NOP/Independent Poll: D-Day: The best way is humility

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The past may be another country, but the recent past - especially the Second World War - is still intensely part of Britain. It is not so much 'heritage' as memory, and memory is not a national resource to be harvested. Millions of people remember what happened then in private ways: in pride, grief, revulsion from the encounter with evil, nostalgia for lost youth and, often, loneliness. War insults the moral balance of decent people. Many spend the rest of their lives seeking to regain that balance. That is why the private memory of war demands public tact.

How astounding it is that the Conservatives, of all parties, should turn out to have a tin ear for patriotism] The party which has always professed to lead the parade of British history, to be deeply in touch with martial pride and national feeling, has utterly misjudged the feelings of British people about the D-Day commemoration.

The poll results in this paper show that a mere 10 per cent preferred the Government's plan for a 'joyful celebration': the street-parties and Spam-fritter competitions sponsored, presumably with Mr Major's approval, by the Department of National Heritage. Most people, in contrast, think that the Normandy landings and the months of bloody fighting which followed were serious events, deserving serious treatment.

It is hard to understand how the Government managed to strike this catastrophic discord. One reason, certainly, is loss of nerve, a fever to assess everything on its potential to improve the Government's image. The D-Day anniversary was grabbed as a photo-opportunity, a chance to distribute buns and paper flags and cheer up a sullen electorate. But it was no coincidence that it was the Department of National Heritage which engineered this wretched bungle. 'Heritage', under the Thatcher and Major regimes, has been consistently abused as a political resource. The nation is told what past event is to be celebrated, and then hustled into theme-park fancy dress for a patriotic experience of 'what it was like then'.

It is pure insolence to invent people's wartime memories for them. Tabloid newspapers constantly ventriloquise what they decide their readers are thinking. For a Government to do so is vulgar and absurd. It is for families, and the survivors of war in families, to decide what they want to remember and pass on, whether it is the taste of dried egg or the sight of dead friends lying before those awful hedgerows in the Bocage. A good many men choose to say nothing at all about what happened to them in Normandy, and that silence is also their right.

Veterans are not right about everything. Those who insisted that Germans should not be invited to the commemoration were wrong. But they were right in their sense of British feelings. In spite of all the hysteria pumped up about the Falklands conflict, (which was far less general than it seemed), the British regard war and battle as a foul, unnatural but sometimes necessary business which is, in every sense, no joke. The thing to be celebrated, which will be properly celebrated next year, is not the fighting, not even just victory, but the end of war. That attitude is wise and humane, and cause for pride.

The best recipe for commemorating the Normandy landings is humility. It is recognising what we can honour but not share. Those who jumped into waist-high water, sometimes red with blood, and stumbled forward under the weight of gun and equipment towards the dunes, thought about God or their platoon or their mothers.

Afterwards, those who survived believed that they had helped to liberate Europe, in a small way, and that they had earned respect. That, they thought, would come from their families and comrades, and few expected it to come from politicians. They were right.