by Lord Ian Blair of Broughton, cross bench peer, former Metropolitan Police Commissioner and parishioner in the Diocese of Oxford
In this period of remembrance, I have been reflecting on the time-limited nature of memory. I was born after World War II in 1953 but my childhood was dominated by it, with poppies and remembrance services being as absolute a fixed part of the year as Christmas. My childhood games and comics were all about Gerries, Nazis and Brits.
This last decade has seen an outpouring of remembrance as the 100 year anniversaries of the First World War slipped past, followed by the 75 the anniversary of D Day this year and with the 75th anniversary of VE day still to come next year.
A number of issues have been striking me this weekend, two of them very strongly. The first is the question of how long the significance of these particular acts of remembrance will continue. The second is whether we are necessarily remembering things quite right.
The industrialised slaughter of 1914-8 and the loss of so many brilliant young lives is burned into British, German and French national memories. My uncle was killed in France in 1915.
We also now pretty much understand that the Second World War was effectively a continuation of the First and its victors’ peace. But if we look ahead 30 years, will people still be remembering the bravery and the futility of these events? And what will people be remembering?
The way in which a small pebble can start an avalanche caused me to think about this when I noticed a newspaper article to the effect that a number of police forces were no longer prepared to devote manpower to all the remembrance services in their particular region and were asking village events to be subsumed into larger city ones. Where does this lead?
Soon, all those with direct memory of these titanic struggles will be dead, with all respect to those mourning losses from more recent but thankfully smaller conflicts. What then?
Who knows what future generations will do but what it made me think is that those who do survive and those of us whose lives have been was so influenced by it need to make sure that the memory of all that sacrifice is accurate and comprehensive and not able to be twisted into a narrative of British or even English exceptionalism and nationalism.
The great 1940 cartoon by David Lowe entitled ‘Very Well, Alone’ pictures a single British Tommy standing on the white cliffs of Dover, fist raised aloft against German bombers streaming in overhead. It was published after the fall of France earlier that year. It was a wonderful piece of propaganda and those who come after should not disregard its significance.
The sheer raw courage of the Churchill-led government in refusing peace terms with Nazi Germany should never be discounted.
But even when Lowe’s cartoon was published, ‘Alone’ was rapidly becoming less true. Soldiers from New Zealand, Australia, Canada and South Africa were already steaming towards our shores. Resistance movements from Holland, Poland and France fought and flew with us. Then the Americans came in and eventually Germany was to be defeated by huge Soviet sacrifice. All this is compatible with my childhood memories – these were all people recognisably like us.
But people recognisably not like us, not like anyone in my entirely white Cheshire home town, came as well. And my childhood memories do not include any understanding that those who fought alongside the British included hundreds of thousands of non-white citizens of the British Empire and Commonwealth.
This was brought home to me sharply at a Remembrance event in Hounslow in west London, which I was attending in an official capacity sometime in the 2000’s. I met an elderly Sikh, with a slew of medals across his chest. I was very surprised indeed when he told me that he had been a Squadron Leader in the Battle of Britain. Where did this story fit in to my understanding of the past? Turbans among the Few?
Ever since, I have been tracing the stories of Black and Minority Ethnic contributions to the events Remembrance Day commemorates.
I am just going to take the example of India. One million Indian soldiers served in the First World War, as the magnificent Indian War Memorial in northern France makes clear: 75000 died, while 87000 died in the Second World War.
But their contribution is scarcely remembered in most of Britain.
I always see Jesus Christ as the epitome of diversity. Christ outraged the Jewish religious authorities of his time by mingling with tax-gatherers and sinners. He enjoyed the company of women not of his family, a very unusual course of action at the time, appeared first to one of those women after His Resurrection and protected an adulteress from being attacked.
He spoke at length to a Samaritan woman – regarded as an apostate by Jews at that time – at a well and then stayed in her village.
Jesus preached at and stayed on the Mount of Olives, just outside Jerusalem. This was then the site of Jerusalem’s leper colony. He was inclusive above all.
The Temple in Jerusalem was divided into concentric courts, first the court of the Gentiles into which anyone could go, then the court of the Jews open to both men and women, then one only for Jewish men, then one only for priests and then the Holy of Holies, which could be entered only by the High Priest, only on one day a year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The deeds and words of Jesus challenge this exclusivity, as did His early followers in taking Christ’s teaching to the ends of the earth, offering Christianity to all the world.
We need to follow His example and ensure that, for future generations, the message of Remembrance Sunday is not only about – although certainly including – a British (Scottish, Welsh, Irish as well as English) triumph and sacrifice but a wonderful diverse achievement by all faiths and none against all the odds, against world-wide evil and brutality.
At the going down of the sun, we need to remember all of them. And that inclusive memory will help future generations combat the evils to come in their day, rather than allowing such a glorious moment in our national history to dwindle into a little Englander motif.