SARAH VINE: Rishi, more than anyone, had a duty to honour our last few defenders of democracy. He failed – and I can’t forgive him

SARAH VINE: Rishi, more than anyone, had a duty to honour our last few defenders of democracy. He failed – and I can’t forgive him

One of the most poignant moments of this week’s D-Day 80th anniversary commemorations came as the actor Martin Freeman recited the words of veteran Joe Mines (Second Battalion, Essex Regiment) in Ver-sur-Mer. The Queen looked tearful – and she was not alone.

It was the first time that Mr Mines, aged 99, had returned to the place where he and many departed comrades landed that fateful day. Too infirm to speak himself, he had charged Freeman with that privilege, and the actor read beautifully, while Mr Mines looked on.

‘I was 19 when I landed, but I was still a boy,’ he wrote. ‘I don’t care what people say, I wasn’t a man, I was a boy, and I didn’t have any idea of war, and killing.’

Such simple words, and yet so acute. They capture with stark honesty the reality of what happened all those years ago. The reality of who it was who died on those beaches, of what they – and their families – lost.

Not men, but boys. Not natural-born killers, not warriors; just ordinary people plunged into a theatre of horrors beyond anyone’s darkest imaginings.

The Queen looked tearful during Martin's speech

My boy is also 19, half man, half child. Towel thief, 3am fridge-raider, football-obsessed, a lanky 6ft 4in with his grandfather’s soft brown eyes and a shock of black hair, he’s probably not much different to how Mr Mines would have been all those decades ago.

Except that my son, thanks to men like Mr Mines, will not find himself fighting on a foreign beach, his friends dying around him, unspeakable, incomprehensible horror everywhere.

At 19, he’s barely able to make oven chips without injuring himself, let alone take on a foreign army. And that’s not because he is lazy or stupid, it’s because, as Mr Mines said, he’s still just a boy.

As are his friends, an odd, disparate group of young men from a wide range of backgrounds, but who nevertheless display an extraordinary loyalty and affection towards each other.

There’s R, half Spanish, the muscle of the group, madly in love with his girlfriend, capable of consuming a kilo of ground meat in under a minute; quiet, polite, thoughtful E, always impeccably dressed; handsome, cool, streetwise S; clever, ambitious W who grew up on one of the toughest council estates in London and who is now studying International Relations at university.

They swagger around pretending to know it all, full of banter and bluster. They may look hard on the surface, but in reality they’re as soft-centred and vulnerable as my little dog Muffin.

If I think of them being called up to do what Mr Mines and his friends had to do at the same age, if I think of them dying far from home in confusion and agony, gawky young men with scrubbed faces, barely old enough to sprout stubble, my heart just shatters.

I imagine them approaching the shoreline, fear rising in their stomachs at the realisation of what lies ahead, and I tremble with rage and sadness. But I also, with the selfishness that only a mother knows, give thanks that it’s not my boy. Not this time, anyway, not today.

Rishi Sunak meets a British D-Day veteran during the Royal British Legion's commemorative ceremony earlier this week

Mr Sunak also met French President Immanuel Macron and his wife Lady Brigitte Macron during the ceremony

King Charles and Queen Camilla watch on as the D-Day ceremony commences

Young people in Britain face many challenges. But none of them match what those boys went through, nothing even approaching. And it enrages me that so many of them seem increasingly blind to their history.

You see it all the time, in the way they deface our war monuments and insult poppy-sellers and endlessly try to tear down statues of past military leaders. Are they really so thick they cannot understand that when we commemorate D-Day and countless other battles we don’t do it as a celebration of war itself? 

That we do it as a mark of respect for those who died defending the one thing that gives them the right to voice their half-baked views in the first place: democracy.

And that, I’m afraid, is why – Conservative though I am – I simply cannot forgive Rishi Sunak for leaving this week’s commemorations early.

The fact that he did so not because of some unavoidable emergency, or vital matter of state, but to pre-record an election interview with ITV only adds insult to injury.

As Prime Minister – as a prime beneficiary of that freedom they died to defend – he more than anyone has a duty to honour these last few defenders of democracy; he more than anyone should understand how important it is to set an example to others, to show through his actions how much we value their sacrifice. 

His absence at the end of that day, his decision to let David Cameron stand in for him, showed that, ultimately, he didn’t get it. It sent a message that honouring men like Mr Mines was second to his own political career.

His excuse – that the interview had already been scheduled even before he called the election – only made things worse. Nothing should have been in his diary on D-Day, nothing at all apart from showing up and paying his respects.

Any one of us would have been honoured to be there. But not, apparently, Sunak. He had better things to do.

This anniversary was an especially significant once, given the great age of the last few remaining veterans, who likely will no longer be with us when the next one comes around. It will be left to successive generations to carry the memory of their sacrifice, and carry it we must. 

Even after the last of them is gone, we must return as a nation, time and again to that place where so many lives were lost in order that we may live ours. I’ve long thought that before any politician sends a single man or woman to war, before they ask anyone to risk their life or to take that of others, they should understand what it means to fight for one’s country.

It’s all very well to deploy troops or scramble fighter planes from the wood-panelled safety of the drawing-room at Chequers or the No10 sofa, but until and unless you’ve experienced the noise and fury first hand, it’s hard to comprehend what you are truly asking.

That’s why I’ve always advocated – long before Sunak came up with it as an election ruse – the idea of some form of National Service. At least when Churchill talked of blood, tears, toil and sweat, he knew whereof he spoke, having served as an infantry officer in the trenches on the Western Front during the First World War. 

The same could not be said of many leaders since. What people seem to forget is that freedom not only has to be won, it also has to be defended. And the more we take peace for granted, the more fragile it becomes.

Teaching the younger generation the basics of combat is not, as many on the Left so often characterise it, about fostering violence and bloodshed, or pandering to Telegraph-reading Bufton Tuftons. 

It’s about ensuring that if the worst does happen – as, let’s face it, it has done recently in Ukraine and Israel – we are prepared. And, more importantly, that our young men – and women – are ALSO fully prepared, and not just untrained novices, lambs to the slaughter.

With any luck, it will never happen. But just in case the time comes, don’t they deserve a fighting chance?

Britain needs a leader who understands that, now more than ever, with the world closer to conflict now that it has been for many years. For all their errors, that was the one thing I thought the Conservatives could be trusted to deliver. Sadly, I’m now not so sure.

Sarah Vine

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