Prime Minister’s D-Day debacle mustn’t overshadow significance of this year’s commemoration

The early departure of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak from yesterday’s D-Day commemorations will surely go down as one of the biggest own-goals in UK political history. What makes it all the more remarkable, and sad in many ways, is that clearly neither the PM nor his colleagues saw it coming. Government documents published this morning have revealed that it was never intended that the PM should appear at all, that duty have been delegated some weeks ago to the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, David Cameron.

Today Mr Sunak offered an unconvincing apology of sorts comprising 217 words, of which only 15 actually expressed regret. It was very much a case of ‘these are the facts; I understand the importance of the veterans’ sacrifice but I had important things to do; looks like it was a mistake so I apologise – end of’.

Naturally this has played badly with the public, but has delighted opposing political parties who had to restrain themselves forcefully from jumping on the calamity.

For his part Mr Sunak did attend other D-Day commemoration events and has made a great effort to demonstrate his empathy with the military, but one can only wonder at the inability of certain legislators to see that not participating fully in yesterday’s D-Day event would bring the ceiling down on their heads.

In trying to justify his early departure to take part in a TV interview explaining his government’s dubious Labour tax calculations, Mr Sunak immediately followed up his dubious apology with the retort that others were merely trying to politicise the event by making capital out of his actions. In fact it was Mr Sunak’s unexpected and highly inappropriate departure that threatened to politicise the whole day’s commemorations, even it was to his profound detriment.

The essence of the anger being expressed by so many today was not so much that a political leader absented themselves to defend their own political reputation, but that an entire government didn’t seem to understand the significance of this particular day of all days. Most of the veterans who struggled their way to Normandy yesterday have been regulars at this annual commemoration, but most knew – and even admitted publicly – that it would almost certainly be their last crossing.

One veteran, 102-year-old World War II US Navy radio operator Robert Persichitti, actually passed away whilst travelling to the event.

So a Prime Minister who wants to reintroduce National Service but couldn’t spare an afternoon to pay his respects the last few remaining D-Day veterans was never going to land well.

The singular importance of yesterday’s D-Day Commemoration event above all previous ones is that it is almost certainly the year that the world ceases to curate the event, and passes it into the curation of history. As much as when anyone dies, the history, experiences and memories that they have carried with them across their lives survive only to the extent that they have recounted them. In the case of the D-Day veterans, their passing will close that particular chapter forever, and there will be nothing more that we can add to whatever fears and terrors they spoke of.

 According to the most recent figures, of the 16 million or so men and women who served in the Second World War, only 110,000 are alive today, and even they are passing at the rate of 130 a day. That means that in just over two years’ time there will be no-one alive who can offer a first-hand account of that dreadful conflict.

Of course we have already lost all of those who experienced the First World War, and every conflict that preceded it.

How we handle the commemoration of an event that is no longer a remembered experience, and indeed if we commemorate it at all after that point, is largely a reflection of the cultural norms across society and it’s reasonably fair to say that where there is a respect for the value of human life and even the vaguest sense of the eternal, then there is lingering respect for those who have gone before.

In Japan, for instance, the country celebrates ohigan every mid-August, when everyone takes several days off to return to their families, and clean and repair the graves of family members.

Ancestral worship is probably as old as humanity itself, but it’s a practice that inspires deeply mixed reactions within Christianity – for Protestants and evangelicals a preoccupation with the vacated bodily shell is a highly inappropriate custom, whereas we Catholics are profoundly comfortable with respecting the dead and the veneration of our saintly relics.

Sadly, western society is presently on a far less spiritual trajectory, so the commemoration of events and the remembrance of the dead is presenting societal and ideological challenges that will only deepen as we move increasingly into a society that is primarily secular and relativist. Unfortunately we are also a society where smaller but no less devastating conflicts have been on the increase. How to commemorate more recent conflicts involving Britain such as the Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Afghanistan and others – if at all – is already a matter of some controversy and disagreement.

This anxiety hasn’t been helped by an equally influential drive to remove statues and memorials to past military heroes of their day, because their list of achievements have since come to clash with contemporary redefinitions of heroism and public approbation.

Just this week Glasgow City Council has been debating the fate of 11 bronze statues currently in the way of the overhaul of the City’s St George’s Square. Two of these – commemorating Sr John Moore and Field Marshal Colin Campbell – have been described as particularly ‘cancellable’ by campaigners.

Sir John Moore and Field Marshal Campbell were both key Glasgow-born members of the British Army. Moore fought in the American War of Independence and had battled adversaries like France under Napoleon – who had credited him with saving Britain’s forces from destruction, whilst Campbell was a hero of the Crimean War, and had led campaigns against China, Russia and India in 19th Century.

In more recent times both men have been vilified. Speaking at a council meeting this week, SNP councillor Graham Campbell said: “One played a leading role in killing Indians resisting British colonialism; the other spent a lot of time killing a lot of enslaved Africans resisting slavery in the Caribbean. No doubt today we would not put up statues to such people.”

At the time such statues were erected to wide applause, it would have seemed unimaginable that just a few generations later there would be equally vociferous calls for their removal, but such is the rapidly-changing nature of public morality in the 21st century. Of course few would defend a slave-trader today, as indeed many didn’t even at the time such statues were erected. And no doubt a time will come when society will seek to reappraise many of the memorials we have erected more recently.

For example, there’s the profoundly questionable statue of the genocidal murderer Oliver Cromwell that stands proudly outside the Houses of Parliament, and nearby in Whitehall there’s the Equestrian statue of British Western Front commander Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, whose funeral was once a national day of mourning across England. The two million WWI casualties under his deeply flawed command earned him the name ‘Butcher Haig’ and his disastrous offensives at the Somme and Passchendaele have become synonymous with the carnage and futility of First World War. Yet there he sits majestically astride his horse, just along from the Cenotaph that commemorates the same fallen.

Perhaps it is right that as a society dedicated to peace and tolerance, we should consider removing statues and tributes to generals with bloody records and dubious histories and rather commemorate – as at least some of us did so poignantly yesterday – the bravery of the extraordinary people who have always had to pay the price of the failings of those who claim to lead.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and theologian