Zelensky had his Elvis moment at Westminster Hall

As his combat boots made their slow way up the short steps, and the crowds caught their first glimpse of those famous fatigues, it was as if a rock star had wandered on stage at the Grand Ole Opry

Tom Peck
Wednesday 08 February 2023 18:11 GMT
King Charles meets Zelensky for first time at Buckingham Palace

MPs, noble lords, police officers, 22-year-old parliamentary staffers in their bright green lanyards: all wore a wide-eyed look of nervous disbelief as they lined up to walk through the wide old doors of Westminster Hall. All morning, the parliamentary estate had felt like one of those reality TV show stunts where a young woman leaves the house to go to work only to find her wedding day waiting for her on the driveway.

There was an unmistakable sense that it couldn’t really be happening, even as it was happening. Soon, standing to address them there on those cold stone steps, would be The Man In The Khaki Jumper, Volodymr Zelensky.

Grand occasions such as these are never knowingly under-drumrolled. This time we had been given precisely three hours’ notice. It was a thrillingly low-key affair, too. No red carpets, no bugles, not even so much as a seat, for anyone – standing room only. The high and the comparatively lowly of the village of Westminster, all packed in together.

World leaders do address the Palace of Westminster from Westminster Hall from time to time. Nelson Mandela did it. So did Barack Obama and the Pope. And when they did, they were greeted like the great statesmen they were.

Zelensky, on the other hand, was greeted like a rock star. As his combat boots made their slow way up the short steps, and the crowds caught their first glimpse of those famous combat fatigues, it was as if Elvis Presley had wandered on stage at the Grand Ole Opry. They whooped, they cheered, they went as wild as you possibly can in the middle of the working day.

In the flesh, it is clear to see how Zelensky moves almost with a swagger – not of arrogance, but of purpose. As if every step in front of him is one more on the road to victory, and he will get there, however long it takes.

They sat him on a chair at the top of the steps, where a few months ago the new King had been received; a de facto throne for the man who really has emerged as the High Prince of the free world.

It is very hard to pass through the cold and cavernous Westminster Hall without feeling the ghosts of history. But it feels so very historic precisely because history happens there. Kings and Queens and, occasionally, prime ministers lie there in their coffins because they were the living things through which history passed.

This, frankly, was not like that. It was not a moment of history, it was a moment of the present. Zelensky had not come here to give thanks, to pay tribute, to lay a wreath and go back to his day. He was here, in his combat clothes, to rally the troops; to let us know that the fight isn’t over and he needs our help.

He has addressed the House of Commons once before, that time over video link and requiring live translation. This time he spoke in English, and with almost his first sentence, said words that will not be soon forgotten by anyone who heard them. Last time round, he deliberately quoted Churchill. This time, he sounded like him, though the words were his own.

“I have come to stand before you on behalf of the brave,” he said. He was about to list precisely who those people are – soldiers, air force pilots, ordinary men and women who are fighting not just for their country but for the ideas they and the rest of us believe in – but he could hardly be heard above the applause. Westminster Hall echoes like an ancient cathedral. Those particular words will be bouncing around the rafters for decades to come.

There is always an occasion – be it an anniversary or an untimely death – at which a president or prime minister must stand on a stage and find the best words they can to articulate the values for which people fought and died in a time and a manner that none of them can truly imagine. They say what they have to say, then return to the day job.

They do not, by and large, live in a fortified bunker away from their family. They’re not the No 1 target of a 10,000 strong private army of mercenaries. They’re not the living bullseye for a hypersonic missile (a weapon the West cannot send Zelensky, because we do not have it), should Putin ever calculate it to be in his strategic interest to order its firing.

We are lucky to live in times in which we require our leaders to do only the talking, not the doing. To pay tribute only to the dead, not to the living.

When Obama came here, and before him Charles de Gaulle, they paid poignant tribute to the values we share, but they didn’t ask for anything. They weren’t here to challenge their audience; to ask them how much they actually believed in the values they love to talk about; to dare them to fill up the moment with deeds, not words.

Zelensky was not here to pay tribute, he was here to rally the troops, to remind us that the fight is not over. He thanked Rishi Sunak for the Challenger tanks that were sent to Ukraine two weeks ago. But he wasn’t here to say thank you – he was here to ask for more.

He brought with him a gift, which was hurried onto the stage by a member of his team. It was, he said, the helmet of a Ukrainian air force pilot. He made a great show of the words that the pilot had written on it. “We have freedom. Give us wings to protect it.” The speaker of the Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, gladly received it, and did what anyone would do in the circumstances. He held up the message for the waiting photographers, creating the precise effect Zelensky had intended: a public affirmation, a still photograph, of the British parliament in effect agreeing that it should send him the fighter jets he has asked for.

It is not so hard for leaders to rise to the occasion, when terrible occasions also rise to meet them. In war, leaders have the rare luxury of their people actually wanting them to succeed. But even so, it was by no means certain that war would come to Ukraine on the watch of a leader of such guile, courage and purpose.

“Two years ago, I left this parliament, thanking you for the delicious English tea,” he said. “Today I will leave parliament thanking all of you in advance for powerful English planes.”

The crowd whooped again, and he knew that the louder it cheered, the harder it would be for them to get back to him in a few weeks time with a “Sorry, but no.”

And with that, he was on his way, the winter sun at his back. It was not so long ago that Her Majesty the Queen was carried out of the door of Westminster Hall, lying beneath the crown, orb, and sceptre. There were bands of pipers, then, not a long line of politics nerds who, three hours before, if they’d given it a moment’s thought, would have been expecting to spend their lunchtime in the queue at Pret a Manger.

But the mere sight of that rather short man, in his dark green uniform, its golden trident embroidered over his heart, was absolutely all the majesty you could ever hope to see. It was not grand. It was thrillingly real.

The crowds gathered again a few moments later – plenty of MPs among them – to applaud his motorcade as it drove out the gates. And he knows what they now know – that he has made it very hard indeed for them not to give him what he has asked for. The war is anything but over, but that particular mission is surely accomplished.

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