The debate on Europe has ceased to be a reasoned debate, it seems more of a visceral struggle between deep-seated attitudes – prejudices if you like. So, if you don’t like UKIP’s prejudices, especially those of some of its candidates, try mine.
First, I am deeply prejudiced in favour of peace, and in favour of any institutions that make war less likely. The EEC and the EU have been spectacularly successful in creating, not just an absence of war, but a meaningful peace, in which people have been able to grow together. The process goes on.
One day in the 1980s, on a train between Paddington and Cardiff, the broadcaster, Wynford Vaughan Thomas, told me of wonderful journeys through eastern Europe that he had undertaken as a young man in the 1930s. He then dug out a sheet of paper from his bag and, with a fountain pen, drew a remarkably accurate and rather beautiful map of Europe – from John O’Groats to Istanbul – before plotting his youthful journey.
“It’s incredible to think that half that map has been off limits to me for decades,” he said, and he was right. He had reported from bombers over Berlin. He had advanced with allied troops through Italy. He had been into Belsen. The Iron Curtain offended him. He did not live to see it fall. If he had he would have raised a glass of very fine wine.
Anyone watching events in the Ukraine today, will realise how easily countries can fall into war. Echoes of Sarajevo in 1914. A miscalculation here, a misunderstanding there. Overt power, opaque motives. Local passions, continental consequences. A stable and peaceful Europe needs its institutions, however imperfect they may be.
Second, I am an unashamed pro-European, instinctively so. I had known it for a long time: the effect of Latin and French at school, boyhood hitch-hiking, history at college. My family and I have enjoyed and learned from the open continent. I even helped draft some sympathetic information leaflets during the 1975 referendum on Europe. But in 1997 I updated and refreshed my prejudice during six weeks away from Europe at a business school in Philadelphia.
I was in a group of forty people drawn from different industries from around the world. We were taught by some of the brightest brains around, but some of the lecturers were clearly proponents of fashionable neo-liberal theories that, a decade later, would lead to a financial catastrophe, the economic and social effects of which of our continent is still living through. They were adamant that the European social model was doomed. Only the American liberal model would work, they argued, urging us to follow the example of Asian countries, although some Asian currencies were crashing even as they spoke.
This led to fierce arguments between we Europeans and our American friends. If it was a choice between the American or European models, 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 know – 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.
I dislike the harsh instincts that lie behind America’s ultra right wing Tea Party, and extend that dislike to those in this country who would push us in the same direction – towards ever smaller government and the diminishment of the public realm. Their victory would change the nature of my country more radically than any impact they allege from immigration.
Third, I am unshakeably prejudiced against those who propagate the big lie. This is the only description that one can attach to Mr Farage’s poster campaign: “26 million people in Europe are looking for work. And whose jobs are they after?” It is a brazen and calculated deception. It is the technique perfected by Josef Goebbels. Make the lie big enough and you put it beyond the possibility of proof. Create fear and suspicion, and a lot of people will look over their shoulder
It is not difficult to do, especially when people everywhere are already unsettled by the pace of change, by technologies that make their long learnt skills redundant, or global industries that can shift production to wherever in the world they can find the cheapest labour. Simplistic explanations are always easier to sell than complex ones, and never carry a health warning.
These fundamental uncertainties are, unfortunately, endemic. That is why Mr Farage – whose name is pronounced with a surprisingly French inflection – is not alone. He has his counterparts in almost every country, not all of whom exude his own back bar bonhomie. History, as well as our daily news, tells us that thuggery of the deed, is not far behind the disguised thuggery of the word.
Lastly, I am prejudiced against shifting the blame for our own sins of omission or commission onto others. That is what people do when they claim that the EU is the problem, rather than part of the solution. The EU gets the blame for all kinds of restrictions, when for years it has been the ‘gold-plating’ of EU directives by British civil servants that has been to blame. The present UK government has been trying to prevent its own officials doing this. If the EU is the problem, why have other member states been more effective in safeguarding ownership of their own key industries than ourselves? The beam is in our own eye.
There are plenty of things in the institutions of the EU that need reform, but in order to make the EU work better, rather than to protect the UK from some non-existent existential threat. After all, our own British institutions are hardly flawless conceptions. But it’s a pity that a constructive engagement with refining our continental tier of governance, will be drowned out in the next few weeks, by Mr. Farage’s display of narcissistic insecurities.
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