Joyce McMillan: We must not risk the legacy of 1945

The victory of Clement Attlee's Labour party in 1945 was a signal of how things had changed. Picture: Getty Images
The victory of Clement Attlee's Labour party in 1945 was a signal of how things had changed. Picture: Getty Images
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EU is far from perfect but the alternative is a return to the divisive world of hostile nation states, writes Joyce McMillan

They say that war is 90 per cent boredom and 10 per cent terror; and for my father, as a young RAF radio engineer stationed near Cairo during the Second World War, I guess the ratio of tedium to panic may have been even higher than that. The British authorities, though, were not inclined to let men sit around doing nothing of an evening; and towards the end of the war, the armed services developed a formidable programme of civic education, involving the election of Forces Parliaments, and extensive discussion of what British society should look like once peace was won. And like many of his contemporaries, my Dad emerged from that process with at least two clear political ideas, neither of which he ever abandoned.

The first was that everyone he knew had, for obvious reasons, voted Labour in 1945; the ordinary people of Britain had not fought their way through the greatest conflict in history in order to return to the divisive and counter-productive austerity politics of the 1930s, that had reduced so many working people to misery.

And the second – widely agreed among politically-minded ex-servicemen of his generation – was that the only real answer to most of the questions facing humanity lay in what they called “world government”. No single government, they argued, could ever be powerful enough to regulate big capital so that it would really serve the interests of the people; and in the end, some kind of international authority would be necessary, to work towards greater global justice, and lasting peace.

Seventy years on, of course, we are still a long way from achieving that dream – or even agreeing that we want to achieve it. If there was one thing my father was glad of, though, about the postwar world in which he raised his family, it was the fact that some foundations had been laid for a serious system of international institutions.

The United Nations, the Council of Europe, and – after 1957 – the European Common Market all looked to him like building-blocks of the world he and his mates had dreamed of; and he revelled in the age of peace that unfolded, particularly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. For his generation, the fundamental comparison was with the mass murder, the 45 million deaths and the sheer devastation they had seen across Europe in their early twenties. And for them the banishing of war from western Europe was at least a start, an imperfect effort at creating a new working federation of democratic nations, which might make grotesque errors, indulge in sordid horse-trading, or generate a vast bureaucracy, but which, when the chips were down, would always – in Churchill’s words – resort to jaw-jaw, not war-war.

And it’s this historical perspective that weighs on my mind, as we face up to next week’s crucial vote on Britain’s EU membership. I guess most Scots, if asked, would say that this vote is less important to them and their families than the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. Yet to me, this seems by far the more momentous decision of the two. For if Britain votes to leave the European Union, then one of the world’s largest economies effectively signals that, for its government and people, that post-war period of experimentation with a new model of supranational government is over, and has been judged a failure. And that decision, on the part of such a large member state, will deliver a profound blow to the institutional architecture of post-war Europe, strengthening the hands of right-wing nationalists and militant anti-EU parties across the continent.

The processes opened up by a Brexit will be slow-moving, of course; there’s no question of an instant collapse of the EU, just as there’s no question of instant economic chaos. Over the next decade, though, the political forces unleashed and strengthened by a British exit could leave the European Union fatally weakened, and at worst drifting towards disintegration. Of course, the EU itself is much to blame for its current vulnerability; its institutions have been shockingly captured, in recent years, by the false gods of neoliberal economics.

In that respect, though, the EU is demonstrably no worse – and in some respects better – than recent successive British governments. So in facing this vote, it seems to me that we need to set aside both notoriously inexact economic predictions about the consequences of Brexit, and our reservations about recent EU policy, and instead face up to the big questions those young British servicemen were asking two generations ago; questions about what kind of nation, and what kind of Europe, we want our children and grandchildren to be living in, 30 years from now.

To me, the answers to those questions seem obvious; I want to plough on with our partners in Europe through this age of crisis, and to keep working with like-minded people across the continent to make the EU live up to its stated values.

I do not see my fellow EU citizens as “others” to be hated and feared. I do not want to turn the clock back to the competitive European nation-state system of a century ago, with all its known and obvious dangers. I want to have a politics that reflects my European identity, among all my other layers of belonging; I want to honour the wisdom won by the wartime generation by working to develop their vision of a new world of international co-operation, rather than undermining one of its key elements.

For what finally matters, in this most serious choice, is not a percentage point of GDP here or there; but our commitment to justice and peace, and to a world where the horrors of war are slowly and messily, region and region, replaced by a culture of patient negotiation and wise social action that finally places war beyond the pale. And if you vote with that deepest of all obligations in mind, when you walk into the polling station on Thursday, you will be measuring up to the demands of this decision; whether you finally decide to vote against the EU, or – like me – passionately and hopefully in its favour.