Whenever there’s a big national event that brings the country together – whether it’s the Olympics, a royal wedding or the Bake Off final – there are inevitably a few contrarian voices speaking out against it.
So it was as the country gathered at war memorials and in churches to commemorate the centenary of the Armistice and to remember those who gave their lives in the two world wars and later conflicts. Some have suggested that our acts of remembrance risk glorifying war. In recent days, the poppy appeal has been described as “triumphant militarism”, and even as “racist” and “white supremacist”.
Of course, everyone is entitled to their own views – and is free to express them. That, after all, is one of the rights our fallen heroes died to protect. But I think that particular view profoundly misunderstands what Remembrance Sunday is all about.
When we wear our poppies, sing our hymns and lay our wreaths, we are not sugarcoating history or minimising the horrors of war. On the contrary, we are recognising the enormous sacrifices that were made, the millions of lives lost and the countless more left in tatters. There is nothing triumphant or boastful in the way we mourn the dead and pay our veterans the respect they deserve.
In fact, it is vital that we do take this time to reflect. Not only because it helps us to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, but also because it spurs us to uphold our obligations to veterans today.
There are 2.5 million former armed forces personnel in Britain. Many bear the scars of their service – both physical and psychological. Some struggle to find well-paid work, with the skills they’ve gained in the forces too often unrecognised on civvy street. And far too many end up sleeping rough.
These veterans have served our country, and now we must serve them. Every time we mark Remembrance Sunday – and especially in this centenary year – we must rededicate ourselves to that service. So, the accusations of triumphalism are wrong. But the accusations of racism or nationalism are even further from the mark.
There is nothing boastful in the way we mourn the dead and pay our veterans the respect they deserve
Those on the left who suggest that a display of patriotism is nationalist are just as wrong as those on the right who call us unpatriotic for rejecting nationalism. They seem to proceed from the assumption that, when we honour the service of those who have fought and died for our country, we are thinking only of white people from the UK. Yet their ranks include people from across the Commonwealth.
More than a million Indians served in the First World War, for example, playing pivotal roles in East Africa and in the Gallipoli Campaign against the Ottoman Empire, as well as on the Western Front. At least 73,000 lost their lives in service of what was then the British Empire.
And thousands of Commonwealth citizens still serve in our armed forces today. More than 3,000 Nepalese soldiers serve in the renowned Brigade of Gurkhas, but perhaps less well-known are the 1,250 Fijians who serve in the British army.
These are some of the diverse group of people whom we honour with our poppies, and whom the British Legion supports with the money we donate. Not to mention the 5,700 black, Asian and minority-ethnic Brits who currently serve and the tens of thousands more who are veterans.
Far from being a day of “white supremacy”, Remembrance Sunday embodies the diversity that gives strength to our communities, our country and our armed forces. And far from being a day of nationalism, it is perhaps the most internationalist event you could imagine.
Yesterday we remembered when governments and people from across the world came together in service of a common cause. Brits, Indians, Frenchmen and Belgians fought side by side in the trenches of the Somme and on the fields of Ypres. Polish pilots helped to defend our skies from the Luftwaffe in 1940, and the troops who landed in Normandy on D-Day were British and Greek, American and Czech, French and Norwegian, Polish and Canadian.
In both world wars, Britain understood that our national sovereignty could only endure if we cooperated with other nations. That our fate is inexorably bound with that of our neighbours. And that – like the sacrifices of those we remember – is something we should never forget.
Ed Davey is MP for Kingston and Surbiton