‘Rishi Sunak delivered their medal – but broke his promise to nuclear veterans’

It has taken 16 Prime Ministers, 28 governments, and the deaths of more than 20,000 men.

But today it’s been announced that this summer Britain will give a medal to those who took part in its nuclear bomb test programme.

When the few who survive finally hold that honour in their hands, it will be 71 years since the first of them were ordered to take part in Cold War radiation experiments, or face jail if they refused.

It was Rishi Sunak who delivered that recognition to them. He could have blocked it, forgotten it, or not bothered – but instead he did the right thing that so many of his predecessors didn’t see the point of.

Rishi talks – briefly – to test veteran Malcolm Smith, who was an army cook at Christmas Island in the south Pacific
Reach Commissioned)

When he made the announcement at the National Memorial Arboretum last November, the crowd of veterans and families didn’t cheer. There was a giant, tearful, sigh, nods, hand squeezes, and a round of applause. Rishi – who had made great efforts to be there in person – stumbled over his speech as he looked up, and recognised the relief that his words had brought.

In a job where what he says is mostly greeted with scowls and questions, he looked happy to have done something that made others happy. Last year these men marched at the Cenotaph wearing the ‘Missing Medal’ – this Remembrance Sunday, they’ll wear the real thing.

Moments afterwards, he met two carefully-selected veterans, and a granddaughter. They shook his hand and thanked him, and said they wanted to talk to him about deeper, broader means of support – war pensions, education, research.

He said yes, of course, let’s have a meeting to discuss it, then went on his way. And, 3 months on, he has broken his promise, because there is no sign of it ever taking place.

Is this the best they’ll get?

Take a look at that picture. It’s of Eric Barton, who witnessed 78 nuclear explosions in 28 days at Operation Dominic in 1962. He’s a cancer survivor, and has been compensated by the US government whose bombs they were, but not his own, who sent him there. He is being hugged by Air Vice Marshal Maria Byford, having just met the PM and becoming overwhelmed at the good news.

Men like Eric, their wives who endured three times the normal rate of miscarriages and became lifelong carers, and their children who have 10 times the usual amount of birth defects, have spent decades fighting for the state to even notice they exist. And here’s someone who embodies the state, dripping gold braid, hugging them as they weep. It’s not the apology they deserve, but it matters. It matters a lot.

When they get their medal this summer, it will matter if it is delivered by the postman, or by King Charles, in the investiture-style ceremony he wants, at Buckingham Palace with all the bells and whistles that automatically adorn whatever the head of state does.

It will matter if the late Queen these men served is represented on that medal, somehow. It will matter if she is missing.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak lays a wreath for nuclear test veterans at the National Memorial Arboretum, shortly before promising them a meeting that hasn’t happened
Reach Commissioned)

In a huge disgrace, the little things matter most. They symbolise what is going right, or wrong, in a scandal so vast, stretching through multiple government agencies, departments, civil servants and politicians, over so many decades that it’s hard to see it all.

If the state does the easy, little things right, then it can be steered towards full justice. If it does the wrong thing even when it’s simple and tiny, like etching the words ‘ELIZABETH REGINA’ on a token tossed at old men in return for a good headline, then the state will harm its people, and itself.

Rishi, like most of us, has no real idea what these men did for him. The absence of world wars, the provision of education and peace instead of national service and gunfire, is hard to appreciate without experiencing the alternatives.

He is a well-intentioned and clever man, but even he cannot grasp what they endured and deserve with just one handshake. He would struggle to do so even with an hour’s conversation, but it would be a start.

There are an unenviable number of horrifying tasks on his desk, from reinventing the Irish border to winning the war in Ukraine. There are no easy solutions, and few, if any, rounds of applause.

But the ship of state does not turn because you ask it nicely. It does not obey the commands of a captain who bellows at it, like Boris Johnson, or who crashes the gears, like Liz Truss. It responds best to a Prime Minister who does exactly what they say.

He promised honours for those who took huge risks for our safety. That means, as well as those who served at British tests, the medal should also go to the men of 543 Squadron who were sent through the clouds of French and Chinese nuclear weapons in the 1970s; 58 Squadron, which lost a crew flying to the tests in 1957; 1323 Flight, who flew at US tests and lost a crew at Enewetak Atoll in 1954; those who took part in the dozens of joint underground tests in Nevada from 1962 to 1991; and finally, most importantly perhaps, to the wives of servicemen sent to Christmas Island on the troopship Dunera by the Ministry of Defence in 1957 as a morale boost for their husbands.

They endured the same risks. Some took children with them. The state told them it was safe, and knew that it was not, because it tested their blood on the way out and on the way back.

That little trip was symbolic of all the wrongs that were done, in the same way broken promises can symbolise a Prime Minister’s entire term in office. Rishi may have pushed through the medal, but it will amount to little more than an insult unless he also delivers on his promise, and sits down with these families to learn how he can make things right.

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