16 October 2012

Non-appearances can be deceptive, too!

The Royal British Legion is the UK’s leading charity in support of serving and former members of the armed forces and their families. It was founded in 1921 when Earl Haig became its first president. His direction of British forces in France from 1915 to 1918 continues to be a subject of controversy among historians. However, the Legion is famous now for its major fund-raising activity, the Poppy Appeal. British politicians rarely appear in public from late October to 11 November not wearing a poppy. So it was surprising when Paul Staines and Harry Cole reported in their Guido Fawkes column in 14 October’s Daily Star on Sunday that:
DURING his leader’s speech at the Tory Conference last week, David Cameron emotively led the hall in a standing ovation for our troops to “show how profoundly grateful we are for everything they do”. Yet this year was the first time ever that a Tory party leader has failed to put in an appearance at the Royal British Legion’s reception at the Conservative Party Conference. Downing Street tells Guido that while “the Prime Minister is very supportive of the Royal British Legion and the excellent work they do…unfortunately he is unable to attend more than a tiny number” of receptions at conference. An event for property developers Canary Wharf Group was one of the tiny number he did manage to attend. It was held at the same time as the Legion’s reception, in the room next door. Seems our wartime leader misplaced his gratitude.
However, immediately after his party’s Conference on 11 October the PM had announced in a speech at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) the government’s plans to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War in 2014, mentioning the Legion twice. A possible explanation for Cameron’s non-appearance at the Legion event in Birmingham may be a story in the Sunday Times (£) also on 14 October. This was an exposé of former senior military officers who were claiming to be able to lobby Whitehall on behalf of defence firms. It stated that:
The Royal British Legion began an investigation after Lieutenant-General Sir John Kiszely, its president, was named as one of six former commanders recorded by undercover reporters, who claimed they represented a South Korean arms firm looking for business. Sir John was quoted by The Sunday Times as saying that he could use his role at the charity to promote the company’s agenda with the Prime Minister and other figures at Remembrance Day events.  
… Sir John described how his role at the Legion exposed him to various senior figures. “It sounds totally grand: you’re standing there waiting for the Queen with nothing else to talk about to Philip Hammond than whatever,” he said. The Falklands veteran also claimed that the Festival of Remembrance for Britain’s war dead was a “tremendous networking opportunity”. Contacted by The Sunday Times after the sting, the Sir John said that he had always kept his commercial interests “entirely separate” from his role with the Legion and had never used access gained through it to discuss any business interests.
On 15 October, Kiszely resigned as Legion president. And possibly the Number 10 press team in the days before the story broke had been living up to their reputation for competence.

In his speech Cameron made the point that:
However frustrating and however difficult the debates in Europe, 100 years on we sort out our differences through dialogue and meetings around conference tables, not through the battles on the fields of Flanders or the frozen lakes of western Russia.
The Menin Road by Paul Nash
(next to the PM at the IWM on 11 October)
Libby Purves in The Times on 15 October, writing in support of the recent award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU, put it more pointedly:
Maybe our present justifiable disgruntlement with the EU (I see even Michael Gove is joining in) will actually be tempered a little by the coming year of remembrance of the 1914-1918 war. We will be made to see the horror of that period more clearly than we ever do through the fuzzy sentimentality of Downton or the poppy-wreath dignity of the Cenotaph.  
… The EU is, very often, a pain in the neck. But it is part of an attempt never to do it again: to create what Churchill called a “richer, freer, more contented European commonality”. OK, Churchill didn’t think Britain should be actually inside it (“We are linked but not compromised, interested and associated but not absorbed”) but he spoke for his own proud, bruised times. Whether or not Britain should stay within its sticky and often mismanaged embrace, I do not know. But looking across the Channel, and remembering worse times, it would be wrong to begrudge the EU its prize.
A post here earlier this year contained a quote from Cameron:
If your vision of Britain was that we should just withdraw [from the EU] and become a sort of greater Switzerland, I think that would be a complete denial of our national interests.
It will be interesting to see what line (if any) the WW1 centenary activities will take about the UK’s relationship with a historically belligerent Europe. I would be surprised if it were one to help UKIP.

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