Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.
Our Armed Forces at the end of the Great War looked more like the Britain of 2018 than the Britain of 1918. Millions of young men had rushed to the standard from every part of the Empire and Commonwealth. British India alone – that is, the present territories of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh – supplied an extraordinary 1.3 million men, every one of whom had made a personal decision to enlist. Their sons were to follow: 2.5 million joined up in World War Two, the largest volunteer army mankind has known.
I think of those young men every year at this time, those jawans from the North West Frontier and the Punjab who halted the German advance in the cold mud of Flanders, those raw sepoys from the Deccan who served through the hell of the Gallipoli campaign. From the Ashanti uplands to Jamaica’s lush plantations, volunteers travelled half the world, usually at their own expense, to come to the aid of a country on which, in most cases, they had never set eyes. I have no idea, as I write these words, whether you, the reader, are black, white or brown. But I reckon I’m on pretty safe grounds when I say that, if you’re British, your mind sometimes turns to those soldiers during the silence on Remembrance Sunday. Perhaps, coming across a lonely memorial in some distant land, you have paused for a few minutes, humbled by the thought of what they did.
Or perhaps not. If Momentum is to be believed, black and Asian troops have been “written out of British history”. A viral video produced by the Corbynite pressure group claims that the animals which served in the two wars get a bigger monument than the non-white volunteers, who have to make do (unlike Australians and New Zealanders, we’re told) with a collective memorial.
Actually, Momentum’s premise is incorrect. For one thing, the Memorial Gates, the sombre pillars raised in 2002 in honour of our Asian, African and Caribbean soldiers, stand at what is arguably the most prestigious site in London, at the end of Constitution Hill on Hyde Park Corner. It’s silly to rank war memorials by size or importance, but you’d struggle to sustain the claim that they are surpassed by the sweet monument to the dogs, donkeys and carrier pigeons on Park Lane.
In any case, the Memorial Gates are not, as the Momentum video claims, the only monument to those five million heroes. There are more specific monuments to black and Asian soldiers dotted all over the UK and the Commonwealth. Last year, for example, two handsome obelisks commemorating our African and Caribbean volunteers were raised in Windrush Square in Brixton.
Nor does every memorial take lapidary form. This year saw the launch of the Khadi poppy, a specific tribute to the Indian soldiers who fought in the two wars, worn for the first time last month by Virat Kohli and Joe Root, the India and England cricket captains, at their final test match.
In the middle of claiming that non-white volunteers go unhonoured, the Momentum video ironically flashes up an image of Noor Inayat Khan, an aristocratic Indian Muslim who volunteered for the WAAF, served in occupied France with the Special Operations Executive, and was posthumously awarded the George Cross after being tortured and shot by the enemy in 1944. In recent weeks, a number of Conservative ministers, led by Nus Ghani, have joined the campaign to put Inayat Khan on the new £50 note. She strikes me as an immensely deserving recipient of that honour, having displayed sustained courage in monstrous circumstances. But we can hardly claim that she has been forgotten: the banknote campaign follows the unveiling of a bust in Gordon Square Gardens and the issuing, in 2014, of a commemorative stamp – plus, obviously, the original GC itself.
Still, for the sake of argument, let’s accept the hypothesis that more memorials are needed. What does Momentum propose to do about it? It is here that we reach a disagreeable truth about modern politics. Those who are apparently the angriest about some perceived injustice are often the least interested in addressing it.
Imagine if Momentum were to use its considerable reach to launch a campaign for a new memorial to the ethnic minority soldiers who answered Britain’s call during the two conflagrations of the twentieth century. What a wonderful symbol it would be of a nation joining hands across the political spectrum to honour its heroes. What a splendid way for Momentum to answer the critics who accuse it of being unpatriotic, of favouring any other cause over Britain’s.
Roger Scruton has observed that, whereas Leftists are often actuated by anger and resentment, conservatives are motivated primarily by love – love of their nations, of their institutions, of their laws. Well, here is an opportunity for Momentum to prove him – to prove the conservative movement more widely – wrong. Instead of nursing its grievances, it could use its numbers to crowd-fund whatever it would regard as a suitably non-imperialist tribute to the five million.
“History is being written now”, says Momentum’s narrator at the end of the clip. “Make sure you’re one of the people writing it”. Quite, comrades, so what do you have in mind? I’m sure you’d get plenty of ConservativeHome readers to join in.