When a young Afghanistan war hero appeared before a city council, it seemed the right thing to give him a standing ovation. Lance Corporal Matthew Croucher, 26, had been awarded the George Cross for throwing himself on a Taliban hand grenade to save his comrades. He survived only because his backpack took the force of the blast. But to the horror of the rest of the council chamber, while most leapt to their feet to applaud him, two Muslim councillors remained firmly in their seats.
Salma Yaqoob and Mohammed Ishtiaq, from the Respect party, insist that their refusal to clap the Royal Marine was a point of principle. But following the meeting at Birmingham City Council on Tuesday night, fellow councillors said they had grossly disrespected the soldier. Conservative Cllr John Lines said: ‘They should be ashamed of themselves. ‘This was not the time or place to stage an anti-war protest – this man risked his life for his comrades. I was happy to give this hero a standing ovation and I have invited him to be guest of honour when we open new houses for ex-military personnel later this year.’
Councillors Yaqoob and Ishtiaq remained defiant last night. Miss Yaqoob, Respect party leader and head of Birmingham’s Stop the War Coalition, said of the ovation: ‘It was more about the politicians feeling good about themselves for sending our young men to fight for reasons that have proved to be false. I have every sympathy for our soldiers on a human level, they are only doing their jobs. But this ovation was just a big public show, it was false patriotism. Wrapping coffins in the flag and awarding medals does not make it right.’ Mr Ishtiaq added: ‘If these so-called politicians want to give a standing ovation, why don’t they go and fight themselves? What we did was out of principle.’
The George Cross is awarded for ‘outstanding bravery not involving direct contact with the enemy’. L/Cpl Croucher became the most highly decorated serving marine when he was given the medal for showing bravery in an ambush in Helmand province in 2008. During a night raid on a Taliban compound, he stepped on a tripwire, triggering a grenade. Instead of fleeing he smothered the explosion, twisting on to his back to let his rucksack take the full force, and prevented all four members of his patrol being killed. The explosion hurled him across the compound and left him stunned, bleeding from the nose and almost deaf. But within minutes he was on his feet again and demanding to be allowed to continue the patrol. He even helped set an ambush and shot dead an armed insurgent during the subsequent firefight.
The Respect party was founded by controversial former Labour MP George Galloway, who formed an uneasy coalition of anti-war campaigners and Islamic groups and successfully won himself a Commons seat in east London under the party banner. His support collapsed at the last election and he lost his seat, but there are still several Respect councillors.