We must show our respect to ‘the greatest generation’

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Having bowed to pressure from hard-pressed retailers and national chain stores to open town centre shops on Liberation Day, the Constable of St Helier, Simon Crowcroft, decided on a compromise; observe half the day and allow retailers to do business after noon.

No doubt the father of Jersey’s trading parish, the centre of the Island’s commercial life and its offshore finance centre, thought that would please everyone. He could not have been more wrong.

His solution most upset those who have not lost sight of the significance of Liberation Day and who believe that 9 May is sacrosanct and should be commemorated at all costs. Not wishing to tar all the town’s retailers with the same brush, among those who lobbied the Constable to change his mind were those businesses who are in the habit of forgoing the profit motive for one day to enable their employees to celebrate the most important landmark in Jersey’s history.

What the Constable had forgotten, and he apologised for his oversight, was that on the afternoon of 9 May a simple but poignant ceremony is held at Westmount to remember the forced and slave workers from all over Europe who were so cruelly exploited by the Nazis. The wartime fortifications that scar our shores and litter the interior of the Island were built at a terrible price and are as much memorials to those who died building them as tourist attractions.

To his credit, and unlike many of his colleagues, he did not stick to his guns and push on regardless. Mr Crowcroft performed a well-executed U-turn, coming up with another solution in the rotation. Those retailers who cannot afford, or who do not wish, to lose a day’s takings can open the following day, a Sunday.

Of course, this situation would never have arisen if the States had long ago given Liberation Day the official status that it deserves. Immediately after the Liberation, 9 May was declared a national holiday but only when it fell in the traditional working week.

Because of this half-hearted acknowledgement, it has been left to individual employers to decide if their staff should enjoy a day off in lieu in the years when 9 May falls at weekends. Unfortunately, as Jersey businesses have been sold or taken over by national and international groups, this benefit has declined.

Jersey, like all increasingly consumer-orientated societies, has changed since the end of the Second World War. Shops stay open all hours, seven days a week, even with our mind-boggling Sunday Trading Law. No matter how important a holiday, there are those who will always have to work, as communities cannot stand completely still. But would the tide stop coming in and out if commercial life took a day off? The Island grinds to a halt for around ten days every Christmas, so what is the problem with losing one more day?

The end of the Second World War is not treated with disdain – as it is in the UK – in other countries which were occupied in the Second World War, or who sacrificed their youth to fight against the Axis powers in the pursuit of freedom and democracy.

The countries of the former Soviet Union lost about 28 million soldiers and civilians from 1941 to 1945 and every year since, 9 May has been celebrated as Victory Day with a curious mixture of showcasing military might and reverential remembrance.

In European countries, such as France, it is 8 May (when hostilities ceased) that has been a national holiday since 1945. It should also be remembered that in France and Belgium, countries that also suffered from cruel occupation and mass destruction at the hands of the Germans in the First World War, Armistice Day, 11 November, is also a national holiday – as it is in America and some Commonwealth countries.

Churchill said that the British war effort was the nation’s finest hour but there is no special day to mark that supreme national effort. The 50th anniversary of VE Day in 1995 was marked with not one but two days off as millions packed the streets of London to celebrate. Who can forget the scene outside Buckingham Palace as the Mall was packed tight with flag-waving patriots as the Queen took the salute and the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight flew overhead?

The next day those three airborne symbols of the price that was paid for our freedom, credit crunch and all, flew over our own special celebrations in Liberation Square. I saluted them and what they epitomised, standing on Glacis Field, waving a Union Jack flag as if my life depended on it because from 1939 to 1945 the world did depend on the British, its then dominions and the Americans.

Ten years later there was no such national holiday in the UK and a total lack of celebration as Blair’s government displayed its dismal disrespect for history by deciding to celebrate VE Day and the woefully neglected Victory Over Japan (VJ) Day on some convenient but totally unrelated date. If the Queen hadn’t accepted the invitations from Jersey and Guernsey to attend the Bailiwicks’ celebrations, she and Prince Philip would have nothing to do at such an important time in the history of the British people and the world.

The growing ignorance of the importance of VE day began with the post-war British government which failed to make 8 May a national holiday. Likewise, although the States declared 9 May a holiday, it was not accorded the full status it deserved.

Growing up in Jersey, particularly as a gauche teenager, like my peers I found Liberation Day boring as nothing was open and there was nowhere to go. It was great to have the day off but what was the point? No doubt that is how many people feel today, especially those for whom Jersey is a place to work, have a fantastic lifestyle and make money, rather than their home, and who come from the UK where life goes on regardless on 8 May as if that date had no significance.

As the 65th anniversary of the Liberation approaches, and what America calls the ‘greatest generation’ dies out, it is not too late to accord Liberation Day the significance it deserves. All it takes is a firm political hand and respect where respect is most due.

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