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.

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Expressions of sympathy for terror's victims may seem banal, but it's better than the alternative

Angry calls for "something to be done" play into terrorists' hands.

No sooner had we heard of the dreadful Manchester Arena bombing and before either the identity of the bomber or the number of dead were known, cries of “something must be done” echoed across social media and the airwaves. Katie Hopkins, the Mail Online columnist, called for “a final solution”, a tweet that was rapidly deleted, presumably after she remembered (or somebody explained to her) its connotations. The Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson wanted “a State of Emergency as France has” and “internment of thousands of terror suspects”, apparently unaware that the Nice attack, killing 86, happened after that emergency was declared and that nobody has been interned anyway.

It cannot be said too often that such responses play into terrorists’ hands, particularly if Isis was behind the Manchester bombing. The group’s aim is to convince Muslims in the West that they and their families cannot live in peace with the in-fidel and will be safe only if they join the group in establishing a caliphate. Journalists, striving for effect, often want to go beyond ­banal expressions of sympathy for ­victims. (It’s a mistake I, too, have sometimes made.) But occasionally the banal is the appropriate response.

Pity begins at home

Mark Twain, writing about the “terror” that followed the French Revolution and brought “the horror of swift death”, observed that there was another, older and more widespread, terror that brought “lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak”. The first, he wrote, we had been “diligently taught to shiver and mourn over”; the other we had never learned to see “in its vastness or pity as it deserves”.

That is true: more children across the world die each day from hunger or disease than could ever be killed in a terror attack. We should not forget them. Nor should we forget that the numbers killed in terrorist attacks in, for example, Baghdad far outnumber those killed in all European attacks of our times combined. In an age of globalisation, we should be more cosmopolitan in our sympathies but the immediacy of 24-hour news make us less so.

When all is said and done, however, pity, like charity, begins at home. We naturally grieve most over those with whom we share a country and a way of life. Most of us have been to concerts and some readers will have been to one at the Manchester Arena. We or our children could have been present.

Cheers from Highgate Cemetery

What a shame that Theresa May modified the Tory manifesto’s proposals on social care. For a few giddy days, she was proposing the most steeply progressive (or confiscatory, as the Tories would normally say) tax in history. True, it was only for those unfortunate enough to suffer conditions such as dementia, but the principle is what counts. It would have started at zero for those with assets of less than £100,000, 20 per cent for those with £120,000, 50 per cent for those worth £200,000, 99 per cent with those with £10m and so on, ad infinitum. Karl Marx would have been cheering from Highgate Cemetery.

Given that most people’s main asset – the value of their home – did not have to be sold to meet their care costs until death, this was in effect an inheritance tax. It had tantalising implications: to secure their inheritance, children of the rich would have had to care for their parents, possibly sacrificing careers and risking downward mobility, while the children of the poor could have dedicated themselves to seeking upward mobility.

The Tories historically favour, in John Major’s words, wealth cascading down the generations. In recent years they have all but abolished inheritance tax. Now they have unwittingly (or perhaps wittingly, who knows?) conceded that what they previously branded a “death tax” has some legitimacy. Labour, which proposes a National Care Service but optimistically expects “cross-party consensus” on how to finance it, should now offer the clarity about old age that many voters crave. Inheritance tax should be earmarked for the care service, which would be free at the point of use, and it should be levied on all estates worth (say) £100,000 at progressive rates (not rising above even 50 per cent, never mind 99 per cent) that yield sufficient money to fund it adequately.

Paul Dacre’s new darling

Paul Dacre, the Daily Mail editor, is in love again. “At last, a PM not afraid to be honest with you,” proclaimed the paper’s front page on Theresa May’s manifesto. Though the Mail has previously argued that to make old people use housing wealth to fund care is comparable to the slaughter of the first-born, an editorial said that her honesty was exemplified by the social care proposals.

On the morning of the very day that May U-turned, the Mail columnist Dominic Lawson offered a convoluted defence of the failure to cap what people might pay. Next day, with a cap announced, the Mail hailed “a PM who’s listening”.

Dacre was previously in love with Gordon Brown, though not to the extent of recommending a vote for him. What do Brown and May have in common? Patriotism, moral values, awkward social manners, lack of metropolitan glitz and, perhaps above all, no evident sense of humour. Those are the qualities that win Paul Dacre’s heart.

Sobering up

Much excitement in the Wilby household about opinion polls that show Labour reducing the Tories’ enormous lead to, according to YouGov, “only” 9 percentage points. I find myself babbling about ­“Labour’s lead”. “What are you talking about?” my wife asks. When I come to my senses, I realise that my pleasure at the prospect, after seven years of Tory austerity, of limiting the Tories’ majority to 46 – more than Margaret Thatcher got in 1979 – is a measure of my sadly diminished expectations. l

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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