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Why I'm an emotional and embattled European

The public has tuned out. Labour is ambiguous. Do we really want to leave Europe so we can fiddle on the fringes?

Image: Newspapers on the day Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973. Rights: Paul Townsend/Flickr, CC 2.0

It is now a commonplace among supporters of our membership of the EU that, on the Remain side in the referendum, there was a disastrous absence of emotional appeal. I did not understand it then, and I do not understand it now. Europe has always been important to me, because it has shaped me. Europe has been threaded through my life, sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously, since my birth.

My father had to seek out a new career during the Second World War, having seen his Swansea pharmacy and his home destroyed in the blitz. My earliest memories of political events, as a 12-year-old, were around Britain’s Suez debacle and, in the same year, the Soviet invasion of Hungary. As a teenage schoolboy my first overseas visit was to Rome in 1960 to see the Olympic Games, having had first to measure out a meagre ration of foreign currency. In the sixties, as a student at Oxford, and long before de Gaulle’s veto on our membership, I heard Edward Heath lecture persuasively on Europe. The same year student friends and I drove across Europe in a battered van through what was then Yugoslavia to Greece. The plight of the Balkans and of Greece meant so much more as a result.

As a young journalist in the run up to the 1975 referendum, my newspaper, the Western Mail, sent me on briefing trips to Brussels, briefings that I had the privilege to share with the late Hugo Young, whose work, This Blessed Plot, charted the insular timorousness of our relationship with Europe. In that very first referendum I eked out the meagre salary of a provincial journalist by writing pro-Europe pamphlets. But more telling than these and many subsequent experiences has been the fact that my eldest son married a Danish woman who had worked in Wales for a decade and a half and set up a successful business here. Their two children have, since the referendum, been registered as Danish citizens. Our family is and will now always be, inextricably, a European family.

In all this there was a defining moment when I was forced to confront the values that are now at the centre of our debate on Europe. In 1997 I spent six weeks at Wharton Business School, in Philadelphia, a city founded by the Welsh. I was in a group of forty people drawn from different industries from around the world, being taught by some of the sharpest brains around, many of whom were enthusiastic proponents of fashionable neo-liberal theories that a decade later would lead to financial catastrophe, the economic and social effects of which we are still living through.

One golden moment stays in the mind. A lecturer, a distinguished economist, was striding back and fore in the well of the lecture theatre while ever-changing stock prices were projected onto a big screen in full colour. Every so often he would stop, absent-mindedly, in the front of the projector, allowing the flickering stock prices to be projected all over his face and body. He became a hologram. This particular professor - and he wasn’t alone - was adamant that the European social model was doomed. Only the American liberal model would work. And he went on to urge us to follow the example of Asian countries. The problem was that, even as he spoke, the Asian currencies were crashing, there and then, all over his body.

All this led to fierce arguments between we Europeans and our American friends on the course, and if it was to be a choice between the American or European models, I guess I knew instinctively which side I was on. I might not want to go the whole hog to a rather conformist Scandinavian solution, but I knew – as most of us do – that libelling social solidarity as the next best thing to Soviet communism is barking mad. It ends up with a Democratic President being demonised for trying to secure even a minimal degree of health insurance for 50 million of his people who had no safety net.

“As much anti-government as anti-Europe”

I have always disliked the harsh instincts that lie behind America’s ultra right, just as I dislike the ambition of many Brexiters - sometime overt, sometime covert - to push us in the same direction. The Little Englander / Brexiter mentality in full spate is not a pretty sight. It’s backward looking. It’s as much anti-government as anti-Europe. It rejects European social democracy, and scorns the public realm. It is a distorted view of society and of the world, and a distorted view of the UK’s clout within it. A victory for this mentality would change the nature of our country more radically than any impact they allege from immigration. The political and psychological consequences would also be hugely damaging to the devolution settlement Wales and Scotland and its prospect for further development.

But in the wake of the referendum there has to be a mea culpa on the Remain side. Despite a positive feeling for Europe we did take our membership of the EU for granted. We never celebrated our membership. We allowed the enemies of our membership too much space and we allowed our relationship with Europe to be caricatured as a matter of transactional benefits - too much economics and not enough serious political and cultural engagement. We did not resist strongly enough the hubris of British exceptionalism that made us too often the European Union’s awkward squad. Far too often we forgot that countries that want the empathy and support of others in moments of difficulty have to build up a credit balance in the good times – a kind of Keynesianism of manners rather than money - something the Irish Government understood from the very beginning, greatly to its benefit.

a kind of Keynesianism of manners rather than money

The English governing class, on the other hand, has a strange view of itself. The establishment view of the British constitution has been expressed down the years in an endless plainchant of self-satisfaction. Pragmatism, procrastination and muddling through have been elevated to cardinal virtues, immortalised in that Sir Humphrey-like phrase, “there are times when one must rise above principle.” Principles are regarded as rather dangerous, and probably French. The problem with an aversion to principles is that it often requires you to hide behind myths.

And myths, they come by the bundle: the foundation myth that the kingdom’s watery boundary creates an ineradicable distinction between us and our brothers and sisters in the rest of Europe, ignoring the Roman empire, the Catholic tradition, the continental origins of our Protestantism, our endless wars with Spain, France, Italy and Germany, even that Lloyd George’s ideas for an embryonic welfare state came from Bismarck’s Germany. Derived from this are the other myths: that somehow we would be better able to face the world’s other problems on our own and that the European Union is a burdensome imposition on British citizens.

And the consequence, or I should say the requirement of this mountain of mendacity is the wholesale misattribution of blame – the need to blame the European Union for the sins of our own governments; the need to ignore the incontrovertible fact that economic performance across the countries of Europe has just as much to do with national policies, even when the EU provides a fair and helpful framework and an internal market of more than 500 million people.

It is not the EU that ordained the collapse of British manufacturing. It is not the EU that sold Cadbury to Kraft. It is not the EU that sold Boots the Chemist to a private equity company. It is not the EU that made Germany export 10 times more to China than the UK manages. It is not the EU that made our big corporations and our banking system so short termist when compared with their German counterparts. If the creation of sunlit uplands is so easy, why hasn’t it been in someone’s manifesto - over the past four decades, here, in Britain.

Some may want to object that I am just re-running the referendum arguments. Yes, I am because these arguments must continue to be made, not only to the public, but to government, to the governing party and to the opposition parties. We have to combat fatalism and boredom on the part of the public. And who can blame them? The arguments must by now seem arcane, even for those of us who try to keep up.

Life’s too short to understand Brexit?

It is just not realistic to expect the mass of the public – we all have our lives to live - to ferret around to discover the difference between a Customs Union and the customs union, or even a customs partnership. I did not expect to have devote my retirement to wrestling with the merits and demerits of ‘regulatory alignment’ as against the ‘maximum facilitation’ solution for the Irish border – or, as I prefer to call it, the maximum hallucination solution?

I challenge any of you to explain succinctly, and in words of no more than three syllables, without hesitation or deviation, the differing implications of “being a member of” or “having access to” or “participating in” a single market. Or the distinction between a ‘transition’ period and an ‘implementation’ period? By the way, how can it be an implementation period given that the agreement will not, at that stage, have been concluded? Remember nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.

For those for whom there may be more important things in life, all this must seem like medieval theologians arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It is no wonder that public opinion seems not to shift. The public may just have tuned out. Even Keir Starmer always looks as if he is about to burst into tears.

Even Keir Starmer always looks as if he is about to burst into tears. 

Which brings me to the Labour Party, without whose support Brexit cannot be stopped.

This autumn we will be faced with whatever deal the government has been able to cobble. And of one thing you can be certain, the deal will not pass Keir Starmer's six tests. Mrs May will no doubt call it comprehensive, but it is bound to be less than the status quo. Labour will have to vote against it. And prospective Tory rebels will know that in that climactic, meaningful vote they will not be able to buckle in the face of Whips pressure without forfeiting their reputations for ever. The deal, if there is one, will fall.

The real issue is what then happens? It cannot really be about further negotiation. Just think about it: the notion that a meaningful vote would send a PM who cannot command the House back to the negotiating table is risible. Faced with the prospect of Brexit falling apart, why would the EU make further concessions to facilitate an outcome it has never desired? How could anyone on either side know what concessions could make a difference? And to whom would the EU make those concessions?

Imagine the circumstances. Mrs May would no longer be a credible negotiator and may even have decided to end her torment by departing the scene. Boris Johnson would no doubt be tossing a coin, although he has already gone a long way to show he is not fit to hold public office. He is just Trump with a classical education, but less focused. Michael Gove would be looking for a much more extreme Brexit, just the opposite of what Parliament had just voted for. Liam Fox would still be in an aircraft on his way to any country willing to humour him.

Liam Fox would still be in an aircraft on his way to any country willing to humour him.

Ah, you may say, but turkeys don't vote for Christmas. Maybe. And if so? We could be faced with a government whose authority is even more shot than now, having lost its central policy and the most important Parliamentary vote in half a century and more. In those circumstances, if a government were not to resign, all honour dies.

Labour, above all, must be prepared for that moment. And the right answer is not the crab-like movement we have seen over the last two years. Let’s face it, ‘constructive ambiguity’ is not working. If it were delivering a 20-point lead for Labour in the opinion polls one might have to bow to the tactical genius of its leaders. But it’s not. Not only did the party not win the last general election, but it is currently running several points behind one of the most disastrous governments since Lord North lost the American colonies.

Labour will not win hearts and minds – particularly of that crucial centre ground in British politics - by running an arcane, abstruse and endlessly repetitive process-focused story. Labour must alter the narrative - and in Wales Plaid Cymru, too, needs to take a much bolder stance than it has. I appreciate the difficulty created by the referendum vote, but parties of the left need to say to all impoverished parts of the UK: “We understand your pain, we are as angry as you are. But if you want us to change your lives, we are not only going to need Europe’s help, we are going to need to change Europe too, not run away from it.”

So let us lay one canard to rest. This is not to disrespect the result of the referendum. The greatest respect one can show to that verdict is to understand what lies behind it, and the pain that propelled many communities towards their decision. It is to respect the suffering that those communities have endured for far too long, and to fear its prolonging.

If, this year, we confirm a decision to leave one of the most noble confederations in the history of the world in order to fidget on the fringes of everywhere, we will have betrayed the children and grandchildren of us all. We will have shrunk the garden in which they will toil and play – and against their express wishes. We will have resurrected unnecessary borders on our shores and in our minds. We will have raised a tariff against neighbourliness. This is why there has to be a new referendum - a new People’s Vote - in which we will all have to be active as never before. This is our unfinished business.

Unfinished Business – Journal of an Embattled European by Geraint Talfan Davies is published by Parthian Books.


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