A new generation needs to be reminded why Europe came together, and why it should stay together, writes Brian Wilson
Whatever else an EU referendum might throw up, it has created one valuable precedent already. In future, people who want to retain the constitutional status quo should be asked to vote Yes.
It will remain one of life’s minor mysteries why this has been accomplished so effortlessly within the EU referendum context while, in Scotland, the language of negativity was inflicted upon those who wished to remain within the United Kingdom.
Apart from that, it is difficult to see much good coming out of it. The result will be familiar – a comfortable majority for staying in with an irreconcilable minority who will carry on as before, honing their grievances and planning for the next time.
Forty years ago, when Britain voted to remain in the Common Market, the arguments were different and more fundamental. There were loyalties to the Commonwealth, while the Left critique was that the market was a ruthless capitalist creation which lacked any social dimension and would crush workers’ rights.
That all now seems a period piece. The EU has evolved in ways the early visionaries might have found surprising. Far from being the instrument of worker oppression, it has become the font of innumerable measures which have driven rights, equality and fairness within the UK as much as elsewhere.
Even 20 years ago, the large and legitimate complaint about the EU was that 70 per cent of its budget went on the common agricultural policy, leading to food mountains and wine lakes that had to be destroyed or drained. Reform of the CAP, however belated, pretty much eliminated that source of offence.
For decades we have been fed stories of the straight bananas variety about Brussels bureaucrats. Most of them proved to be utter nonsense once anyone took the trouble to check. Over the course of time, the impact of this rubbish has diminished through boredom, except among the hard-core sceptics.
So when we go to the polls at some point in the next couple of years, what will the big issues be? If advocates of withdrawal get their way, it will be all about immigration and benefits. Arguing over where sovereignty should lie is unlikely to set the popular pulse racing.
One of the great reforms within the evolution of European unity has been the free movement of people. It started as the free movement of labour, which formed part of the Treaty of Rome and was portrayed as part of the capitalist threat to undermine workers’ rights in countries with strong trade union movements.
It might even have been conceived that way. But what it has evolved into is something to be celebrated, not feared – that we, and our children after us, can travel, live and work freely in a Europe which, for these purposes, has very few borders. The benefits, for Britons as much as anyone, vastly outweigh the managerial downsides.
Complaints about immigrants from the EU represent hypocrisy on the grand scale. Overwhelmingly, those who have come to find work in the UK are here because our labour market has welcomed them with open arms. Just as with West Indian and Asian immigration in the past, people are here because employers need them.
The idea that hordes of Romanians and Bulgarians were desperate to come here to live off benefits proved to be nonsensical. Incidentally, I led a trade mission to these countries a couple of months ago and found extraordinary levels of English-language skills and IT literacy. It is not welfare benefits their young people are desperate for, but opportunities. We should learn not fear.
Of course there are issues to address and caricature cases to highlight. We will have much grandstanding from David Cameron and claims of great concessions, which is fair political game. The reality is that the EU has evolved constantly, often along lines proposed by the UK, and a bit of additional window dressing will harm nobody.
The biggest problem for those wishing to withdraw is the widespread understanding that millions of jobs and most of our trade derive from being in the EU. So we are starting to hear refinements from the opposition – “stay in the single market but leave the EU”. This has echoes of the Scottish referendum, with would-be seceders trying to dictate rules for the rump they want to leave.
A new generation needs to be reminded of the history behind all this. The EU has evolved from an understanding that if Europe was to be freed from the scourge of war, it needed political institutions to bind its constituent parts together. It cannot be proven there would have been wars without that framework, but one does not have to look far to see that the instinct for settling disputes by force did not die in 1945.
That takes me to our happy-clappies in the House of Commons and, if I may, a brief history lesson. In March 1941, European civilisation faced its darkest hour, threatened by a bestial enemy. The young men of Scotland, from Langholm to Whalsay, were fighting and dying for the cause of freedom.
One Scot, Christopher Murray Grieve (aka Hugh MacDiarmid) was otherwise engaged. From his Shetland lair, he wrote to Sorley MacLean: “On balance, I regard the Axis powers, tho’ more violently evil for the time being, as less dangerous than our own government in the long run and indistinguishable in purpose.” There was much more of the same.
MacDiarmid proselytised for a Scottish fascism from the 1920s so his war-time utterances were no lapse or aberration. Literary critics may be entitled to separate poet from politics – but politicians cannot get away with that, particularly since Grieve/MacDiarmid’s professed love of Scotland was so closely linked to the rabid Anglophobia of which he boasted throughout his life.
Devotees may establish shrines to Hugh MacDiarmid, and those who care only about his poetry can debate its merits without encumbrance. But when Scotland’s political representatives try to turn him into a national icon, in the parliament he proclaimed to be indistinguishable from the rule of Hitler and Mussolini, it is time to say: “Not in my name.”
I hope the more thoughtful members of the 56 might think twice the next time a white rose is stuck in their lapels.