Jeremy Corbyn, Battle of Britain Day and the Politics of Commemoration

[Cross posted from Thoughts on Military History]

By Dr Ross Mahoney

Tuesday marked the official date of the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Fifteen September has long been recognised as that date, in part, because it was shortly after the aerial battle over London on that day that the Hitler indefinitely postponed Operation Sea Lion. However, rather than being a moment of silent contemplation and commemoration about the role played by the RAF and the other services in the Battle of Britain, it seems we woke up to a debate over the new leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn is an old stye socialist and his appointment has, or will, arguably, take the Labour Party back 20 or 30 years; New New Labour is a return to Old Labour? Now I have no issue with Corbyn, though I do not agree with his ideological stance on some issues, in particular defence; however, I do think his appointment is a positive step as it will at least give some choice to voters. For too long the mainstream parties have fought over the middle ground and Corbyn will, hopefully, offer some genuinely new ideas. Now, given the character of British politics, and the unwillingness to change our electoral system, it is, of course, open to question whether Corbyn is electable; however, that is a discussion for another time…

However, what about the Battle of Britain. Well, the issue appears to stem from how he appeared at the ceremony held at the St Paul’s Cathedral to mark the commemoration of the 75th Anniversary. The media have crawled all over the fact that he did not sing the national anthem and that his appearance was perceived as less than respectful to the occasion. Most pictures showed him stood close to the current Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Andrew Pulford, who, of course, was dressed in uniform with medals and associated regalia suitable for the occasion. The juxtaposition should not be lost on anyone, and that is what the media were going for. While critics have suggested he looked scruffy and that he was forced to be there, it has been questioned whether it really mattered. In my opinion it does. I have no issue with him not singing the national anthem as long as he illustrated a degree of respect through it – we know Corbyn is a republican, but, in my opinion, there is a time and place for political stances and a commemoration event is not one of them. For me the key issue was his appearance and this really relates to how politicians project themselves. The image created, whether intended of not, was one of questionable respect for the past. It should, however, be noted that Corbyn praised his parents work during the war and that, despite his stance on defence, he had the utmost respect for the sacrifices made during the Second World War. However, we know how the media can spin an image – just think of Michael Foot at the Cenotaph in 1981, which has been the parallel referenced all week.

Does all of this matter? The simple answer, in my opinion, is yes. The memorialisation and commemoration of the past is a highly charged and political matter. One only has to look at the lack of western leaders at the recent commemorations in China to mark VJ Day. Clearly, a decision was taken by those leaders not to attend because it was felt that the event was deemed to be more about China flexing its military muscle rather than a commemoration of the past. We also saw similar last year at events to mark the 70th Anniversary of D-Day. Buried behind the rhetoric, there was clearly a message being delivered about Russia’s actions in the Ukraine. The list can go on. Such events are an opportunity to deliver messages, either consciously or unconsciously, and an important element of this is image. Image is a key aspect about how messages are delivered to your prospective audience. In this respect, Corbyn delivered a message that suggested that he did not care. I genuinely do not think that this was his aim; however, that is how it has been perceived as such in the media. Indeed, it is a shame that this is what the media decided to focus on rather than the commemorations themselves. That in itself is a damming indictment of western media and the issues they focus on. There were bigger and more important issues that should have been on the front pages. It should, however, be noted that this is not, as James Kightly discussed on his site in 2010, an issue limited to Corbyn. The then newly elected Prime Minister, David Cameron, made his own faux pas around the time of the 70th Anniversary in 2010 when he described the UK as the junior partner in 1940! As such, this is not the first, nor will it be the last, time that politics gets in the way of the commemoration of the past.

Dr Ross Mahoney is the resident Aviation Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum. He recently completed his PhD on leadership development in the inter-war Royal Air Force and is a specialist in air power, leadership, military culture and the history of professional military education.

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One response to “Jeremy Corbyn, Battle of Britain Day and the Politics of Commemoration

  1. Ross.

    I am heartened by your reference to the RAF (and I assume you mean all of the Home-based Commands) and the other Services in the Battle of Britain. “One small step…” as an itinerant American once said.

    As for Corbyn and Socialism (of whatever shade of Red), my views are perhaps predictable, but are my own. Buy me a pint and we can perhaps discuss away from the megaphone which is the internet.

    That said; on appearance, how could the Red Knight hope to compete with a chest that has collected a number of gongs for everything from promotion and operational service to merely being in uniform at Her Majesty’s Golden and Diamond Jubilees? Let’s face it, a few weeks ago, Corbyn was reputedly wearing a vest!

    On balance, I am of the ‘Come as you are, but do come’ persuasion on this. At Goodwood on Tuesday, gazing lovingly at the Blenheim (surrounded, I think, by a few lesser aeroplanes with only a single power unit apiece) I was amongst veterans, office workers and reps bunking off and lying about their whereabouts into their mobile phones, bikers and your traditional ‘Spotters”. It takes all sorts!

    Similarly, at my local War Memorial every November, there is a real mix of dress, background and, I am sure, political persuasion. Not all; not many perhaps, have a family name on the stone. Few wear medals. What makes them come? I suspect it is invariably complex. I don’t think it is Press driven, but do believe that it is more complex than the majority of today’s 24/7, soundbite Press are capable of, or interested in, communicating.

    You write “The memorialisation and commemoration of the past is a highly charged and political matter”. I do not disagree that such events are seen by the politicians as opportunities to deliver messages , however I think that proposition itself is grotesquely wrong and infinitely grubby. It is a factor in the plummet in public esteem and trust that politicians have brought upon themselves.

    Memorialisation and commemoration can be, and is, done genuinely and well in relatively sensitive circumstances. At lest two years running in the 1980’s at Durnbach CCWG Cemetery, we had German standards, band and Honour Guard paying respects to, largely Bomber Command, fallen. Not a politician in sight, but the world was different then.

    You are, however, talking today about a post-Blair, post phone tapping, 24/7 multi-media, ‘news’, environment where our political establishment feels itself entirely dependent upon a ‘good’ press. I would not hold my breath expecting change anytime soon.

    I absolutely agree that the Press, the Politicians and through them the Public, should have been concentrating on the events that were being commemorated. Perhaps we, as historians, should redouble our efforts on fulfilling the “Inform” part of the BBC charter, whilst that less-than-august organisation sinks ever further into the mire of Strictly Come Dancing, News for Those with No Attention Span and Dr Who?

    Take heart though. Press, Politicians, other media or whatever. Your average Brit is perhaps much the same as the ancestor he is commemorating. I trust his judgement to do the ‘right’ thing. As I think do you, in your reference to Corbyn and his veneration of his parents in the Second World War.

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