Letter from Westminster

When the House of Commons is sitting it has been the practice in recent years to mark the two minutes silence on 11th November by standing in silence in the chamber and I have always been part of that.

This year the 11th fell on a Friday when the House was not sitting so before I headed north I joined my parliamentary staff, civil servants, ex-service men and women and a handful of slightly bemused Italian tourists at the Cenotaph in Whitehall.

It was a very different scene from the one that the world would see on Remembrance Sunday as the Queen led a very formal service with wreath-laying at the Cenotaph. This was hundreds (possibly a couple of thousand) of ordinary people taking a few minutes away from their desks or their normal routine to stand together in silent contemplation and tribute to the nation’s war-dead and, I believe, to our soldiers currently on active service. The simplicity of the occasion was moving in its own way and standing at the back of the crowd I was pleased to have been part of it for once.

Not everyone in Whitehall was there in the same spirit, however, as a group of between 50 and 100 supporters of the far-right group The English Defence League had also gathered. I have no idea what point they thought they were making and I was actually unaware of their presence until, as I left one of the parliamentary office buildings through a back door, I blundered into the middle of them.

It was quite an intimidating atmosphere. They had been corralled by the police into the Red Lion pub in Whitehall and were standing around in groups on the pavement drinking beer. I was in their midst before I realised it and decided that there was probably no way back. Taking a deep breath and with a purposeful stride I made my way without incident to the top of the street where some slightly surprised police officers allowed me through their cordon.

The beery truculence of the neo-fascists was a marked contrast to the quiet dignity of the earlier gathering at the Cenotaph. It was, however, a reminder that while we have fought and beaten fascism in the past we should never be complacent enough to think that we are immune from that thinking in our own country.

The legacy of past conflicts still lives with us today. It is at least two generations since German politicians had to struggle with hyper-inflation and currency collapse. That still clearly influences their thinking today as Europe again struggles with an economic crisis. I hope that they are successful in their endeavours. I have no more idea than anyone else what lies ahead if they fail but I may have caught a brief glimpse of one of the possibilities drinking beer outside a pub in Whitehall last Friday. If we are to honour the war-dead truly then we should never take peace for granted.

Alistair Carmichael


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