With Remembrance Day almost upon us we have entered another period of debate and discussion over the symbolism of the poppy. It's a debate which offers irrefutable proof of the increasing politicisation of this annual event, one which rather than unite the country around a shared narrative and set of values instead reminds us of a history of conflict that is contested over the question of whether it should be considered a source of pride or shame.
The attempt to make political capital out of Remembrance Day has never been more naked in its cynicism. Witnessing the nation's political class and those with a vested interest in the status quo sporting ever larger poppies ever earlier at this time of year is both unedifying and transparent, not to mention crass. Indeed the courage and honour of those who have been sent to kill and be killed in our name in conflicts around the world, most in truth fought in the interests of the nation's elite, contrasts sharply with the lack thereof when it comes to those who assert the right to speak in their name.
Adding an extra layer of hypocrisy to this year's Remembrance Day is the hysteria which currently has the country in its grip over the issue of immigration. With UKIP and Nigel Farage driving the agenda on the issue, elevating xenophobia to the status of political principle in the process, we are obligated to remember not just the British servicemen and women who died fighting the nation's wars, but also the countless number of 'foreigners' who did so too.
In the First World War, for example, the war to end all wars and from out of which Remembrance Day and the traditional wearing of the poppy originated, 74,000 Indian troops died fighting for Britain out of the total of 1.5 million who served. Sixteen thousand troops from the West Indies also fought for Britain, seeing action during the ill fated Gallipoli Campaign, and in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq, Kuwait, and northeast Syria) and East Africa.
When it comes to the Second World War Polish and Czech airmen were indispensable during the long year of 1940-4,1 when Britain stood alone against the might of the Nazis and existed on the precipice of disaster. At a time when trained pilots were crucial to Britain's survival, the 145 Poles and 88 Czechs who served with extraordinary courage and distinction in the Battle of Britain were irreplaceable. Likewise thousands of Polish troops later fought under British command in North Africa, France, Italy, and at Arnhem.
Indian troops played a key role when it came to fighting the Japanese. This today would include Pakistani and Bangladeshi nationals, who along with their Indian counterparts contributed to the 2.5 million troops from the subcontinent who fought the Axis forces on the side of the allies. India was also a vital source of raw materials, armaments production, and financial support, without which Britain could not have resisted the Japanese onslaught in the Pacific. Hundreds of thousands of African troops also fought for Britain in the Second World War. Africans, indeed, were the first to confront fascism when Italy invaded Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1935. Their courage and heroism against the might of a modern, mechanised army is worthy of veneration eight decades on.
The point is that the sacrifice of the aforementioned foreign pilots, soldiers, and servicemen from Eastern Europe, the Indian subcontinent, and Africa shames those who today regard immigrants from those parts of the world as an enemy within. It requires that we reconsider the toxic politics and rhetoric surrounding immigration, especially when associated with patriotism and British values, whatever those things mean in practice. Being even more frank, the very fact that a political party like UKIP can today enjoy such popularity and legitimacy peddling the politics of xenophobia is a grievous insult to the memory of those who fought and died for Britain yesterday. As a nation embroiled in a war against the evils of fascism and the ideology of race, we sought and gained strength in diversity, the antithesis of both
Hitler was intent on colonising Eastern Europe, based on his theory that the Poles, Russians, and Slav peoples were untermenschen. His defeat consigned the politics of race and nationalism to the dustbin of history. Or at least it should have. Fascism, of course, is the most extreme variant of nationalism; but the recrudescence of nationalism in the UK and throughout Europe, regardless of how extreme, is eminently regressive.
The most important lesson we can take from Remembrance Day is that we are a nation of immigrants, whether we like it or not, and would not have survived the most dangerous enemy we have ever faced during World War II had it not been for the courage of those whose race, nationality, and religion meant nothing when compared to their willingness to stand with us against barbarism.
It begs the question of who are the real patriots?