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White Poppies and MSPs: a week in Holyrood

by Helen Kay

The first week in November, the Scottish WILPF branch set up a stall at Holyrood to distribute white peace poppies to Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs).

We were invited in to Holyrood by a radical and principled MSP Jean Urquhart. You may recall that Jean opted out of SNP whip when the party changed their policy on NATO membership.

After many months of supporting the campaign to withdraw from NATO, in conjunction with the demand that Trident nuclear missiles be withdrawn from Scottish soil, the party decided that they might not be electable with this NATO policy and with one quick vote changed their policy: they decided that they wanted Scotland to stay in NATO. Jean refused to accept this SNP policy change and now sits as an independent MSP.

Monday: It was very quiet when we set up the stall; most MSPs were still in their constituencies.

Tuesday: I was on the stall on my own, feeling a little bit anxious that some people might not be appreciative of my effort to give them a white poppy. First along came the tea trolley, the cleaners and the security people who listened to the history:

  • How the original red poppy signified ‘no more war’ for many bereaved wives, mothers and daughters in 1919
  • How the Women’s Cooperative Guild in Lancashire decided in 1930 that the red poppy no longer held value as a symbol of their loss: and the commemoration ceremonies had been taken over by the military procession and ritual, which left no space for women and children
  • How WILPF supported the Peace Pledge Union who now distributed white poppies as we wanted to mourn the loss, not just of young soldiers but also of the horrendous loss of civilian lives in current wars, maybe one hundred times more women, children and civilian men killed than the number of soldiers

The parliamentary staff were polite and many genuinely interested to know what the white poppy represented, several being happy to wear a white poppy symbolising their wish to end the military killings after they discovered that it was not a symbol of denigration of soldiers.

A group of schoolchildren stopped to ask what the white poppies meant. Under the watchful eye and discriminating ear of their teacher, I anxiously gave a description of the history and meaning. Not so long as to bore them, not so short as to be too simplified. The teacher smiled and several children took poppies. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Just before lunch-time Jean came by to encourage me. Several other sympathetic MSPs came past and gave advice on how to make the most of WILPF presence in the Parliament

  • Basics like having a box for MSPs to leave their business card, even when the stall was unattended
  • Making sure that Scottish WILPF knows which MSPs are most likely to be interested in, and supportive of WILPF campaigns
  • Getting contact details so that WILPF can communicate with them later

A group of about 20 older women on a tour of Parliament stopped by, asking what is the meaning of the white poppy, and all but two expressed their enthusiasm for this radical idea, picking up the poppies and pinning them on their jackets immediately.

Wednesday: my colleague Anne looked after the stall and spoke to many MSPs and researchers as they went about their work in the Parliament building. Many parliamentarians were unaware of the history of women resisters to World War One: one was interested to read the booklet about Conscientious Objectors.

Thursday: An anxious start to the day Рwe had almost run out of white poppies and none were available from the usual sources!  Our supply of 350 poppies had dwindled to a handful in the bottom of the box. A sympathetic MSP donated a few from his stock. But we soon relaxed Рwe only had few customers that day.

One researcher stopped by for a chat. Encouraged by his apparent radical views, I felt we could discuss how the government takes the responsibility to send out young men and women as soldiers representing British interests, but when they come home wounded in body or spirit many have to rely on charity money raised by the sale of red poppies.

Thursday is THE busy day for the Parliamentarians – all whizz and political buzz. They were agog with the Parliamentary debate, the institutional gossip and the party political intrigues. Not much time to speak with outsiders, distributing white poppies.

However our sponsoring MSP Jean Urquhart reported that she has found out that the British Legion Poppy Fund is the only charity allowed to collect donations in the Scottish Parliament. With a broad smile, she told us she is looking forward to lobbying for white poppies to be on display alongside red poppies next year, with donations going to PPU for peace education.

Friday: Very few MSPs around as most travel back to work in their constituencies. Watching the TV news report that evening, it was reward enough for our week’s work to see MSPs wearing their poppies in the debating chamber, some wearing both red and white, but a few proudly wearing the white peace poppy.

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