An Historian

historical stuff by Gareth Millward


Help for Heroes are political – don’t pretend otherwise

Help for Heroes are political – don’t pretend otherwise

In what is becoming a depressing series of “charity is political, and if you pretend otherwise you’re living under a rock“, The Sun is using Help for Heroes wristbands to attack the leader of the Labour Party.

If you don’t know about Help for Heroes, they are a charity that provides support for armed forces veterans. Unlike the older British Legion, they have been much more willing and able to use social media and populist support for the military to further their cause. During the late 2000s and early 2010s, they were particularly high-profile, riding a wave of concern over the memory of World War Vets and the conditions to which combatants in Iraq and Afghanistan were being subjected.

Some of this was laudable. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) was accused of regularly sending troops into battle with sub-standard equipment. It was also at a time when general public opinion was beginning to doubt the point or legitimacy of campaigns in the Middle East.

But there was, and still is, something unsettling about Help for Heroes from a political perspective. As I discussed in an earlier piece, the existence of such charities can often be an excuse for the government to shirk its responsibilities. There has long been a campaign – a justified one – that the government should provide adequate support for people leaving the army. Medical and psychological care is, frankly, abysmal; and war pensions and benefits are often sub-par. This is all stuff that should be factored into the government’s budget. If you can’t afford to look after veterans, you can’t afford to go to war. Help for Heroes, despite its attempts to draw attention to this, can often be seen as a sticking plaster. While they keep doing the MOD’s work, why should the MOD or Treasury step in?

Worse, they have been literally doing the MOD’s work. BBC’s Newsnight ran a report accusing the charity of spending it’s money on government buildings and facilities and not on helping veterans and soldiers directly. Help for Heroes strenuously defended themselves, and the BBC’s complaints procedure agreed that their report had lacked editorial balance. But the fact remained that there was a clear relationship between government and the charity. To pretend otherwise – or to pretend that they are somehow apolitical – is nonsense.

And then there was the more sinister side of stirring up populist fervour for “our lads”. Britain has always had, compared to many other countries, a very positive view of the army. Even when individual wars have been opposed, the general narrative is that the soldiers themselves are brave individuals, risking their lives for our freedom. You can – for the most part – grumble about war itself. But the soldiers are untouchable. You don’t talk badly about veterans or soldiers without immediately offending large sections of the British public.

There are a number of historical reasons for it. First, our army tended to win the conflicts it fought in. Second, it very rarely turned its guns on its own people (though the Indians, Irish, Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians might want to argue with me on that one). Third, as a democratic nation, our army is often seen as a servant of the people, not as the enforcement platoon of the ruling classes. (The US has a similar relationship with its troops, though arguably with an even less critical gaze.)

I’m not going to try to overturn this view. It’s one, rightly or wrongly, I mostly buy into myself. But I am going to tie this to something which Help for Heroes has helped to create over recent years, and which should completely destroy the idea that these sorts of charities are apolitical. The hysteria over the poppy.

For those outside the British Isles, the British Legion produces millions of paper/plastic poppies every year in the lead up to Armistice Day – the commemoration of the end of World War One on 11th November. Everybody (or almost everybody) on British TV will be wearing one in October and November. It is meant to be a solemn, tasteful and low-key reminder of a generation of men who were slaughtered because of the whims of the ruling classes. And it represents everybody – repeat, everyone – who has lost their lives in conflict.

Over recent years, however, Help for Heroes and their ilk have consciously whipped up the poppy as a symbol of Britishness in the face of… well, who knows. Politically correct lefty feminist lesbian Romanian health and safety inspector censorship politicians, perhaps? As time has gone on, poppies have become more distasteful (and the British Legion has become complicit in this too). It culminated (for me) with the horrendous debacle over whether the English soccer team should be allowed to wear the poppy on its shirt.

Oh, the English. Unable to see how the poppy was a political symbol (how could the commemoration of fallen soldiers possibly be political) outrage was raged out across the internet. The English Defence League (see: fascist) led protests. The whole thing was highly distasteful. England had gone nigh-on 100 years without needing to wear a poppy on its shirt. But it needed to in a political climate in which outward shows of doing the right thing had become more important than actually doing it. Help for Heroes, amongst others, had helped create this storm.

So, to return to The Sun. So what if Milliband doesn’t back your campaign? One doesn’t need a bracelet – presumably a campaign which will directly compete with the British Legion’s poppy appeal this autumn – to show commemoration for the fallen. Milliband’s a Jewish public figure, whose dad fled the Nazis. I think he knows what war can do.

If Milliband has committed a faux pas by not supporting Help for Heroes, we should be worried. Because while not being involved might be seen as a political act, do not for a second think that supporting it is apolitical. I get the feeling that many in this country think the opposite. And that should worry us all, not just historians of charity.

We don’t want to fight but by Jingo if we do…
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