Veterans make the journey to Normandy to Commemorate the 70th Anniversary Of D-Day. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Remembering our D-Day heroes

This anniversary marks one of the last chances we will have to thank them for their selflessness, courage, determination and sacrifice.

Like many British families, my own has its special memories of a loved one who died fighting for our country in the Armed Forces. And this week’s commemorations on the 70th anniversary of D-Day is particularly poignant for us. 

My uncle, Sergeant Vernon Coaker was killed in action on 6 June, 1944. He was a member of 3 Commando from the Devonshire Regiment that took part in an assault on the town of Le Plein. The records from the War Office show that Vernon and his comrades struggled ashore with bicycles – the chosen mode of attack – and their heavy kit, and made their way slowly through swampy ground before mounting the attack.

As they began the operation to take the town, they found out that the mortars they had been equipped with were of no use because the charges had been removed. But my uncle Vernon and his comrades were ordered to carry on with the attack anyway, with very limited weaponry and little hope of survival.  They came under fire from German soldiers hidden in outlying buildings on the road into Le Plein, and they were forced to fall back. After an officer was badly wounded and a soldier killed, they still fought on, taking control of some of the buildings in the town. But as evening fell, my uncle was killed when an enemy bomb directly hit the building he was sheltering in.

We as a family are very proud of him. He was my father’s older brother and when I was born a few years after Vernon died, my dad named me after the brother he had looked up to so much.

It’s for that reason and in that spirit that today I’m in Portsmouth with many others, taking part in commemorations to mark this hugely significant and symbolic anniversary. Alongside the ceremonies taking place in France, it’s important that people here in Britain – men and women of all ages and from all backgrounds – get the chance to show their gratitude and appreciation to those who fought for our freedom and their future.

That’s why I called for a national commemoration to be held, not least to allow veterans unable to travel to France to take part in events nearer home. But also to ensure that those veterans can receive recognition here in the United Kingdom, in the country they fought for. I’m glad that’s happening. Because as the years pass, the numbers of surviving D-Day veterans grow smaller, and after these commemorations the Normandy Veterans Association will disband. So this anniversary marks one of the last chances we will have to thank them for their selflessness, courage, determination and sacrifice.

In Portsmouth today, I am reminded again of how much we are indebted to them, those who came before and after them, and indeed all those who continue to serve our country today.

Vernon Coaker is shadow defence secretary

Vernon Coaker is the Labour MP for Gedlin and the former shadow defence secretary.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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