Sunday, 11 November 2012

November 11th.

Since 2005, I have been selling poppies in the European Parliament. It is not just a good fund-raiser, but I get the opportunity to talk to a lot of foreign colleagues about it, many of whom have never heard of the tradition. In all these years I have only ever had one negative comment, but lots of praise and some very generous donations.

Here in Brussels we have a very healthy branch of the RBL, and a thriving ex-service community. The 11th of November is a public holiday in Belgium, regardless of which day of the week it falls on, although to their shame the EU institutions do not observe this. They fear it may be offensive to the Germans, which is absolute claptrap. I can assure you that Germans of all generations face up to their past honestly and with a humility that would surprise many.

But wouldn't it be nice if the 11th were a bank holiday in the UK?

When I was campaigning years ago for a minister for veteran's affairs, a battle we won, incidentally, we put a demand for a 'Veteran's Day' on the table. Actually, that was a bargaining chip we were quite prepared to lose - it was the minister we really wanted. And well done Iain Duncan Smith, who despite his initial reserve (he expected that we would have to make do with a special committee, something I was totally opposed to) led this one, positioning Hague in the right place, and forcing Blair's hand (Blair had initially rejected the proposal out of hand, before backtracking when he realised the strength of opinion.) I was genuinely surprised when I learned a few years later that we were also to get a Veteran's Day.

Another battle I thought would never be won was for proper recognition and compensation for the Nuclear Test Veterans. I remember the 2nd Veteran's Plenary in London, when Dr Lewis Moonie (the first Minister for Veteran's Affairs) put them down sharply. But now headway is being made.

Likewise the government's attempts to silence gulf veterans. There were some dirty tricks played there, and the RBL was not entirely blameless. There was a certain amount of reciprocation however, with the whitewash being exposed one memorable night when 'leaked' documents from Porton Down were faxed around the UK to veterans and others with the request "send to everybody". As a result the official story fell apart and it was acknowledged that despite MoD denials, and intimidation of veterans, Porton Down knew that depleted uranium was the cause of many health problems for veterans and their children.

The RBL has re-positioned itself now, and is very critical of HMG when the interests of veterans, and of serving personnel and their families are concerned. That is how it should be.

But maybe we need to revisit the issue of making the 11th a Bank Holiday.....

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