Opinion Articles

Saving Private Sunak? Politics and Remembrance in 1995 and 2024

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The cartoon above is the first in a series created by Steve Way exclusively for H&P. We will be publishing more of them over the coming days as part of our election coverage If posting them on social media please acknowledge Steve Way and H&P. For permission to reproduce in books or articles please contact Steve at: stevewayuk@yahoo.co.uk


Two weeks into a general election campaign in which he has struggled to make any inroads into Labour’s commanding lead in the opinion polls, Conservative prime minister Rishi Sunak scored a spectacular own goal. He outraged veterans and appalled many of his own colleagues on Thursday 7 June by leaving the commemorations of the 80th anniversary of D-Day early in order to be interviewed by ITV. Across the political spectrum, observers were left asking “What on earth was he thinking of?”


Sunak and his team were probably unaware of how one of his predecessors, John Major, had dealt, for more skilfully, with a similar dilemma. The 1995 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) was due to be held in Auckland, New Zealand, in the second week of November. The schedule devised by New Zealand Prime Minister, Jim Bolger, had the opening ceremony on Friday 10 November, with the heads’ retreat on the weekend of 11-12th. This clashed with Remembrance Sunday, and Downing Street calculated that Major would only be able to attend both it and the CHOGM if he left New Zealand on the evening of 10th, thereby missing the retreat. Major’s team were worried about the optics of the prime minister being absent from the Cenotaph, but felt his attendance at CHOGM was important and were reassured by the thought that the Queen, who would be there as well, would also miss the ceremony in London. The mood in Downing Street turned to panic when staff learned that the Queen actually intended to leave the CHOGM early in order to be present at the Cenotaph.


Major’s private secretary with responsibility for foreign affairs, Roderick Lyne, told the Foreign Office that ‘the Prime Minister is much concerned about missing the Cenotaph ceremony if he stays for the retreat at CHOGM’ [Lyne to Sawers, 20 Jan. 1995, The National Archives (TNA), PREM 19/5156]. The optics were particularly troubling as this was the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. And as today, Labour had a hefty lead in the opinion polls. Appearing to snub British veterans could only make that worse. Memories were still relatively fresh of the damage that had been done to Labour when in 1981 the party’s then leader, Michael Foot, appeared at the Cenotaph wearing what the right-wing tabloids described as a ‘donkey jacket’. Downing Street even worried about the opportunity the affair might give Major’s ambitious deputy, Michael Heseltine ‘to play at being Prime Minister’ at the ceremony in London [Oakden to Lyne, 30 October 1995, PREM 19/5156].


In the end, Major avoided accusations of disrespect for the fallen by making elaborate preparations for Remembrance Sunday. As New Zealand’s main commemorative events were held on Anzac Day (in April) rather than Armistice Day, the UK High Commission helped to organise a special local ceremony for Major to attend. And the UK government even went to the extent of flying out UK veterans to be present in New Zealand alongside Major. This careful planning proved successful in terms of the news management of Major’s absence from the Cenotaph.


There’s an obvious historical lesson here: in contemporary politics, the symbolic matters at least as much as policy detail. As such, public ceremony, particularly that surrounding the hugely emotive issue of national remembrance, requires very careful thought and planning. While some of Sunak’s advisors might have questioned the value of the prime minister attending a ‘French’ D-Day commemoration, initial reports suggest that it was the impatience of the prime minister and his team to get back to the general election campaign that caused the problems. Like many canny political moves which successfully avert a PR disaster, Major’s negotiation of the problem of Remembrance Sunday in 1995 is now largely forgotten. But the Conservatives should have remembered the venom aimed at Michael Foot by the right-wing press in 1981 after his ‘disrespectful’ appearance at the Cenotaph. And in that respect, current Conservative pleas that remembrance shouldn’t be ‘politicised’ have a rather hollow ring to them.


But in a broader sense, the mid-1990s marked an important moment when commemoration of the two world wars was revived and reified as a focus for British national identity. Worried about its finances, in 1994 the Royal British Legion had launched an exceptionally vigorous advertising campaign for its annual poppy appeal. National newspapers began the practice of publishing images of poppies on their mastheads in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday, and displaying a poppy on their lapels became virtually obligatory for politicians and television presenters - as it has been ever since.


Many commentators have already drawn links between the re-emergence of ‘The Great Patriotic War(s)’ as the UK’s defining national story and the Brexit vote. The idea that Britain ‘stood alone’ in 1940 was weaponised by the Leave campaign in the 2016 Referendum to encourage a fortress mentality towards Europe. As an enthusiastic backer of Brexit, Rishi Sunak benefited from this popular mood. Indeed, Brexit played a part in the chain of events that led him to Downing Street. It would be acutely ironic if his failure to pay due reverence to the commemorations around one of the defining actions of the Second World War proved to be the final nail in Sunak’s political coffin.


Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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