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The Telegraph - Britain wasn't alone in her Finest Hour - we must remember the Commonwealth

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Next Wednesday, on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, a statue will be unveiled of Sir Keith Park. His is a name familiar to few in this country. But in the early days of the Second World War, when the outlook for Britain was at its most grim, Park was one of a small group of senior commanders on whose shoulders the survival of the United Kingdom depended.

Throughout the Battle of Britain, Park commanded 11 Group of the Royal Air Force, responsible for the defence of London and the South East. His squadrons bore the brunt of the attacks on England by the Luftwaffe. Indeed, according to Lord Tedder, Marshal of the Royal Air Force: "If ever any one man won the Battle of Britain, he did. I don't believe it is recognised how much this one man... did to save not only this country, but the world."

Yet while the Battle of Britain was a turning point in the war, it was not a battle that Britain fought alone. Flying alongside 2,350 British pilots were some 600 pilots from 14 other countries – half of whom came from the Commonwealth and the rest from countries such as the United States, Poland and Czechoslovakia.

Park himself was a New Zealander, and throughout the campaign to have his efforts recognised, after 69 long years, I have become increasingly aware of the important part he and other citizens of the Commonwealth have played in the recent history of this country, and how closely we are still interlinked with its members both collectively and individually.

As with Park, there is little or no recognition today of the Commonwealth, and the value and opportunity it offers in a world that is increasingly globalised and increasingly insecure. Successive governments have focused foreign policy on the European Union and the United States – understandably in part, but also at the expense of our relationships elsewhere.

As we reflect on the recent anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War, and the story of Sir Keith Park, we should remember the sacrifices made on our behalf by citizens from the Commonwealth and other countries in our "Finest Hour". The scale of their contribution in the Second World War, and the debt we owe, is staggering. More than 4.5 million personnel from the Commonwealth served, of whom 360,000 were casualties.

India provided more than 2.5 million, the largest volunteer army in history, while Australia sent over 727,000, Canada 628,000, South Africa 342,000 and New Zealand 150,000. Other countries dispatched tens of thousands more. Nor should we forget the efforts of those who stayed at home, aiding the Allied war effort and keeping it supplied from afar. New Zealand even introduced rationing to ensure it could supply enough food for Britain.

Commonwealth forces have continued to fight alongside Britain and her allies. In the Korean War, New Zealand, Australia and Canada provided essential elements of the British Commonwealth Brigade, while their warships joined the British and American fleets.

Forces from New Zealand, Canada and Australia served in the Gulf war of 1990-91, and these three countries are today supporting the Nato-led force in Afghanistan. Commonwealth citizens are also increasingly prominent members of our own Armed Forces.

Recent crises have too often exposed the inadequacies of international organisations. Yet our Commonwealth allies have stood alongside us, without the need for new treaties, or new sound bites or flashy initiatives on military co-operation.

The body is, in fact, one of the greatest opportunities we enjoy: an association of 53 diverse countries across six continents, comprising almost 30 per cent of the world's population and responsible for 23 per cent of world trade volume. It has a shared heritage of accounting and legal standards, trading links and, of course, language. It brings together people of all faiths and ethnicities. Its director general is an Indian diplomat, Kamalesh Sharma, and it champions values we care about: democracy and consensus, peace, economic and human development, and the rule of law.

In Britain, we rarely read about this great institution. We may have a "Foreign and Commonwealth Office", and every four years watch the Commonwealth Games on television, but few of us know what the Commonwealth does, who belongs, and why it should be nurtured.

So next week, when we unveil the statue of Sir Keith, when our Armed Forces are still fighting alongside forces from Commonwealth countries, I hope some people will remember that we owe the Commonwealth more than just our gratitude for past sacrifices. We must do more to ensure that the bonds and friendships it embodies are maintained and strengthened in this dangerous world.

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Terry Smith

The Telegraph