Major out of step on D-Day: 'Independent' poll finds most Britons think parties would trivialise Normandy anniversary

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A LARGE majority of Britons want D-Day to be marked by 'solemn national ceremonies' to commemorate the dead rather than by street parties, fireworks and entertainment, according to a poll for the Independent.

The NOP poll shows 65 per cent of electors agree with criticisms that such events would 'trivialise' the 50th anniversary next month, suggesting John Major's government has seriously misjudged the public mood.

It also provides a strong endorsement for veterans' organisations which yesterday left a meeting with Peter Brooke, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, confident that they will have the right of veto over plans for what the Government last week called a 'dazzlingly entertaining family day' in Hyde Park.

The strong preference for solemn ceremonies 'to remember the dead' is expressed by 62 per cent of electors and extends across all ages, social groups and political allegiances, though it is especially marked among those over 55 - 72 per cent of whom prefer such ceremonies to a national public holiday, a celebration with street parties, or no commemoration at all.

The poll, which uncovers a surprising degree of ignorance - especially among women and the young - about what D-Day was, shows the greatest tolerance for a more celebratory tone exists in the 18-34 age group. Even among that group, 46 per cent of whom could not accurately say what happened on D-Day, 61 per cent agreed with criticisms by veterans.

Tangible Cabinet anxiety about the public relations disaster emerged at the weekly meeting chaired by Mr Major after Mr Brooke had reported to colleagues on talks with D-Day veterans to defuse the row over the Hyde Park event.

Peter Mandelson, Labour MP for Hartlepool, and a prominent critic of the Government's plans, said: 'I am glad that the veterans' organisations are back in control.' There could now be a programme 'the country can unite behind'. One senior ministerial source said later: 'The Government's perception is there has been a very substantial misunderstanding. We are clearly very concerned that this misunderstanding has arisen and we are very concerned to correct it.'

Under attack at Prime Minister's questions from John Smith, the Labour leader, for failure to consult, Mr Major insisted discussions with veterans' organisations first took place in February last year, but did not refer directly to the Hyde Park event.

Outlining remembrance services planned for Britain and France, including parades and march-pasts, Mr Major said: 'As well as commemorating the bravery and sacrifice of those who took part in the Normandy campaign, we also wish to remember the immense effort made by the whole civilian population leading up to D- Day and beyond.'

The Prime Minister's office said planning for Hyde Park was going ahead. Ministers are keen to salvage the event in the face of calls by veterans for it to be cancelled and a boycott threat by Dame Vera Lynn. But it was clear last night that 'celebrations' will be scaled down dramatically.

Mr Brooke, but more especially Iain Sproat, the Minister of State for National Heritage, were being blamed last night for the debacle.

Mr Brooke, who left the meeting with the veterans to report to the Cabinet, also talked to Sir Tim Bell, whose public relations company was hired by the Government for pounds 62,000 to help to promote D-Day. Labour MPs yesterday called for Sir Tim's dismissal.

Underlining the concern in Downing Street, the Prime Minister's officials disclosed that Mr Major ordered Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, and Mr Brooke to sort out the difficulties when they met at the Commons on Wednesday night.

Eddy Hannath, general secretary of Normandy Veterans' Association, said after meeting Mr Brooke: 'We are happier now than we were last week.' He will be gauging members' feelings before next week's discussions.

Lt-Col Philip Creasy, the secretary- general of the Royal British Legion, said the meeting was 'helpful and constructive'.

The most trivial of the D-Day events, a 'Spam fritter frying contest' planned by the Scottish Tourist Board, was abandoned last night.

(Photograph omitted)