Remembering my mother on the 80th anniversary of the D-day landing

The photograph, taken some 40 years ago, is of my mother when she was living in West London.

My mother, who spoke both French and German fluently and had worked for both the BBC and SOE, went into Europe just after D-day to liaise between the Allied forces and the Red Cross. She followed the Allied advance across France and Germany and, finally, into Berlin. She was also involved in the immediate aftermath of the liberation of a notorious concentration camp and had some very unsettling stories to tell about that experience and about the war more generally.

She was by upbringing a Conservative and asked her friend the Conservative MP for Tyneside, Irene Ward – later Baroness Ward of North Tyneside and the longest serving female Conservative MP in history- to be my godmother. That Irene Ward’s Conservatism was light-years away from that of the Tory Party today is made very clear by her Wikipedia entry. It’s enough here to say that she was regularly re-elected by a largely working-class constituency because she genuinely cared about representing the needs of her constituents.

I think that both she and my mother would be horrified by what the Conservative party has become, in particular by the calculated and self-serving xenophobia of its Brexit grandees, its callously inept handling of the covid epidemic, and its undisguised contempt for the poor and the chronically ill. My mother, who was sent by her grandmother to stay with a family in Paris at the age of fifteen, understood herself to be both British and a European. She also believed that her privileged background came with real obligations to others. Both led her to work with Polish refugees and other stateless individuals after the war and then, for many years, with the RWVS.

I write this today to remember her and her contribution to society both during and after the war, but also because I wonder why, when the last surviving veterans of the 1939-1945 war are being interviewed, nobody seems willing to ask them what they make of the state of their country today. The country that many of their follow soldiers, sailors and airmen died for. Maybe it’s a sense of shame?

Irene Ward lost her seat in the House of Commons when Labour won a landslide victory in the 1945 election. A Labour victory that very clearly reflected what the majority of those who had fought in the war wanted for the future of their country. A future that would come to include, among other things, the world-class National Health Service that is now on the verge of collapse. Although they were both Conservatives, if they were alive today I know both my mother and Irene Ward would be horrified by the state of Britain, but particularly of an England dominated by London and the south-east. I also like to think they would wonder why the hard questions that this Anniversary should raise about a Britain so many died for are being avoided.