• One Gaffe After Another

    David Cameron is deservedly up against it, it seems, in trying to persuade the voters to see his public spending cuts in a positive light. Not surprisingly, many will marvel at how the greed and irresponsibility of the financial sector’s fat cats should somehow have been parlayed into the launching pad for what the Prime Minister admits is intended to be a long-term assault on the role of government.

    But it seems that he is determined to make the task even harder than it need be by insisting on offending his audience and then compounding one gaffe with another. His apology to a pensioner in Hove for depicting Britain in 1940 as a junior partner to the United States in the war against Hitler was achieved at the cost of offending a whole new range of people who might also claim to have played a role in 1940.

    David Cameron was almost pathetically keen to correct his blunder. He assured his critic that he was well aware of the true situation in 1940. Apart from, we were told, a few Polish and French pilots, Britain had stood absolutely alone against the Nazi threat.

    Well, no one who lived through those days (and admittedly I was only one at the time) could cavil for a moment at David Low’s famous cartoon following the fall of France and his sombre and defiant pledge, “Very well, alone.” Nor would anyone begrudge the recognition of those French and Polish pilots who played their part in helping to fight the Battle of Britain.

    But, while he was about it, one might have hoped that Britain’s Prime Minister would not so pointedly have revealed an apparently complete ignorance of the significant role played by pilots from the Commonwealth. Australian and New Zealand pilots in particular were especially prominent. Many distinguished themselves with feats of valour and daring; many lost their lives, flying alongside British pilots over British skies.

    The statue of New Zealander Sir Keith Park in Trafalgar Square is testimony to the leading role he played in helping to direct the Battle of Britain. And David Low himself was of course a New Zealander.

    New Zealanders and other Commonwealth citizens have long since reconciled themselves to the fact that their relationship with Britain has travelled a long way since a New Zealand Prime Minister could say at the outbreak of the Second World War “where Britain stands, we stand; where Britain goes, we go”, and then commit the farm workers and shopkeepers of his tiny country to a war half a world away in which they suffered a greater proportionate loss of life than almost any other country.

    We have grown sadly used to the euro-centricity of modern Britain that allows visitors from Europe to join the UK citizens’ queue at entry ports while New Zealanders must queue as aliens. We accept that Britain has the right to decide its own future, even if that meant turning its back on a trading partner which denied itself the produce of its own land in order to send food supplies to Britain at a time of great danger.

    What is disappointing, however, is that – in the course of correcting one error – today’s British Prime Minister could so thoroughly demonstrate how little value is given to the history that Britain and New Zealand, and the Commonwealth more generally, share. If, quite properly, he was ready to recognise the role of pilots from other countries, did he have to reveal so little awareness of the sacrifice made in that common cause by those from far-flung countries who chose to make that distant theatre of war their business too?

    It is one of the mysteries of the post-war world that a Britain which found itself at the head of the most extensive and potentially influential group of countries in the world – a Commonwealth embracing a quarter of the world’s population and some of the world’s most significant emerging economies – should so carelessly, through neglect and ignorance, have thrown that huge advantage away. If realpolitik counts for little, one might at least have hoped that common courtesy and common sense would have avoided giving unnecessary offence. Iran and Pakistan are bad enough. Does he have to add Australia and New Zealand to the list?

    Bryan Gould

    6 August 2010