Leading Article: D-Day Bell sounds a false note

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR prides himself on his common touch. He likes to talk about the removal of traffic cones, the rights of public transport passengers, the joys of cricket and warm beer on a summer afternoon, and his vision of a classless society. It is odd that such a man should have so misjudged the mood of the nation over how to mark the 50th anniversary of D-Day.

Last week Mr Major suggested the whole nation should 'mobilise' for three months of celebrations, running through the anniversary on 6 June into the summer. Apart from official events, he envisaged a large-scale family day in Hyde Park, a parachute display in Kempton Park, fireworks and concerts. Inspired by Sir Tim Bell's PR firm, the Heritage department is even encouraging such jollities as sandcastle-building competitions. Could it be, cynics wonder, that the Government hoped a celebratory mood would help the Conservatives in the European elections three days later?

Naturally, Mr Major also mentioned the commemorative side, patriotically adding that it would be a chance to remember the D-Day legacy of democracy, free speech and the British way of life. The Royal British Legion was among those who felt the Prime Minister had got the balance wrong: it deprecated the light entertainment tone of the Government's plans, and said it wanted above all to commemorate those who did not come back, or were severely wounded. Labour's Peter Mandelson picked up the mood, sponsoring a Commons motion calling for the festivities and 'public relations stunts' to be shelved. When Iain Sproat, the Heritage minister, broached the topic at lunchtime yesterday, he conspicuously dwelt on commemoration rather than celebration.

The Prime Minister's touch was equally unsure over next year's celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe. His suggestion that Germany would play a 'full part' produced so strong a reaction that assurances had to be given that no German veteran soldiers would be marching through London.

It is on VE Day, not D-Day, that there should be parties celebrating the liberation of Europe. Apart from the terrible casualties suffered in the Allied invasion, the war in Europe still had 11 bloody months to run. The D-Day anniversary should commemorate an immensely courageous and hazardous operation in ways that bring it alive to younger generations. For private citizens it is an occasion more for prayer and quiet gratitude than for celebrations: a day on which the Church of England rather than the Government is best placed to lead.