D-day: 75th Anniversary - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 4th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative 6:00 pm, 4th June 2019

My Lords, I begin by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Reay, and saying how pleased I am that he has joined us on these Benches. I am sure that he will make many valuable contributions on connectivity, as well as on many other things, and I look forward to hearing them.

Most of us in this Chamber have two things in common: we were nowhere near the Second World War, but we have benefited enormously from the international settlement that followed it. I was born just before D-day in what was very much another country. One factor in the Britain—or England—of that time was that some 20% of males between the ages of 20 and 40 were from outside the UK. They were soldiers from Canada, the United States and many countries of Europe who were in Britain as part of the build-up to help with that invasion and what followed it. I have a few figures: there were apparently almost 3 million US servicemen in this country by 1945. They had come, some had moved on—they were not necessarily here at the same time—but they had been here.

I echo the sentiments made by other noble Lords that we must not confuse the personality of the President of the United States with the people and institutions of that country, to whom we owe a debt of gratitude. By coming out of isolationism under Roosevelt, the United States did more to build the western European—now European—values that we believe in than probably anyone else. By the time D-day happened, albeit a very important happening, the Germans were already on the road to defeat. It was a question of time, as in the case of Japan in the summer of 1945: it was going to be defeated, but how long would it take? The Germans were going to be defeated, but how long would it take? We needed all those troops. We should not forget the enormous contribution of General—rather than President—Eisenhower, who pulled together the disparate politics and attitudes of many different people, and many leaders in the different contingents that made up the allied forces of the Second World War. Eisenhower was a truly inspiring politician who wore uniform; he certainly pulled everybody together.

Denis Healey—a noble Lord in this House many years ago and a leading member of the Labour Party—once said of the European Union at a small meeting that I attended: “Europe will be in trouble when there is no longer a generation that remembers the war; that remembers Anzio and why the post-war institutions were built”. He was absolutely right. The Second World War was in many ways just a continuation of the First World War, at the end of which the mistake made was the retreat of internationalism. When I lectured in history, I used to say: “You can rewrite your history, but you cannot rewrite your geography”.

I would like people to take a closer look at the history of inter-war Europe. It was not a history of flourishing democracies and a wicked Soviet Union; in the eastern part of our continent, it was a history of pretty repressive regimes. There was not much democracy to be found in the countries of central and eastern Europe, or in the countries of the rest of Europe. Southern Europe had a variety of authoritarian regimes. If we start with Ataturk in Turkey, Venizelos, Mussolini, Franco, Salazar and swing round to the country my family came from, the Republic of Ireland, they were all quite authoritarian regimes. To my mind, what we got out of the Second World War was the liberal democracy that has persevered since then.

The person we have to thank for that is largely Roosevelt, who had a vision of what could happen. Both Roosevelt and his successor, Harry Truman, had had the advantage—an unusual one among those from the United States—of spending time in Europe. Harry Truman spent this time in uniform; Roosevelt—who was from a much more privileged background—crucially spent time in Germany as a young person. We tend to forget what we owe to these people. We forget what we owe to a heroine of mine, Eleanor Roosevelt, who saved the International Labour Organization, getting it moved to Canada during the Second World War, who wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and who had an enormous impact on social issues in America as well as on the development of, for example, the principles of the Atlantic Charter.

After the war—it could not have happened without D-day—we had the Council of Europe, the European Union and the European Coal and Steel Community. All were built on the hope and belief of a generation of which I am pleased to be a member that we could build a better Europe together. The biggest lesson of D-day is the multinationalism in its endeavour to achieve an ideological objective, which was the Atlantic Charter and its principles of democracy. To me, that is what D-day was about and why we are, rightly, celebrating it now. But we would not have the institutions that we have in western Europe had it not been for the assistance of the United States. Without Marshall Aid, there would have been no rebuilding; without NATO there would have been no guarantee of defence. The European Community would probably not have existed had it not been for the way in which the Americans quite openly intervened in European elections to get the results they wanted, with Governments who would build the type of societies that they wished to see. We should remember that: the societies we live in are owed in part to the determination, thoroughness and vision of, in particular, General Marshall, President Truman and Dean Acheson, the American Secretary of State. By all means, let us be critical of the current inhabitant of the White House, but let us remember the debt we owe to the people of the United States who, in so many ways, gave so much to make Europe a civilised continent.