There are three rites which mark the passage of autumn. The first is Halloween, a previously marginal occasion which seems to enjoy greater prominence with each passing year. The second is Bonfire Night, an older celebration that recalls the discovery of the gunpowder plot on 5 November 1605. Finally is Remembrance Sunday, observed a week later but publicly visible for weeks in advance.
As with Bonfire Night, 11 November is an act of commemoration as the nation comes together to remember those who gave their lives in WW1. Yet like Halloween it has become increasingly fluid in observance. However bizarre its various rituals across the country, the way in which the failure of the gunpowder plot is celebrated has remained constant for generations. The same can’t be said for how Britain honours its war dead.
That change has been driven by a macabre commercialism which means we ‘remember’ victims of war in ways which are equally sinister and hysterical. From meat counters to make up, pizzas to lingerie it feels that, for a few weeks at least, Britain becomes unhinged. Far from an act of collective solemnity, what we have is the ‘poppy industry’: a dystopian carnival where even the Cookie Monster is adorned with a poppy and drives in the home counties are modelled on a western front no man’s land.
At the heart of this industry is the Royal British Legion. Founded in 1921, it organised the first poppy appeal that same year. The ambition was simple: to sell as many poppies as possible to help veterans of the Great War. Beyond expressing solidarity, the hope was to materially assist them in areas like housing and employment.
In the century that followed the appeal only grew. Today the British Legion has an annual income of £159m, 30% of which come from poppy sales. Meanwhile it enjoys total net assets of £350m. While not as well-resourced as other charities like Cancer Research, given that its founding mission was to assist a generation of people no longer with us, these are nonetheless vast sums of money.
Like any organisation the British Legion must legitimise its existence. That’s why it has changed tack in recent decades and today claims to maintain two particular functions. The first is as the nation’s ‘custodian of remembrance’, the second its welfare commitments to veterans, as it aims to help “British Armed Forces, veterans, and their families to live on to a more hopeful future”.
Given that second aim, and the resources the charity commands, you might expect veterans to be relatively prominent, a favoured interest group championed by a powerful lobby. And yet, despite the vast income the Legion generates, inimically tied to ever more gratuitous expressions of martial patriotism, the plight of many veterans only gets worse.
According to one paper there are now 13k former soldiers who are homeless. Elsewhere it has been estimated that some 66k veterans are either homeless, at the front line of the criminal justice system, or suffering from severe mental health issues. For context there are around 81k personnel currently serving in the British Army. What’s more, being front line users of critical welfare services means veterans are more likely to bear the brunt of reforms such as universal credit.
So when was the last time the British Legion applied political pressure against regressive welfare reform, or tried to shape the public conversation around rough sleeping? After all, these are issues which impact the people it is meant to represent more than anyone. While it’s clear the Legion does good work in the aftercare and support of veterans, this is a sticking plaster on the issues that matter.
It doesn’t end there, because while ex-armed forces are more likely than ever to be on the streets, in prison or suffering from poor mental health, there are 25 employees at the British Legion earning more than £60k a year.
At the top is the organisation’s director general, Charles Byrne, who earns more than £140k a year heading a military charity while having never served himself. Alongside Byrne are a further nine individuals whose combined annual salaries extend beyond £1m. Like Byrne, most haven’t served in the armed forces. While those salaries may be in keeping with similar positions elsewhere, when the organisation is failing to pay some employees a living wage, and veterans are suffering in historic numbers, it seems difficult to square. All the while the British Legion is failing to draw attention to the structural issues profoundly shaping, and destroying, the lives of those it was created to serve. Perhaps that’s the point.
Despite its resources the British Legion is a failure which embodies much that is wrong with public life in Britain: a cosy third sector more at ease with a rotten status quo than its founding mission; moralism in the absence of material resources offered by the state to those who need them most; and a nostalgia which not only stymies honest conversation about Britain’s past but also regarding its future.
Were the British Legion to fulfil its original mission properly it would lobby for drastically increased NHS spending, in mental health services and elsewhere; a pledge to end rough sleeping and homelessness; and an approach to criminal justice which is preventative rather than punitive. It is presently doing none of these things, instead providing political cover for systemic failure.
I won’t be wearing a poppy this Sunday because it symbolises a country that thinks solidarity is buying a piece of plastic while walking past the poor and blaming them for their predicament. There is no better monument to those who came before us than ensuring we leave something better for those who come after. If the British Legion can’t aim to do that – and call for a radical transformation of Britain’s economy and welfare state – then it should disband, sell its assets and give the proceeds to those living on the streets.