My grandfather fought in the trenches and earlier at Gallipoli. In the 1940s he still had nightmares of seeing his best friend’s head blown off. Dad narrowly escaped death from a Luftwaffe bomb and during another raid went into a burning building to save a person trapped inside. We are right to honour the memory of our war dead and veterans’ sacrifice, and do so every year on Remembrance Day.
So why make VE Day another Remembrance Day?
This year’s anniversary, the 75th since the Nazi surrender, has been noteworthy for the wall-to-wall military rhetoric from the government. It’s in line with the increase in such rhetoric over some years now, suspiciously in inverse proportion to defence investment and the size of our armed forces. But this year’s bellicosity has a shabby, anti-European feel about it.
So we’ve had one ministerial statement after another, all predictably about Spitfires, and ‘Dunkirk spirit’, the Blitz, and ‘standing alone’ – which, of course we never did. Czechs and Poles flying from British airfields, the Free French fighting on overseas, resistance in every occupied country, foreign seamen running the U-boat gauntlet to keep us supplied, governments-in-exile seeking sanctuary here since before war was declared; the list is long.
All stood with us shoulder to shoulder.
Amid the ministerial bombastics, the stand-out statement is from Sir Andrew Gregory, CEO of SSAFA, the armed forces charity. It hits a very different note. The job of VE Day, he says, is to educate, so world war never happens again. No jingoism from Sir Andrew, a former serving officer and formerly Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff.
In a dangerous world, unstable as ever in the face of global warming, the rise in populism, Russian nationalism, and increasing friction between America and China, we are right to make sure that we have the armed forces we need, efficiently equipped. But armed forces are an adjunct to political decision-making; they are not, in themselves, a guarantee of peace.
Winston Churchill said the key to peace after the defeat of Nazism was European unity – and so it has proved. We have enjoyed seventy-five years of peace, including the peaceful reunification of Germany and the liberation of the Iron Curtain countries, not least the freedom of the Baltic States formerly part of the Soviet Union.
While church bells are Ringing Out for Peace, we fellow members of the European Movement are celebrating that peace this week, and explaining to neighbours, colleagues, family members and friends why it has happened.
Prosperity underpins peace. European unity had always to be a political project, since the joining of Germany and France at the hip through the Coal and Steel Community. Removing the materials for war from national control, could only be achieved through political means.
But the outcome was social and communal, for the creation of a single market transcending borders created the conditions for growth, jobs, and public services.
Economic catastrophe opened the door to Hitler. European cooperation made for economic success and the triumph of liberal democracy within a rules-based order.
Law made by free peoples was something most of Continental Europe had lost. By contrast, the British have found it difficult to understand why, as a result of regaining it, rules, directives, written constitutions, and administrative judiciaries mean so much to the rest of Europe today.
Now economic catastrophe is back. The Bank of England is forecasting the loss of a third of our economy and few believe in the prospect of a steep ‘bounce-back’. Coronavirus is already costing jobs. Lower tax-takes and colossal government debt threaten public services and social cohesion. Oxfordshire’s least advantaged neighbourhoods are already impacted.
Heroes who fought Nazism across Europe are best honoured by European solidarity, in crisis above all.
Common-sense politicians understand that scrabbling over diminished resources only spells trouble. Like the situation on the first VE Day, when Britain’s public debt was two-and-a-half times the size of our annual economic output, the key to climbing out of this pit is to achieve it together internationally. With the way, our economy is structured that means together with the rest of Europe, our natural market, our natural partners.
Keeping the UK in a leadership role and defending jobs and services by staying close to our neighbours and biggest customers, post-Brexit and post-Covid19, should be our contribution to getting out of this mess.
A UK-EU deal by end-June is unachievable. Everyone with an understanding of the complexities and the realities agrees. Common-sense says stop the clock and extend the Transition. That is the only way now in which we can thrash out a deal that’s a VE win for ordinary people and a pledge towards another 75 of peace and freedom.
Please write to your MP, telling them this. Please implore them, particularly the Conservatives, to make the case for the extension that, as each of the remaining days before the deadline passes, is ever more blindingly in the national interest.
Graham Jones, Chair, Oxford Region branch, European Movement UK