Ronnie McGowan reflects on the upcoming Unite for Europe march in London, the strength of unity in the face of terror, and the knowledge that there is always hope.
Five days before parliament gives the green light on Article 50, I’ll be travelling to take part in the Unite for Europe march in London. Now, I’m not a Remoaner – perish the thought – but the train journey to Euston will allow time to reflect on the ending of a political era which has been present throughout my adult life.
The trigger will be squeezed by a reluctant Prime Minister only too aware that lights will be dimming around Europe – the deed will be done but Theresa May is no Lady Macbeth. The ghost of a lazy, complacent David Cameron will haunt her thoughts in perpetuity. The United Kingdom is about to be a diminished force with reduced influence in the corridors of power.
Even when I was in short trousers the benefits of being a member of the European Coal and Steel Community seemed obvious. Europe was emerging from two catastrophic wars, but thankfully there were those who had a vision of peace, co-operation and cordiality that would set Europe on the road to a lasting stability through neighbourly trading agreements. Friendship between previously warring countries is no bad thing.
Now we are turning our backs on that – in the pursuit of what? Things are about to be very different, but they won’t be better, not by a long stretch. Deals will be made, some good and some not so good. But as Harold Wilson observed, being part of a wider economic market meant more than the price of a pound of butter.
The United Kingdom took a while to come around to joining the Common Market and when, in 1974, the former Honourable Member for Belper, George Brown, addressed a Glasgow meeting promoting the cause I had already been won round to the idea, many years before. Our great allies across the pond had encouraged our membership. “No ifs, no buts.”
During this period of the Heath and then Wilson governments, and while a student, I had retained my Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers membership and it was always puzzling why its leadership under Hugh Scanlon was vociferously Eurosceptic, always complaining about joining a capitalist club as if there was some Utopian alternative hiding behind a far off iron curtain. That’s how I see the current leader of the Labour Party, whose cool stance on Europe is firmly rooted in the 1970’s, a leader who was posted missing all too often during the referendum campaign, much to my deep disappointment. Though I was hardly surprised; my bar was already set at a low level of expectation. Tellingly, I found from a sojourn to the Copeland by-election that voters in the market town of Egremont also expressed the view of a leader out of touch, and these were previously staunch Labour supporters.
The ideas and social democratic philosophy coming out of Europe always struck me as more mature and appealing, especially during the Thatcher years. In 1984 Helmut Schmidt found himself talking to a tiny audience one Friday evening in a lecture theatre at Strathclyde University. He was on dazzling form with an economic and political discourse which caught the mood of a new Europe becoming more at ease with itself. The future was bright and optimistic during a time of turmoil in our own domestic politics. Our European partners had their own internal more violent tensions. But the dream of a harmonious Europe had become a reality.
Why we are turning our backs on the progress made since World War II is a mystery. Had Margaret Thatcher been Prime Minister during last year’s vote we would undoubtedly still be in the European Union, which is just one of life’s odd little ironies.
The terror attack in London has once more thrown into sharp focus the need for countries to come together and work even harder to defeat this wave of violence. Exiting the European Union loosens the essential bonds which help us to tackle this. We are a better continent when we pull together. We are a better race when we work and share together. We were in a better place when we were in the European Union.
So as I settle into the first-class carriage I’ll be deep in thought, tinged with regret and poignancy but still excited about heading to a march in the greatest city in the world. We may have suffered a loss but there is still all to play for.