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VE day anniversary: why politics will take second place the day after the election

With just ten weeks to go, however, plans for the 70th anniversary of VE day remain sketchy

21 February 2015

9:00 AM

21 February 2015

9:00 AM

Breakfast is under way on 8 May 2015, and the party leaders have already started haggling. The possibility of a loveless Labour/SNP ‘anti-austerity’ pact has sent the markets tumbling. With the largest number of seats but no overall majority, the Tories are making eyes at the least un-attractive potential bedfellows. Assorted pressure groups are trying to rekindle the same ‘Purple Protest’ movement which sought to exploit the political void immediately after the 2010 election. Having spent all night telling the television cameras that all this voting stuff is, like, rubbish, an exhausted Russell Brand urges his followers to rise up and do, er, something. But the protestors find that the streets are already full of people. Like it or not, the politicians have to curtail their horse-trading, brush their hair and join them all.

Because whichever way votes are cast on 7 May, all the party leaders will now be obliged to attend the same victory party on 8 May. The body language should be exquisite.

The 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe day should be a salutary reminder that there are some things even bigger than politics. A formal ceremony at the Cenotaph on the afternoon of 8 May will kick off three days of concerts, services and street parties — plus a parade through central London — to mark, surely, one of the greatest days in British history. The royal family, buoyed by the arrival of a new baby a few days earlier, will be out in force. The ceremonies, broadcast live on the BBC, will be a tribute to the wartime generation. Unlike, say, last year’s poignant and powerful commemorations of the 70th anniversary of D-day, VE day will focus not only on the Forces but on everyone who helped Britain to victory — Land Girls, evacuees, Bevin Boys, Bletchley Park codebreakers, boy scouts and Captain Mainwaring. This will be their last assembly in significant numbers.

With just ten weeks to go, however, plans remain sketchy. Until last week, they barely existed. A team of Ministry of Defence officials had cobbled together a service at Westminster Abbey for Sunday 10 May but there simply hadn’t been much interest in organising a major state occasion the day after a general election. An online petition and lobbying campaign had failed to generate much enthusiasm. When the Speaker, John Bercow, announced those anniversaries that Parliament would commemorate this year, he included the Battle of Agincourt (600 years ago) and the Sex Discrimination Act (which is turning 40). But VE day wasn’t on the list. Nor, for that matter, was VJ day — 15 August 1945 — when we remember the victory of the ‘Forgotten Army’ over Japan and the final cessation of hostilities.

After lamenting this omission in the Daily Mail earlier this month, I was intrigued to see an abrupt and dramatic change of plan. Suddenly, the MoD was no longer in charge. No. 10, it turned out, had taken over this anniversary and the Prime Minister had personally appointed his own minister for VE day. William Hague, no less, was charged with arranging a three-day event.

The former Conservative leader and ex-foreign secretary, who will be leaving the Commons after 26 years on 7 May, is, of course, an accomplished historian in his own right. And as a member of John Major’s government, he will not have forgotten the emotion and the uncomplicated spirit of national unity which accompanied the 50th anniversary of VE day in 1995. World leaders and millions of people descended on London; Dame Vera Lynn and the soon-to-be-knighted Cliff Richard serenaded the Queen, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret beneath the palace balcony. That year would turn out to be a dismal one for the Prime Minister; just weeks later he was having to fight a leadership contest.

But those four days of exuberant tributes to the war generation would remain a highlight of John Major’s premiership and followed his appointment of two ministers to supervise it all: the then leader of the Lords, Viscount Cranborne, and the heritage minister, Viscount Astor (Cameron’s stepfather-in-law).

It all helps to explain this sudden change of plan for the 70th. The Prime Minister, with more pressing issues than bunting and Glenn Miller-themed hog roasts on his to-do list for early May, was probably unaware of the paucity of VE day planning. Realising the situation, Cameron and his core team could suddenly foresee a big bucket of opprobrium looming. No politician wants ‘Heroes snubbed’ headlines in election week. And besides, he can well remember those epic scenes two decades back.

Another factor, I am told, is the importance being attached to first impressions on the morning after. One shrewd retiree from Cameron’s cabinet has been reminding him that if he does end up having to form a viable minority government, appearances and atmosphere during those formative days after the vote will be crucial. Better to evoke echoes of Churchill than associations with Michael Foot and his donkey jacket.

There will certainly be no attempt to ‘merge’ VE day celebrations with VJ day commemorations, as Tony Blair’s government tried — and failed — to do for the 60th anniversary in 2005. The ‘Forgotten Army’, quite rightly, will get their own parade in August.

Major Sir Michael Parker, the maestro behind every national event from the Royal Tournament to the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday parade, was the producer of those central VE and VJ day events in 1995. He still recalls the institutional pessimism. ‘All the authorities and officials insisted that no one was interested, that no one was going to come,’ he chuckles. ‘Then they all complained when two-and-a-quarter million people turned up.’

This time around, the authorities may be grateful for the attention. Those agitators heading to Westminster to exploit any political stalemate on 8 May might be expecting a scrap with the cops. But who would be dumb enough to pick a fight with several thousand old warriors, war widows, Blitz surviors and Dame Vera Lynn?

Robert Hardman writes for the Daily Mail.

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