For my dad, killed 40 years ago today

Paul Cotterill
Dec 11, 2019 · 4 min read

Today, as well as being the day many floating or uncertain voters finally decide which side they are going to back, is exactly 40 years since my dad was killed.

It seems appropriate, therefore, to wonder what he might have made of it all — not just this once in a generation choice between destinies, but the 40 years of neoliberalism and creeping authoritarianism; a 40 year period which took hold in Britain just a few months before his death, and which is now on the cusp, if the votes go the way the polls suggest, of giving way a much more sinister regime — a regime of the type he and his generation was required to combat.

Briefly: my dad served in a Lancaster bomber over Germany in 1944 and 1945. He was the bomb-aimer and so quite literally dropped bombs on Allied targets, including the civilian population of Dresden.

He may well have opened up more had he lived longer, but during his lifetime he never spoke of the war, never went to a Remembrance Service, and never wore a poppy. It was only after my mother died in 2014 that we discovered, in an old shoe box, two things about my dad.

First, he had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal for some unknown act of heroism, presumably in the skies above Germany. We don’t know if he told my mother of this, but we found a letter from the headmaster of his old school (dad left school at 13 for the steelworks and was 22 at war’s end), apologizing for being so slow to write to congratulate my dad, and saying what pride he had brought to the school. For that letter to be kept in the shoe-box alongside the medal suggests it meant a lot to my dad.

Second, in the same collection of old bits and pieces, there were youth hostel membership cards with hostel stamps on them. An examination of these shows that my dad travelled, probably on his bike, to Norway and Denmark, and to Switzerland in 1947 and 1948.

This seems an extraordinary journey for a low-paid steelworker to have made, and while as his children we can only guess — again, he never mentioned anything and as far as we know never travelled abroad again — we do wonder whether he was paying some kind of quiet personal homage to those he had been a part of killing (we think he might have had trouble entering Germany at the time, and it is unlikely youth hostels would have been open, but the places he went to were near the German border).

Taken together, we get a picture of a man greatly affected by his wartime experience, to the extent that he undertook a form of Remembrance, but for whom that Remembrance was a deeply private thing.

What we do know for certain is that both he mad my mother voted to stay in the European Community in 1975 and that, in a way that seemed strangely out of keeping with the rest of his very English working class Methodist ways, he loved Eurovision. I still remember his enthusiasm for ABBA’s 1974 entry, and his certainty that they would win.

So I don’t think we’d be making too much of a leap of logic to assume that, had he been in alive in 2016, he’d have voted equally enthusiastically to remain connected to a Europe for which he had given so much, and for which of course many of his colleagues had given up their lives. And I suspect he would have expressed a quiet disappointment at the antics of people like Mark Francois, seeking to invoke the spirit of WWII in a way quite opposite of my dad’s more reliable take on it.

But this election goes beyond remaining or leaving the EU, and I think my dad would have recognized that.

This is an election about whether to allow a five year term to a government who, on page 19 of their manifesto, make a promise to arrest and seize the assets of an ethnic minority, on the basis of that ethnic minority status. you don’t have to know who Pastor Martin Niemöller was to get the point, though I know my dad took his quiet Methodism seriously enough.

And this is a prospective government which, on page 48 of that manifesto, talks about a change to our constitution which gives greater control to the government over the institutions which provide checks and balances against its likely post-truth, post-decency excesses. I am not sure if my dad would have known what I know now — that the wording strikes a chord with point 25 of the 25 point programme laid out the NDSAP’s very first manifesto in February 1920 — but he would have understood the direction of travel.

So, the day before polling day, I’m invoking the memory my brave father, in the same spirit that David Merritt has invoked the memory of his brave son Jack, and asking that people who are considering voting for the Johnson regime, because he’ll “get Brexit done”, or for any other reason, choose a different path: the path of political decency, commitment to truth, democracy and the continued rule of law.Dad would have wanted that.

Paul Cotterill

Written by

Secretary General, Habermasian Labour (UK). Indefatigably focused on the promotion of ethical discourse in the public sphere, except when there's cricket.

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