This Sunday, many of us would have gathered, as ordinary citizens, at our local war memorials (or even made the trek to the Cenotaph in London) to pay our respects to the war dead. Some of us had the greater honour of laying wreaths, as UKIP Councillors, or perhaps in other roles. For example, in my town, two of our members laid wreaths – one a councillor, the other a senior fire officer.
But what exactly is that act of Remembrance? Beyond the public visage of the fairly standard service with the words we are all familiar with, “We will remember them”, the poignant Kohima Epitaph, the patriotic and rousing hymns and the national anthem, for each of us there is a personal feeling of remembrance, and exactly what it means.
For myself, it is many things. For a start, there is the significance of the memorial itself, each one quite unique in design, location and history. This year, returning to live in the town of my birth, Southend-on-Sea, to stand as a Parliamentary Candidate, the personal significance of that particular memorial struck home. It was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, for a start, the man who designed the Cenotaph in Whitehall and a number of other war memorials. It stands on the cliffs over the front at Southend, symbolically guarding the sea and air approaches to London from the east. Its visage includes the pier, to where many of the Dunkirk survivors were safely returned. And for me, it is the memorial I stood before once as a little boy, with my father, as he explained its significance.
The two minutes silence is when most of us think of those who have been affected by war. For me, that was my grandfathers and father whose young lives involved military service in the two World Wars. Having done the genealogy of all those of my own surname, I remembered every one of the eight O(A)TRIDGEs who had died in battle, two at the Somme. Also my brother, who had taken part in the Falklands Campaign, and my son who has served one full Iraq tour and two Afghanistan ones. Fortunately, no one close to me has died in battle, but I have known RAF colleagues who died in peacetime flying accidents.
Then there is the sense of community cohesion and belonging that one always experiences at such gatherings. There was unity displayed by the religions too – while the service is firmly Christian, in Southend there is a strong Jewish community; their Rabbi read a psalm and a Sikh elder was one of those who laid a wreath. Seeing all the youth groups on parade is heartening. The smart young men and women in cadet and scouting organisations, the school representatives presenting wreaths, it all adds up to a society where the sacrifices of the past are not forgotten by the younger generation.
The various civic leaders presenting their wreaths were especially poignant for me, too. Seeing David Amess and James Duddridge, the two Conservative MPs for our town, present their wreaths made me wonder if I could be in that position next year, alongside my UKIP colleague standing in Rochford and Southend East …
Then there is the Service of Remembrance itself, as I have already outlined. But for each of us, different parts of it have a different impact, and I will admit that many a lump appears in my throat, and sometimes a dampening in the eyes. The words of the Mayor’s Chaplain, a Salvation Army major, struck me when he quoted these words attributed to Edmund Burke:
All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.
As a UKIPper this brought home to me the feelings that unless UKIP, its members and its voters take action now, there is a grave risk of all the freedom and independence for which our forbears fought will be lost forever in a few decades.
However, the bubble of that warm feeling was burst at the end of the ceremony. An older chap, also wearing a Royal Air Force tie, stood near me and introduced himself to me. We started chatting in a friendly fashion and then I let slip my present career intentions. At that point, the friendliness disappeared and he announced that I should be ashamed to be stood in front of the War Memorial by being in UKIP, that in his opinion UKIP stood for a violation of the peace of the world, setting man against man.
Frankly, at such an occasion, I was not prepared to start a full-blown argument, but I had to say something that would not inflame him more. I said that in my opinion there were already enormous threats to both world and national peace and that we believed in striving for peace. But he would have none of it. I ventured that we were all entitled to our opinions in a democratic country, and fortunately at that point he moved away from me.
It left me thinking. Patriotism is not the exclusive preserve of any one party or its supporters. While we, as members, may have firm beliefs that our approach is the most patriotic, there are others who believe otherwise. We also believe in democracy, and that is the trump card as far as I am concerned. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions and beliefs, even when they are totally counter to the way we see the world.
But, we need to strive to convince as many as possible that our policies are right, especially in terms of valuing that Act of Remembrance: to preserve the freedom, independence and democracy our forbears strove for, to prevent evil happening in the future, and to avoid wasting our young people’s lives in unnecessary wars.