Patriot Aims

As the country prepares to remember the sacrifice of former soldiers like his namesake uncle, Vernon Coaker tells Daniel Bond why Britain should not be ashamed to show a little national pride

Words: Daniel Bond

Photos: Paul Heartfield 

When Vernon Coaker visits the Cenotaph this Remembrance Day, it will be a time for the private reflection of a nephew as much as the public duty of a politician. “Lots of people will have their own personal stories”, the Shadow Defence Secretary tells The House, when asked what the event means to him. “For me, it’s my uncle.”

On 6 June 1944, Sergeant Vernon Coaker, a 23-year-old commando from the Devonshire Regiment, was killed in a D-day assault on the small French town of Le Plein. After struggling ashore with heavy kit, Vernon and his comrades mounted bicycles – “he’s a commando, and he’s wheeling a bike!” the Labour MP says, almost unbelieving – and made their way through difficult and often swampy conditions to the target. Despite meeting heavy resistance on the road into the town, they succeeded in taking control of several buildings. But as darkness fell, the structure they were sheltering in was hit by mortar fire.

“He’s the iconic figure for my whole family,” Coaker says, after proudly retelling his uncle’s incredible story. “I’m named after him. So even though he died 70 years ago, and I never met him, it’s him I think about. That’s what it means for me.”

2014 of course not only marks the 70th anniversary of D-day, but also the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. Remembrance events across the country commemorating these two tremendous moments of history have captured the public’s imagination beyond all expectation; just this week, thousands of people have filed past Paul Cummins’ poppy collection at the Tower of London, and over the course of the installation’s run, the organisers say, more than four million people will have been to see the 888,246 ceramic poppies, one for each British life lost in the war.

Coaker himself recently visited the display with his wife and was “amazed” to see so many thousands of people “inspired to visit, reflect and remember” the conflict. “There’s been a reawakening, if you like, of a sense of national pride. In a proper sense, not the jingoistic, nationalist sense, but patriotic,” he believes. “Talking to other MPs and the public, everyone’s noticed that the numbers of people who attend remembrance events has risen dramatically. And what’s really noticeable is the numbers of young people who are involved in that and want to know and understand about previous conflicts – the First World War, the Second World War, the Falklands – and also the modern conflicts we’ve been involved with. I think it’s made people realise that speaking about patriotism, speaking about pride, is something that we should all do and can do. And you can see that.”

The final withdrawal of British troops from the most recent of those conflicts last month adds another layer of significance to this year’s Remembrance Day, he continues. “The pullout from Afghanistan, that makes it real for you. I think the fact that there’s been these modern conflicts, and the number of people killed in that conflict and in Iraq, makes it real as well, that sacrifice.”

Coaker says the Armed Forces can be “incredibly proud” of the work they’ve done in Afghanistan, not only in ensuring the country is “no longer a safe haven for terrorists”, but also helping to bring about improvements in political stability, health and education. But he says while the UK will continue to help Afghanistan’s development following the withdrawal, it’s now equally important to shift focus and ensure those troops coming home “are given the support and care they need”. “Some of the people who are veterans now have got decades of life in front of them. You can have quite young veterans. And it’s the job of the country to honour those people who’ve served it. That’s a really important point of principle that we have to actually put into practice.”

The Defence Select Committee last week sounded a warning note about the scale of the challenge facing the MoD on armed forces welfare, publishing a report highlighting the “shocking” backlog of claims for war pensions and compensation payments. The MPs also expressed concern about the long-term impact on troops deployed to Afghanistan, and warned of the need to combat PTSD, domestic violence and “hazardous levels of alcohol consumption” among veterans.

Meeting this huge challenge, Coaker says, will be front and centre of Labour’s offer on defence in 2015, with pledges to enshrine the military covenant in the NHS constitution and make discrimination against service personnel a specific offence already announced. As the military operation in Afghanistan fades from the public eye, he warns, support for those who fought cannot be allowed to slip from the political agenda. “That’s something we must ensure doesn’t happen. Just because something isn’t in the headlines doesn’t mean that the duty of care doesn’t go away.”

The withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan has also reignited the debate about the size and purpose of Britain’s armed forces, amid warnings that cuts to the MoD budget and the reduction in troop numbers would make a similar long-term commitment to ‘boots on the ground’ all but impossible today. Reports emerged last week that the MoD has been warned by Treasury officials it could even face a further round of heavy budget cuts, of around 7.5%, after 2015/16. The Government played down the story, and neither the Conservatives nor Labour are likely to go into the election pledging heavy cuts to defence, both parties preferring to delay final decisions until after the next Strategic Defence and Security Review due later in 2015. But it’s clear there are more difficult choices to come.

“We’ll look at what the budget will be in the spending review,” Coaker says of the prospect of further cuts, pointing out that “whatever happens, Britain will remain one of the foremost countries in terms of the money it spends on its military”. But, he adds, where the previous SDSR in 2010 was mistakenly based on belt-tightening, the primary focus of the coming review must be a much wider discussion about Britain’s role in the world, as well as its security needs. “What do we want to do? What are our objectives? That’s the debate that’s got to happen,” he explains. “From that, you then say ‘well, this is the capability and the capacity we need to do that’. The country then makes a choice about what it wants to fund and what it wants to do. But that’s the starting point.”

Through its membership of Nato, the EU and the Commonwealth, as well as its permanent seat on the UN Security Council, Britain is still one of the countries best placed to play a leading role as an influential power, he says. But too often “the people who have the least confidence about Britain’s place in the world are ourselves”.

“From my point of view Britain is still, without being jingoistic about it, a significant global figure, and has an important role to play,” he says. “That doesn’t mean every time something happens Britain should go and do something about it. But I think it’s important that we recognise that.”

At a time when many “want Britain to turn in on itself”, he warns, politicians – and particularly the Labour party – have a responsibility to make the case to the public for an outward-looking and engaged UK, whether that involves playing a leading role on humanitarian work, helping to tackle Ebola in West Africa or taking military action to deal with Islamic State (Isis) in the Middle East. “I think it’s incumbent upon politicians,” he says, “to make sure that they explain to the public much more clearly, and in a much more focused way, what the objectives are sometimes of what it is that we’re doing, and what we’re trying to achieve.”

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken a heavy toll on the British public’s appetite for military engagement abroad in recent years; polls last summer showed Britons opposed air strikes against the Assad regime by a majority of two to one, and while support for strikes against Isis militants in Iraq is higher, surveys show it is still some way short of a majority.

Intervention in the Middle East has of course been a particularly sensitive issue for a Labour leadership struggling to reconcile a party still bitterly divided over the 2003 Iraq war. But Coaker is clear that while the Labour leadership was “very much in touch” with public opinion on the decision to oppose military action against Assad, it would be a mistake to interpret the move as a retreat towards isolationism. “Not choosing to intervene militarily with respect to Syria doesn’t mean the Labour party is in a position where it would never support intervention,” he says, pointing to Ed Miliband’s backing for recent strikes against Isis in northern Iraq. It’s a case the party should be more willing to make to the public, he believes.

“The Labour party has always been an internationalist party, proud of its international traditions and its international responsibilities. I think it’s about restating that case and making that case to the public. There’s a difference between wanting to intervene everywhere, and saying to people ‘in these circumstances, we think it is right that Britain operates and works with others to deal with the common problems’. I think it’s a matter of talking to the public about it and being clear about what it is our role in the world is now, as the world changes.

“I think people are really well informed about some of the conflicts and some of the challenges. What people want is for politicians to say what it is that we’re trying to achieve, and how using the military will actually help achieve that. There is a need for that much more careful explanation and analysis when we commit people. And, once the military has done whatever it can do, what then are we trying to achieve?”

In the case of the current military intervention in Iraq, he says, the ultimate aim must be to “create the space” for a long-term political solution to the country’s instability. Is he confident that those lessons have been learned from the UK’s last military intervention in Iraq?

“The important thing about military action is, what are the objectives? There is a military objective, but there also has to be a political objective running alongside that,” he replies. “So the building of a political system, political stability alongside the military, is crucial. If you look at what’s happening in Iraq now, one of the first actions that took place alongside the air strikes was the change of prime minister, to bring in a prime minister who would be much more inclusive of the Sunni parts of Iraq. What you need is for the Iraqi government to take responsibility for ensuring you bring about peace and stability, and to demonstrate to the Sunni people across Iraq, as well as the Shia population that dominates government, that they can bring about the state of Iraq that they want. That is an essential way of building a more stable and secure Iraq in the future, alongside the defeat of Isis.”

But Coaker is clear that this victory will not be achieved quickly. With both Defence Secretary Michael Fallon and US Secretary of State John Kerry predicting a ‘two or three year’ campaign, is Coaker prepared for a long-term engagement lasting well into a Labour government after May’s election? “The reality is they’re a serious threat to us, both in the region and across the globe, and we need to make sure that we combat them and take every necessary step to ensure that happens, for however long that takes,” he replies. “If we win the next election, we will continue to battle against Isis and ensure that we see that through.”

Asked if Labour support for air strikes against Isis could extend to Syria, he stresses the major differences between the situation in Damascus and Baghdad. But his response is also notably qualified. “We’ve made clear our position as it stands at the moment,” he says. “We’ve supported the air strikes in Iraq; we think the position in Syria is a lot less clear. For our part, in the present time, it’s clear that our concentration and focus is on Iraq.”

But alongside military action to tackle Isis overseas, he warns, efforts must also be stepped up to tackle the group’s ideology and propaganda here in Britain. While the most immediate threat comes in the form of British jihadist fighters returning from Iraq and Syria, Coaker says stopping potential recruits “being radicalised and going in the first place” cannot be overlooked. “There is obviously a threat to our country from terrorists, and you have to look at how you deal with jihadists that return,” he says. “But there’s also a big question about what you do to try to prevent people being attracted to go and fight abroad, in a way most of us find unbelievable. We saw recently the four or five from Portsmouth. What’s happened there? What intelligence can we learn from the fact that five people went there? The estimates of people who have gone shows there must be people who, for reasons that are difficult to comprehend, are thinking about doing that. And we need to work with the intelligence services, the police, education, civil services, with the communities themselves, to see how we can support them on that.”

The security services have reportedly warned the Government that their ability to fight Islamist terrorism could be hampered if the UK pulls out of the European Arrest Warrant, with Mark Field – the Conservative MP and a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee – even claiming last week that MI5 fear jihadists returning to Europe would view Britain as the EU’s “weak link” and the best place to “go to ground”. David Cameron has promised a Commons vote on opting back in to the EAW this month. But, while the vote will certainly pass, as many as 100 Tory MPs are expected to rebel.

“The Government is in an incredibly weak position on this,” Coaker warns. “We’ve been very clear that we’re very supportive of the European Arrest Warrant. From our point of view, acting in the interests of the country and in the interests of the security of the country, it’s crucial. It’s about keeping our country safe.

“But it’s apparent, given the level of disaffection about the European Arrest Warrant there is on the Conservative benches, that he’ll need the support of Labour to take it through. I think that’s an important point for us to remember.”

And the difficulty the Conservative leadership has gotten into over the EAW is just one part of a much wider problem with their attitude and strategy towards international institutions, he warns. “They’re going around saying ‘we’re not going to do this, we’re not going to do that’. And we have few friends because of that attitude. It’s very difficult then to try to negotiate with people, when you spend all of your time saying they’ve got it all wrong. If you’re a strong partner, somebody who says ‘look, we support the European Union, but change needs to happen’, then you’re in a much more powerful position to negotiate and to come to a reasonable settlement. But the Prime Minister has got this wrong; it’s much more about appeasing his own backbenchers and Ukip than pursuing the national interest.”

And while a divided Conservative party engages in narrow infighting, he continues, it’s only Labour that can offer the outward-looking – and patriotic – vision Britain needs to succeed. “It goes back to what I was saying before. We are a really important power in Europe. An important power in Nato, and the UN. But you do that through building strong relationships. It’s not contradictory to be a proud, independent country, but also one that has strong alliances and strong friendships and is willing to work and cooperate with others, in each other’s mutual interests. That’s a powerful thing to be, and that’s what we stand for.”

This explicit talk of patriotism is not something you hear every day from Labour politicians. But from the armed forces to Britain’s commitment to international aid, national pride is something Labour must not be afraid to embrace, he says.

“Labour has always been a patriotic party. We’re always proud to stand up for our nation, and we’re the party that says that strongly and loudly.  We’re proud of our country, proud of the role we can play across the world. Proud of what we’ve done with our armed forces, but also proud of what we’re contributing to West Africa on Ebola.

“I’m not saying we should be fervent nationalists. But we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about these things and be proud of what our country stands for. We should be proud, and we should speak openly about this pride.”

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