Robert Runcie spent his entire life serving Great Britain.
During the second world war he saw action as a tank commander throughout Europe, demonstrating outstanding bravery on two occasions in March 1945 that would earn him the Military Cross. Despite heavy and sustained enemy fire the young Lieutenant ignored overwhelming danger and rescued a crew member from a damaged tank. A day later he was to manoeuvre his own tank into a stupidly exposed position to wipe out three anti tank guns, on both occasions under heavy fire and with the complete disregard for his own life that one would expect of a solider fighting for the survival of his country.
With the above in mind its odd that his relationship with the Conservative government during his tenure as Arch Bishop of Canterbury in the 1980s was always a little strained. Despite his background of war and heroics his stance on poverty and suffering within society was at odds with the visions of of individualism and personal gain that did little for the people his position would traditionally champion.
His relationship with the Conservative government would continue to worsen and came to a head after the end of the Falklands conflict in 1982. The government and media had been under the impression that the following memorial service would be an occasion for triumph and celebration. What they got was a sermon from a man that truly understood the horrors of war and who led prayer for the dead servicemen of both sides, both British and Argentine.
His actions that day were both decent and in the spirit of the British tradition of being magnanimous in victory, it was also in keeping with his compassionate nature towards suffering and his personal Christian beliefs. In an amusing twist, that the sermon came from a decorated solider negated any potential criticism surrounding his understanding of death and war, an infuriating position for any politician or newspaper editor. Further, the irony of Thatcher distastefully hanging out of a tank for a grubby tabloid headline wouldn’t have been lost on Runcie, who of course had been the real thing.
Before his death he admitted that the memorial service had been aimed at the government of the day.
“those who stay at home, most violent in their attitudes and untouched in themselves” – Robert Runcie
This would be a theme that would continue to haunt western leaders in the years to come, George W. Bush and Tony Blair in particular.
On his death the Guardian newspaper described Robert Runcie, “As a triumph of intelligence, integrity and courage”. However not all would share such grace, after the Falklands memorial affair the ‘patriotic’ right wing press turned nasty, vilifying and denouncing him a traitor. Thatcher obediently kept the tabloid line and was never to speak to this brave soldier ever again.
Shameful treatment indeed for a war hero that loved and served his country with such decency.
In that sense I’ve always found it a little odd that conservatism and the right wing press always assume that loyalty and patriotism are at the forefront of their agenda by default. It’s almost like The Sun and The Conservative Party have the rights to national pride and it’s theirs to dish out, strip away and manipulate to their own gain. Why is this? In the last thirty odd years we’ve witnessed both institutions turn on their own people in dreadful examples of spite and incrimination that amounts to little more than cultural bullying.
Robert Runcie never waved a flag about, or made the chopping motion of middle management outside Chequers, or wore those stupid H4H wrist bands and he wouldn’t have dreamt of having his picture taken in a tank for political publicity.
He just didn’t need to.