Four years ago, the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, found the funds to pay for hundreds of veterans of the D-Day landings in Normandy to attend the 60th anniversary of that extraordinary feat of Allied arms. This year their numbers are down to barely 150, their ranks reduced not just by sickness and death but by penury. The £330 "heroes' return" grant paid out in 2004 has been stopped, so the Government says, because that was a "final commemoration".
It is a regrettable act of parsimony. What precisely, one asks, does an "act of final commemoration" mean when many thousands of the participants are still alive and when the memory of that historic event, the moment when the Allies started the liberation of Europe from Nazi rule, should be kept constantly alive for future generations.
But then the treatment of these veterans is but a reflection of the meanness with which we treat our armed services today. There is nothing more that the British love than the commemoration of feats of arms. It makes us feel strong and worthy as a nation. Yet there is nothing that our government seems to like less than looking after the men and women who made, and still make, it possible.
As the Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, said yesterday in an unprecedented outburst by a serving senior officer, we pay our fighting soldiers, who start at a salary of just £16,500, at the same rate as a London traffic warden, who starts at a wage of £17,000. "If you compare a police constable on overtime," the Army chief said in an interview, "I think you will find that an individual serviceman gets quite a lot less."
Sir Richard wants a national debate over how great a proportion of our wealth (currently about 2 per cent of GDP) we should be spending on defence. He is right, although neither he nor the Government would necessarily like the issues it would raise about our commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan and to a new generation of Trident nuclear weapons. But he is surely correct in arguing that, if we are to put our young men and women in harm's way for the sake of their country, then the nation owes them not just reasonable pay but decent quarters and the best treatment and aid should they be injured – all of which are sadly lacking at present.
The Prime Minister, in response to the growing outrage within and without the services, has proposed a White Paper. But a White Paper is just a means of pushing the issue to the side. What is needed is action now. He could start by offering a hand to the veterans at today's commemoration in Normandy. Helping the heroes of the past is at least a sign of intent for the heroes of the present.