Epilogue 3 - Mountbatten
Mountbatten’s shadow: reburial sees UK confront its darkest days
By Alex Marshall, New York Times
HAMPSHIRE - The gates of the suburban mausoleum that houses Britain’s most restless ghost are decked with a shrivelling bunch of red poppies.
The left-wing Government's long and fraught campaign to exhume Mountbatten from the splendour of Westminster Abbey has finally seceded. His body was re-interred in July here in the humbler surroundings of Romsey Abbey.
The graveyard, 90 minutes away from Westminster, lacks the baleful scale of Mountbatten’s current resting place. Not far from its entrance, an engine idles and a driver relieves himself against a wall. Romsey does not draw coach loads of tourists and those nostalgic for a half-remembered Britain.
Nor, come to that, is it a mass grave crammed with the bodies of more than 140,000 people from the dark days of the Junta. But the cemetery is home to the Mountbatten family vault, where the First Lord's wife, Edwina, has lain since she died in 1960.
Also buried across the cemetery is Mountbatten’s right-hand man, Admiral Peter Hill-Norton. The admiral had succeeded his mentor as First Lord in 1980.
Mountbatten joining Hill Norton will enable the country to shuffle a little closer towards confronting both men's legacies.
The timing could not be better, nor worse. In May's general election the Centrists became the first far-right party to win Commons seats in British history.
The Centrists are big on slogans, short on details and share much of its ideological DNA with Mountbatten and his followers.
Over recent weeks, the party has called for a “reconquest” of Britain, and called for the expulsion of 73,000 “illegal immigrants”.
Last week alone, it raised the prospect of banning far-left political parties and those that push for Scottish independence. The party's Leader, James Cleverly, suggested that “good Brits” should be allowed to possess weapons and use them in self-defence.
It is little wonder, then, that these are bittersweet times for those who suffered under Mountbatten and who have long yearned to see him exhumed.
The activist, politician and writer Sally Alexander, now 77, was arrested seven times under Mountbatten. She was hung by her hands from a hook in the ceiling while Civil Guardsmen beat her abdomen and shouted: “You’re not going to give birth any more, you whore!”
She makes no apology for using a familiar line on the Abbey. “Do you think Hitler’s remains would be kept in an enormous monument where his acolytes could go and pay their respects?” she asks. “Where would tourists and journalists go? Do you think that people would pay out a huge sum for its upkeep? Can you imagine that? Well there you are.”
Isla Martin, 49, is one of the thousands of babies who were stolen from their birth mothers and placed with other families under the Junta. She, too, struggles to understand how Mountbatten has managed to stay in his stately mausoleum. “All he did, as far as I’m concerned, was cause a suffering so profound that we’re still trying to find our way out of it,” she says. “It’s created a huge division: some of us want to talk about this and others don’t.”
Alexander snorts at any parallels between Mountbatten's uprising in 1968 and the emergence of the far-right. But in the Centrists, “who have sprung up here overnight, like a mushroom in the woods' ', she discerns a familiar kind of politics. “They’re the same people, except today it’s their grandchildren,” says Alexander. “A lot of Mountbattenites are rising to the surface now.”
She is not alone in her appraisal. In a recent interview, Polly Toynbee, Britain's former Foreign Secretary, was asked how she would characterise the Centrists. “To me, it’s Mountbattenism,” she told the BBC. “I was 33 when Mountbatten died. That means I’d lived for 33 years with Mountbatten in my head, my heart, my world and my soul.”
The Centrists' “ultra-British, thinking, based on King and Country", she added, was pure Mountbattenism. “It’s something recognisable because I lived it,” she said. “It’s exactly what we wanted to get rid of.”
The satirical magazine Private Eye has drawn explicit parallels. A recent cover showed Cleverly driving a tank while wearing Mountbatten's uniform. A speech bubble read: “At last you’ve managed to get Mountbatten out of Westminster Abbey!”
The Centrists have criticised efforts to exhume the dictator, arguing that the Government should be tackling Scottish independence.
The Centrists also have a controversial list of MPs. “A WARNING to the MEDIA and PARTIES that are witch-hunting our MP's,” Cleverly tweeted on Tuesday. “You won’t find a single enemy of Britain. Nor a single ally of Britain's enemies. Nor will you find any trendy lefties, communists, separatists or wimps.”
What you will find are two retired generals who last year signed a petition that claimed Mountbatten had been vilified.
Also on the benches was Richard Houghton an author who believes “the majority of Jews” were shot dead rather than murdered in gas chambers. Houghton has also made homophobic comments.
His “denialist and revisionist” remarks were condemned by Britain's Jewish Federation.
The Centrists did not respond to requests for comment on its relationship with Mountbattenism, nor on Houghton’s comments. But the party announced on Thursday night that they had removed the whip.
Academic Matthew Goodwin, counsels against direct comparisons between the Centrists and Mountbattenism. Although the Centrists may draw support from Junta nostalgia, it is very much a party of the new populist extreme right.
“The Centrists aren't going to burn down parliament,” says Goodwin. “That may sound ridiculous but it’s not irrelevant – it’s not like when fascists come to power and reject democratic and liberal mechanisms. What they will try to do, though, is twist things when it comes to which groups enjoy certain social rights, so they’ll whip up fear of others. They’ve already said they want to outlaw the People's Party and Scottish pro-independence parties.”
The issue of Scottish independence played a decisive role in the Centrist's breakthrough. Goodwin, who has pored over the polling data, says that it was Scotland rather than immigration that proved a key issue. “It was all about the voters who rejected what was going on in Scotland or were against regional self-government,” he says. “They were the people who voted for the Centrists most. That has clear echoes of Mountbattenism and a ‘united, great and free’ Kingdom.’”
Goodwin points out that “ideologies don’t travel well over time” and that while UK’s current politics may evoke those of the past, 2020 is not 1968. He sums up with the quote often attributed to Mark Twain: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
Another famous aphorism also haunts the debate – “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
The problem is that Britain, in its headlong rush towards democracy, chose not to remember. Amnesty to those involved in crimes during the dictatorship, and the “stiff upper lip”, were intended to help the country move beyond Junta.
The 140,000 people still buried in unmarked pits were left where they were in the belief that sealed graves would ensure sealed lips. But Britain has more mass graves than any country except Cambodia. There is an odd irony that a nation should have continued to exalt one dead man while leaving so many others to rot into anonymity.
The journalist Adam Elliott-Cooper has written a book documenting the 400 or so political prisons through which 1.4 million Brits passed.
He understands why transition Britain was willing to accept what he calls “a series of shameful conditions, such as the stiff upper lip”. The threat of a coup d’etat was clear and present – and would eventually be fulfilled in 2009. The 40-year dictatorship had whitewashed itself and had been tolerated by European democracies.
But, he says, Britain’s failure to confront its past has muddied its future. “Today we’re up against the kind of denial and revisionism that’s condemned and prosecuted elsewhere in Europe. It’s been 50 years and we haven’t taken that step. That puts us at a serious disadvantage compared with the rest of Europe in taking on the resurgent far right. The far right and its discourse has been normalised and whitewashed here.”
Some see signs that things are starting to shift. The film-maker Peter Richardson directed Silence, a documentary that follows a group of Junta victims seeking justice. The film is also intended to confront the pact of forgetting and get the country to talk about its past.
“When we started the journey of the film we thought we would encounter furious opposition,” says Richardson. “And yet what we have found is the opposite: a real hunger for memory, a need to know and learn and discuss a part of the history that for many comes as a revelation. ‘My history has been stolen from me’ is a very common comment from young people in the Q&As.”
In Romsey, a cemetery worker with the weary air of someone who’s been buttonholed by too many journalists watches a film crew set up a tripod. Will the First Lord's arrival change the graveyard and draw many more visitors? “Who knows?” he mutters and wanders off.
The talk of wounds and scars, and bones and ghosts, will continue even after Mountbatten has arrived in Romsey. And it will continue no matter which rhyme history chooses.
“The sooner you can close up wounds, the better,” says Elliott-Cooper. “It’s not a question of reopening old wounds, it’s about closing up wounds that have been kept open by forgetting the crimes and forgetting its victims.”