The NZ war hero behind the Battle of Britain has turned posthumous political peacemaker
Although he has not received widespread public recognition, either in Britain or his native New Zealand, Sir Keith Rodney Park has a claim to be one of the greatest commanders in the history of aerial warfare. That’s what it says on Wikipedia, anyway. I confess the name didn’t mean anything to me until Park, the Thames-born brain behind the Battle of Britain, emerged last year as a serious contender in the race to be memorialised atop the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, London.
The Sir Keith Park campaign was sparked by a column in the Financial Times in September 2007, which noted that “apart from [a] crescent in Kent the only UK memorial to Sir Keith Park is locomotive number 34053, one of the Battle of Britain class, commissioned by the Southern Railway in 1947”. From there developed a modest groundswell in support of a Keith Park memorial. In mid-2008 the good people of the NZ House of Representatives signed a http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PA0805/S00611.htm ">cross-party letter urging London to honour their man – and the new London mayor Boris Johnson threw his weight behind the idea, albeit for just a six-month station on the square.
I expect that the memorial to the Air Chief Marshal and Gallipoli veteran will happen, in one form or another. Which is good. But Sir Keith Park should be remembered not just for his heroic stage management of the Battle of Britain (and the Battle of Malta, it says here). He should be lauded for his astonishing achievement in bringing together Tony Benn and Norman Tebbit. The campaign for the Keith Park memorial scored something of a media coup this past weekend, when the two old foes co-authored an op-ed for the Sunday Telegraph. “In a combined political career stretching to the best part of 100 years, the two of us have rarely agreed on anything,” the piece began, with a hint of understatement. “But on one issue we have discovered common ground – the need for a permanent memorial in London to Sir Keith Park, the Battle of Britain hero.”
It’s a properly unlikely shared byline. Tebbit and Benn are, respectively, the elder statesmen of Tories and Labour, occupying the Thatcherite right and socialist left edges of their parties. Sample Tebbit quote: “It is certainly safe, in view of the movement to the right of intellectuals and political thinkers, to pronounce the brain death of socialism.” Sample Benn quote: “The Marxist analysis has got nothing to do with what happened in Stalin's Russia : it's like blaming Jesus Christ for the Inquisition in Spain.”
New Zealand has a decent record diplomatically, with Mike Moore at the WTO and Don McKinnon at the Commonwealth secretariat the two most prominent big guns of recent years (dovish guns, naturally). But their combined efforts are posthumously dwarfed by Sir Keith. Thirty four years after his death he has persuaded sworn enemies to share a tent. I put it down to a rare New Zealand quality. In which spirit, dispatch Helen Clark to Jerusalem, immediately.