Europe & Confused in Ceredigion

Adam Somerset explores the dissonance, history and the grip of autobiography around the EU referendum campaign.

A woman, white-haired and of great age, is filmed for television taking her postal vote to the letter box. “To regain our dignity,” she says, posting her vote for separation. I have no idea – no idea of any kind – of what is in her head. All humans live within history, but every person’s sense of history is their own, part-given and part-sought-out.

Hilary Benn addressed a packed hall in the London School of Economics in February. He gave four reasons for his commitment. One was his personal history, Cabinet experience with responsibility for Environment. The small relinquishing of sovereignty for collective action on climate change gave Britain power not weakness, he said.

Benn – forever the younger Benn for those of a certain age – asked of his audience who had any memory of the time before European Union. Mine was one of four or five upraised hands. Benn evoked scenes from my memory. A return trip from Calais entailed an hour’s wait. Forty-five customs officer scrutinised every vehicle, questioned every driver. At Heathrow a cassette player would have the Customs Officer asking for a receipt for proof that it was a British purchase and not a smuggled import.         

The last reason that Benn gave was the most abstract. To secede would be to betray the ideals of the architects of the post-war settlement. Benn was born in November 1953. Each decade of birth throws up its own particular set of historical circumstance. To be a child of the fifties is specific. The War was not there but its residue was all around. Air raid shelters were a place for slightly scary play. Every parent had his or her story. The family man next door had been in Lancasters. The one beyond had the metal leg that was source of fascination for children. The father in the house beyond had been captured at Dunkirk, his whole War a prison camp. For Benn Europe is inseparable from a Europe for the first time at peace.

The separatists deny this, noting the distinction between the EU and NATO. They are correct. But we live within the detail of experience. I once spent seven hours in the company of a NATO official. He was en route to a control hub in Oklahoma to iron out a misunderstanding between allies. That is probably seven hours more direct experience of NATO than the average Briton. NATO is an abstraction while the EU is real; it is all around. It is the Slovak up a ladder scraping paint; it is the West Wales teenager who wants to be ski instructor. He just goes to the Alps and learns to do what he is good at. When a senior jurist speaks of liberty there are many liberties; that for a young person to learn a craft is one among them.

June 23rd has set the old against the young, London against Lincolnshire, Caerphilly against Ceredigion, England against Scotland. Whatever the outcome, the divisions will remain bitter. It will weaken the bonds of the United Kingdom. I have listened to dozens of voices and have learned nothing. I have heard the clarion cry a hundred times of “control our borders.” I have heard a Cabinet Minister Out-er deny categorically that the near four hundred mile land border will have any control. There will be no passport checks in Ireland, she says. I cannot fathom this concept of border controls without controls.     

If the weeks have imparted anything it is that public stance has little to do with financial calculation. Look only to farmers. The Treasury will never replicate the CAP. If the majority of farmers want out it is because it correlates with their age bracket. Human consciousness is impossibly dense, conviction located implicitly within a tangled cognitive thicket. The eighty-year old with her motive to regain national dignity is an equal moral being and equally an unfathomable stranger. The only thing I have learned is that we are prisoners of our experience, that no one can un-become themselves. The polls record that hardly a vote has swayed in the clamour. Those who have a firmness of a view were of the same view five years ago.   

We think in general but we live in detail. Television has hosted many a discussion. Only one of my viewings has been illuminating, assisted by the tenor of its civility. Economics was pitched against sovereignty. The Evan asked for a show of hands. Sovereignty is vague and economics itself abstruse. But jobs, income and tax are concrete. The balance against sovereignty was overwhelming. A show of hands in a studio connects but little with the reality of a piece of paper and a pencil hovering over a few inches of decision. But it connects with key moments in the course of the Scottish referendum. Status quo versus uncertainty, even without fog and rancour, is a balance out of kilter.       

Adam Somerset is a Critic.

6 thoughts on “Europe & Confused in Ceredigion

  1. I remember a series of images a few years ago which included one of a very young child with a machine gun who was completely oblivious to its lethal capability – the purpose of the image. Those intending to vote ‘out’ – especially Welsh voters – have the same air of complete innocence; the potential result of their act is inconceivable to them; their insouciance tied up with Imperial ribbons.

  2. Confused in Caerfyrddin (or should that be Gaerfyrddin as I’m sure someone will point out – but it doesn’t alliterate). I have every sympathy with Mr.Somerset and have similar (thankfully fading) memories of travelling and living/working abroad in a time before the EU.
    I don’t really care about ‘sovereignity’ (we don’t have it whatever it is) or the economy ( this has been ignored/wrecked in Wales for decades due to the demographics, infrastructure, distance from market, Westminster and other factors, such as our own indolence/stupidity) or even migration having ‘migrated’ several times myself.
    Having a medical/scientific background my concern is about disease pandemics (flu, ebola), antibiotic resistance and climate emergencies (floods, sea rise, hurricanes etc) and the question I find myself asking is how would Brexit help us (or our children) deal with these absolutely inevitable disasters?

  3. Benn was quite right to emphasis the role of the European Union in maintaining peace. Yes, Nato is the military defence alliance which Britain has joined. But maintaining peace is about more than military force.
    The leave campaign would have us believe that the net cost of the UK’s membership of the EU is all wasted on Brussels bureaucracy. However, much of it goes to the poorer, newer members of the EC who receive more than they contribute, and quite rightly so.
    In Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia and other countries which used to be part of The Soviet Union or one of its satellites there are pro Russia, pro Putin parties, which want to leave the EC and recreate stronger ties with Russia. Recent events in Georgia and Ukraine show that Putin has expansionist ambitions which are a threat to European peace. Providing assistance to the newer, poorer members of the EU is a cost effective way of maintaining peace in Europe

  4. Mr Benn’s story about the customs officers is true – but to imply that would be the case again if we left the EU is the sort of half-truth that has undermined both sides in the referendum debate. As anyone who travels or trades abroad knows well, that sort of thing is now very rare in developed countries outside the EU as well as within. Indeed, for most purposes, there is little practical difference between EU and non-EU developed countries, except where one encounters the EU tariff wall – an under-debated issue.

    The fact is that the world has moved on. Globalisation and the WTO mean the world outside the EU is no longer a lawless desert where dog eats dog. It is the EU that retains an old fashioned protectionist mentality relative to the rest of the world – which is integrating at an ever-increasing pace, all without the need for a superstate.

    So it is an error to frame the debate in terms of nostalgia. No one wants to go back to the days of post-Imperial decay. The reason many of us want to leave the EU has nothing to do with the past, real or imagined, and everything to do with finding a flexible structure fit for a rapidly changing future.

  5. We must control our borders. The rallying cry of the leave campaign. When I return to the UK it is the UK border force that control our borders. It is Westminster who decided to allow Poles and Romanians early entry to the UK. It is Westminster who issue visas to non-EU citizens.

    We leave the EU and lose our tariffs with the UK and have to adopt the WTO and our tariffs go up several percentage points, which hits businesses in the UK. The leave campaign need to exercise some grown up thinking. All they have are sound bytes that don’t stand up to reality. Take control of our borders, fine but then we adopt a Norwegian or Swiss model which means we still get immigrant, or we adopt an Australian style point system, but ignore that Australia has more immigrants per head then the UK, or we leave the EU and use WTO to trade, ignoring the fact that higher WTO tariffs will knock British businesses sideways. Is xenophobia worth it

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