A statue of Polish composer Fryderyk Chopin has been unveiled outside the Royal Festival Hall after more than two decades in storage. Greg Hands M.P. represented the Government at the occasion, delivering the following speech:
First, can I give my apologies for the Minister for Europe, David Lidington, who has been unavoidably detained elsewhere.
Second, can I give my thanks on behalf of the Government to all those who have made today possible, including the Polish Heritage Society, the Royal Festival Hall, the Polish Embassy and its excellent Ambassador, and the Chopin Society.
And we are here to celebrate our common history.
Frederic Chopin spent quite a lot of time in London.
And we are also laying wreaths to commemorate our joint efforts to liberate Europe from Nazi tyranny in the 1940s.
Just last month I made my 10th visit to Poland. The first time I went was as a student in 1985, when Poland was in one of its darker hours. Last month, I was in the vibrant medieval city of Torun, and in Gnieszno, the spiritual home of the Polish religious tradition. Every time I go, I see rapid development, but also a country which never forgets its past and its culture – there are lessons here for this country.
I am very proud to have been asked to become Vice President of the Conservative Party Friends of Poland.
But today isn’t just about the past, and about commemorating a great composer and honouring those who fought 70 years ago. I believe that this statue will become a focus for today’s Polish community in the UK.
I believe that the Poles are Britain’s most popular-ever set of immigrants – I have never heard a bad word said about the Poles. Even more remarkably, this is Britain’s largest set of immigrants since the 17th century.
80% are under 34, so they are young too.
And I hail today’s Poles for their love of freedom and democracy. A few years ago, I saw the queues outside POSK in Hammersmith, waiting to vote in the Polish national election, it took two hours to get to the front.
The same year, I was in Nowa Huta. I stood in Ronald Reagan square, and reflected on the words of the great man himself, who was born 100 yrs ago this year, 101 years after Frederic Chopin. Reagan famously said that “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” When I saw the new Polish generation queued up outside POSK, I realised that their love of democracy meant that Poland can feel sure that they won’t ever see the extinction of freedom of democracy.
Sometimes, parts of the British press have been unfair to the Poles. The truth is the opposite – how much we British love the Poles. And vice versa. Looking through old press articles, I like some of the interviews given by Poles in the UK. One from The Times in 2006 I like - a Lucasz Skalecki, 27. He may even be here today. “I think I’ll be here when I retire,” he said. “I don’t understand cricket or rugby, but I feel comfortable in England.”
Connections between UK and Poland could hardly be easier and stronger now. Ten Polish cities are connected by direct flights to the UK. Twenty ago there were only two daily flights between our two countries – both London to Warsaw – one BA, one LOT. Who would have thought that today you can fly direct from Sczeczin to Liverpool?
The relationship between our two countries continues to expand. We work together closely in NATO, in Afghanistan, and soon we will celebrate the Polish presidency of the EU.
Chopin himself dreamt of a free and independent Poland. A Poland playing a full role in European and world affairs. I believe that Chopin would be very proud of today’s Poland, and I believe that we can all take pride today in the exceptionally strong relations between our 2 countries, which are given visible expression by the re-dedication of this statue today.