel it. The rise in abuse and hate crime against foreigners is something that shames us all. The failure of the government properly to stand up for the judiciary is something that should concern us all.

In the view of our Brexit Lie Machine media, if you don’t wear a poppy, you hate Britain. If you don’t hate FIFA for having a rule against it, your un-patriotism is compounded. This stance is actually profoundly un-British, but all of a piece with the need to hate, the need to blame, the need to thrive on anger. Hate, blame and anger are the motors of the Mail, the Sun and their like, and they are all factors which helped Leave over the line on June 23.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the FA and the SFA were driven less by a passionate belief in the rightness of printing the poppy on the shirts, than a desire to avoid yet another bucket-load of bile being dropped on their heads by the tabloid press mid-whip-up of frenzy.

The frenzy-whipping was of course led by those declaring war on the rule of law on the back of three judges doing what they are charged with doing – independently interpreting laws passed by Parliament. (That is Parliament, the sovereignty of which was seemingly what the referendum was about, until, that is, there was the possibility MPs might have any role in scrutinising the headlong, no-plan, make-it-up-as-she-goes-along rush to Brexit.)

The UK government’s official definition of extremism is this: ‘vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.’

On that basis, several of our newspapers and a fair few of our right-wing politicians have no right to be offended should we dub them extreme. They are. And extremists are the last people we should be allowing to be judge and jury of what is right and wrong when it comes to what the poppy represents.

All of us should have the right to decide whether to wear a poppy. Millions choose to do so. But England and Scotland players ought to be allowed to get on with their job.

That means playing football, unencumbered by this phoney row, which is more about the cod patriotism and the forces of nationalism the wretched referendum has unleashed, than it is about remembering our war dead, who gave their lives for something far bigger and better than what this all says about what Britain is becoming.

Alastair Campbell is a writer, communicator and strategist, best known for his work as director of communications for Prime Minister Tony Blair, from 1997 to 2003

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