Tag Archives: EU referendum.

PEEPING OUT OF THE BUBBLE.

11 Apr

We all like to believe that it’s our own views and lifestyle that are “normal” and that it is those of others that are strange or extreme. We try to surround ourselves with like-minded people, read like-minded newspapers and books and largely watch TV programmes that bolster our view of the world. This results in people following a similar life-style to those they are close to. In other words, we create our own bubbles to live in, bubbles that protect us from those with: opposing views, contrasting life-styles, different priorities or conflicting attitudes. So it comes as a shock when we encounter someone or something that doesn’t conform to life inside our comfortable bubble. The most obvious example of this is when we have a General Election or a referendum. If the result goes against what we passionately believe in, then it pulls us up with a start. It’s a sickening realization. It’s a shock to find that many of the beliefs that one holds dear, are not shared or are actually rejected by many others. It’s a feeling of helplessness and even despair. It is as if one is living in the wrong world.

I have felt this emotion many times. I seem to specialise in being in a minority. For a start I’m left-handed, which I think is normal but others think is odd and feel free to comment on. On a more serious note, I am a life-long vegetarian in a country of rampant meat-eaters. How else can I explain the inexorable march of McDonalds, Burger Kings and KFCs? How else to explain the popularity of pub carveries or the stubborn clinging to the tradition of the Sunday joint? I try to ignore all this and imagine a world where everyone cares about other living creatures. In other words I conjure up a fantasy world that reflects my own views and moral stance, but every now and then I am confronted with the reality of people eating animals and so get shocked and upset all over again.

Next up is war. I am against war because of all the misery, destruction, injuries and deaths it leads to. This is why I have been a supporter of CND and the Peace Movement for many years. Yet I live in a country, the United Kingdom, that is very militaristic and is frequently involved in making war. In the Tony Blair years, the UK went to war 5 times in 6 years. ( Iraq, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq again). Since then we have got militarily involved in Libya and Syria. The UK is also one of the biggest exporters of lethal arms in the world. Currently,  the weapons it has sold to Saudi Arabia are being employed to kill and maim the people of Yemen. The peace movement has large numbers of course but is almost certainly out-numbered by those who support the military and acts of war. This usually includes our Government and Parliament. Many people have sons, husbands and other relatives in the armed forces, so naturally support the causes they are fighting for, even though this involves invading somebody else’s sovereign country and killing its people. British soldiers are now routinely described as “heroes” and it would lead to many an upsetting scene to argue otherwise. As much as possible, I converse with pacifists and shield myself from the horrible reality of my country pursuing war.

These are just a few examples, and I’m not even going to get started on the EU referendum of June, 2016, which has polarised the nation into Leavers or Remainers. Just for the record, I  voted “remain”, which put me in the minority camp yet again, even though the margin of the “Leave” victory was very narrow.

So, for much of my everyday life, I just sit inside my comfortable bubble, mixing with people who mostly agree with me. I do this to preserve my own sanity and to keep the peace. Being constantly at odds with others is not conducive to a calm and happy life. My friends and most of my family share the majority of my views. On social media I usually swap opinions with like- minded people. For example, the vast majority of my Facebook friends shared my shock and dismay at the “Leave” vote and posts generally back up this common viewpoint. But every now and again, someone pops up who has a different opinion and dares to express it. This can lead to quite heated online discussions which can quickly disintegrate into unpleasant slanging matches. This is when I get to peep at the world outside my bubble. I think this is a good thing. It’s not always comfortable but always valuable to encounter opposing views. The thing about Facebook “friends” is that they’re not always genuine friends. They can be: acquaintances, work colleagues, ex-work colleagues, friends of friends, people you have met on holiday etc. I think it’s a positive thing because it gives one the chance to encounter alternative views and attitudes to one’s own. For instance, I supported one friend ( a genuine, long-term friend), who challenged the idea of Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, being a man of the common people. He did this by posting a picture of Farage at a fox hunt, something one usually associates with the upper classes. So Nigel’s claims that UKIP campaigns for the “ordinary man” (and woman) seems to have been contradicted by his life-style. However, the  response my friend got was full of  seething anger, bitterness and resentment. Many claimed that Farage was a hero of the people because he had freed the UK from the evil clutches of Brussels and others grumbled at the fact that he had been ignored in the New Year Honours list. The anger and outright bile exhibited in those Facebook responses was pretty shocking to me as such views don’t exist inside my bubble. It gave me a salutary but enlightening glimpse into another version of the country I live in ( almost a parallel universe.)

The world of work provides another opportunity to peep outside the bubble. One can choose one’s friends but there is no choice about one’s work colleagues. It’s important to get along with them in order to do a better job as cooperative members of a team. It also makes for a more peaceful existence. Constantly clashing and arguing with colleagues at work would make life a misery. So most people keep quiet if their views don’t fit, unless it is a work issue which should be thrashed out in an orderly and respectful fashion. Thus, when I was a full- time school teacher, I debated educational issues with colleagues in staff meetings or working parties, but seldom got into arguments about war, politics, religion or the morality of eating animals. I have now retired from full time work, thank goodness, but still do occasional casual work at 2 local schools as an examination invigilator.  In between exams I often sit in the staffroom and listen to the “crack” which is invariably amusing and/or informative. These staff-room conversations give me a useful and interesting insight into the alternative worlds beyond my “bubble.”

Only last week I learnt the following things. Many people still believe in the Death Penalty and would vote to bring it back if there was a referendum. Some think the persistent discipline problem in schools and in society at large should be tackled by bringing back corporal punishment, or reintroducing “Boot Camps.” ( This is despite all the stories of child abuse and public school beatings that unfortunately frequent the news waves.) Michael Howard, the former Conservative Home Secretary, who liked to think he was being tough on crime, would have been very pleased. One person actually claimed that the rot had set in when “Childline” was launched. So the juvenile delinquency problem is all down to Esther Rantzen! Everyone was dead against a local community centre being converted into a refuge for asylum seekers. We don’t want them here because we’re Brexit, was the cry! No comment was the safest policy. On a more trivial note, I found out that some people go to have spray tans before a special event like a wedding. You are not allowed to wash for 24 hours and it lasts for 2 weeks. I said nothing of course but couldn’t help thinking that this is yet another example of the fraudulent society we are creating — fake news, fake identities on social media, fake musical tribute artists, fake looks following botox or plastic surgery. Compared to all that, a fake tan seems mild.

Finally we come to the great Yorkshire Pudding controversy. The conversation went from diets ( always a popular topic), to food in general, to Yorkshire puddings. I had these as a child but they haven’t featured in my diet for years except in the occasional pub lunch. Well, it seems that everyone who was in the staffroom at that time has a Yorkshire pudding every week  with the Sunday roast. One person puts vinegar into the mixture as her husband likes his Yorkshire crispy. Maybe, it’s because Cleveland, where I live, is part of the old North Yorkshire. I listened quietly but then was asked directly how I liked my Yorkshire. It’s not the usual question one gets asked in an educational establishment! I had to admit that I didn’t eat them and everyone’s jaws simultaneously dropped to the ground. They couldn’t believe it and thought I was joking. When asked “why?” — I answered: “Because they’re fattening.” This answer was met with a stony silence. I had obviously broken a sacred, social taboo. I had committed the sin of making judgement on other people. I would normally have kept my mouth shut but was put on the spot, and didn’t realize my honest answer would cause such a stir.

So it’s very comfortable to live in one’s own cosy world but fascinating to peep out of it. The lives of others are always interesting. When faced with a direct question, I will try to answer as straight-forwardly and honestly as possible. However the best policy is usually to keep mum. It’s the coward’s way out I know, but I don’t really want my life to be scarred by constant arguments and upsets. This probably contradicts what I said in an earlier blog, when I argued that it was preferable to be honest rather than just polite. Maybe, I’m mellowing in my old age. Peeping out of one’s bubble is interesting and fine, but  constantly bursting out of it is not recommended!

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Cut Adrift.

30 Jun

Like nearly half of the UK’s population I woke up on the morning of June 24th, 2016, to news that both shocked and depressed me. The British people had voted by a majority of 52% to 48% to leave the European Union, which we have been a member of since 1973. I had previously been mortified by the election of a Conservative majority government in 2015, but at least my dismay on that occasion was allayed by the thought that it would only last for 5 years maximum and then we would get a chance to overturn the result in the next General Election. However, the fateful decision to leave the EU will not just last for 5 years, but is probably irrevocable. The younger generations, who largely voted to stay in, are now stuck with the consequences of their elder peers’ negative decision. As one work colleague put it: “We’ve been cut adrift.”

This piece is not intended to be an expert analysis of the :political, economic, social and constitutional dimensions of this momentous development. This is because I am not an expert in any of these spheres. However, I am a citizen of the United Kingdom and I would like to try to summarise my own personal reaction.  I don’t wish to upset or attack the people who voted “Leave.” They had their reasons which were valid to them. I accept the result just I accept the system of democracy. I am not one of the callers for a second EU referendum just because I didn’t like the result of the first. Having said that, I think the decision to leave is wrong and probably reveals some worrying  characteristics of the nation I am part of.

First of all, I think that for many, this was not a carefully considered decision but a loud vote of protest.Many regions of Britain have suffered from unemployment, lack of investment and poverty. They have been left behind in the economic race and feel neglected and abandoned. These areas, particularly in the north, the midlands and Wales voted resoundingly to leave the EU in the recent referendum. This includes Cleveland in the north-east where I now live. I was a polling clerk in a small, ex-mining village, and although we are not allowed to discuss the issues with the voters, many  barely bothered to conceal their intentions. It was obvious to me that many were intent on delivering a protest vote against the so called “establishment” whom they blamed for many of their troubles. It was the “ordinary” working class wanting to give the rich, privileged, political elite a good kicking. One actually said that he was going to punish Cameron ( The pro-“Remain” Prime Minister) for all his “lies.” I got the distinct impression from my experiences in the polling station and my forays into social media that numerous people  primarily wanted to register such a vote of dissent. Quite a few older electors admitted that they  didn’t usually bother to vote but had especially turned out for this one. Nationally, it was the highest turn-out for a very long time. People were very taken with the idea that in a referendum, every single vote counts, unlike the “first past the post” system that the UK has in its normal elections. But having turned up, many of them didn’t know what to do. It was weird having to tell people in their fifties and sixties that they simply had to put a cross in the box of their choice. Many, whipped-up by a campaign on Facebook, were very suspicious that only a pencil was provided in the voting booth rather than a pen, even though thick pencils have always been used in British elections since the year dot. They expressed their concern that officials could later rub out their ” Leave” crosses and change them to “Remain.” Despite their political naivety and ignorance of polling procedures, these people had turned up because they were angry, and this anger had overcome their previous apathy. If this is true, then it’s a shame that this wider issue of shaking up the “establishment” clouded the more specific and crucially important issue of whether the country should remain in or leave the EU.

Another serious concern raised by the vote is our attitude to foreigners. I think patriotism is fine but if taken to extremes, can turn into unpleasant chauvinism or even xenophobia. Unfortunately, foreigners make very convenient scapegoats. It’s so easy to blame them for all our ills. According to the blamers, foreigners are: stealing our jobs, depressing our wages, taking our houses, making our schools over-crowded, overwhelming our health service and destroying our identity. I have heard all these arguments through the years, especially from a certain section of the tabloid press. In fact, I think many of these ideas have originated from the more corrosive elements of the popular press, which had been drip-feeding anti-EU and anti-immigration propaganda into peoples’ minds for decades This fear and distrust of thee “outsider” is not a new phenomenum. In the early years of the 20th century, the governments tried to unite the country against the “yellow peril.” Then in the 1950’s and 60’s, large scale immigration from the  Commonwealth led to widespread racial prejudice and discrimination. This culminated in Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood” speech in Smethwick in 1969. I think he had serious and important points to make but the unfortunate side effect of his words was that it provided a more  respectable face for racists. Despite anti-discrimination legislation in the 1970’s, I believe that racism is alive and well in the UK and bubbles just beneath the surface of respectable society. Unfortunately, the EU’s “free movement of people” policy, has led to another upsurge of foreigner hating, especially when large numbers of people from Poland, Slovakia, Romania and other east European people arrived on our shores. This is despite the fact that many of them are very hard-working and have made important contributions to the economy, doing the jobs that British workers have not been keen to do. As one outspoken voter loudly exclaimed: “Enoch was right. He was a great man.”

To a certain extent I think this is just fear of the unknown, fear of the “other”. Unfortunately, more extreme members of the right wing turn this fear and unease into ideas of white British racial superiority. The National Front, The British National Party and the English Defence League  espouse neo-Nazi ideas about race and wish all foreigners, especially those with darker skins, to be deported. Slogans have already been painted up urging immigration to be replaced by repatriation. Luckily, the majority of British people abhor such ideas and the out- and- out racists have been largely kept in check. However, a relatively new party, UKIP, formed in the early 21st century has successfully managed to merge the issues of  EU membership ( with its free movement of people principle) with that of mass immigration. They have given the anti-foreigner idea a slightly more respectable cloak. Not only are foreigners coming over in increasingly large numbers to take our jobs etc, according to UKIP, but other, unelected foreigners in Brussels and Strasbourg are making decisions that effect British peoples’ lives detrimentally. So goes the argument. It’s easy to blame the foreigners for all Britain’s problems. Hitler blamed all Germany’s problems on the Jews. It’s the same idea. The trouble is that once these racist ideas come out of the woodwork, they can be very unpleasant and destructive. Already, since the Leave vote, there have been numerous racial incidents up and down the country. The far -right extremists unfortunately now feel emboldened to tell foreigners that they are not welcome in the UK. This is a very upsetting and unfortunate result of the Leave vote.

I believe that the EU leaders should be more democratically accountable to the people of Europe and I also think that the completely free movement of people needs to be looked at and modified, because, inevitably it will lead to people from poorer countries migrating to their richer European neighbours. However, I believe that Britain should have fought for such reform from within, rather than throwing its toys out of the pram and leaving the Union. It has been a case of flight not fight. I can sympathise with people who live in areas with a large immigrant population as they fear that they are losing their British identity. For many, identity trumps the economy and so they have ignored the warnings about dire economic consequences of a Leave vote. I think the numbers of incomers should be more carefully controlled but feel that a multi-cultural society has enriched Britain immeasurably over the years. It has broadened minds and given us many new alternatives in diet, religion, music, dance, art, language and traditions. We would be a much culturally poorer country if we consisted of just one race. However, the Leave vote heralds the advent of a more narrow minded, mono-culture definition of British life.

Britain has a long history of Empire and for a long time did not need to rely on its neighbours in Europe as its main trading partners. This is why, despite Churchill’s far sighted vision of a united Europe, the British government of the late 1940’s ( Atlee’s Labour administration), didn’t feel the need to join the European Coal and Steel Community, the forerunner of the EU, set up by the Germans and the French and joined by Belgium, Luxembourg, The Netherlands and Italy. The British also considered themselves as “Atlanticists” proudly pointing out their so-called special relationship with the USA. The aims of the Europeans, especially the Germans and the French, had been to deliberately inter-mesh their economies so as to make future wars between them impossible. Europe and the World had suffered two catastrophic wars in the 20th Century which had at their heart the long term enmity between Germany and France. Other terrible Franco-German wars had taken place in the 19th century. Thus by 1945, surveying yet another devastated continent, French and German statesmen said “never again” and took their brave and far-sighted decision to integrate and cooperate rather than continue to compete and confront. Their brave gamble has paid off as there has been no war between members of the European Union since its inception. The British stayed aloof of the new union, but when their Empire quickly melted away in the 1950’s and 60’s and their special cross-Atlantic relationship was exposed when the Americans refused to back them in the Suez crisis of 1956, they belatedly realised that their new focus must be on Europe. Prime Minister  Harold McMillan applied to join in the early 1960’s but was eventually rebuffed by France’s President De Gaulle, who said that the British didn’t have the right attitude to be good Europeans. Maybe, looking at our leave vote of June 23rd, 2016, and our history of opt-outs, objections and vetoes, De Gaulle had a point. Separated from the European mainland by a thin strip of sea, the English Channel, the British have found it difficult to cooperate with their European partners. It is almost if: because of our proud history being in charge of an  Empire, our  status as a Great Power, our seat on the Security Council of the United Nations, we regard ourselves as superior to our neighbours across the Channel. I’m sure this belief that Britain is a uniquely great nation and doesn’t need to cow-tow to or cooperate with others, is behind many people’s dislike of the EU, and their wish to leave it and go it alone. When people say they “want their country back”, the familiar and successful slogan of the Leave campaign, I suspect they are thinking back to a Britain in the past, not the diminished country of today, stripped of much of its power and influence. I think it is a mistake to think that the United Kingdom is still a great and powerful nation that can easily go it alone.

I suppose I could go on making point after point and this blog could go on for ever. That would be a waste of time as no-one would want to read it to the end anyway. The remaining important thing I want to say is that I have always been an Internationalist, ever since I owned my first stamp album. It makes me sad to realize I am living in  a nation of insular, “Little-Englanders.” I have always been interested in other countries and have wanted to travel to see them and experience their different cultures. I wanted to enrich my life and broaden my mind. My parents never left these shores and never showed any desire for foreign travel. At first they were too poor and later they were too timid to leave the comfort-zone of Britain. As I grew older I developed an increasing desire for foreign adventure. To their credit, my mum and dad recognised this and made a big financial sacrifice in paying for me to go on a school trip to the south of France in 1966. This lit the blue touch-paper and launched my life-long wanderlust.. Throughout my adult life I have travelled extensively throughout Europe and in the World at large, especially in my post-retirement years. I have enjoyed the UK being part of the European Community with all the economic and cultural benefits that this has brought. This is why I think it’s a great shame that many people want to pull up the draw-bridge and withdraw from the European project that we have been a part of for over 4 decades. In this modern, increasingly connected world, it’s strange that the majority in the British referendum wanted to withdraw and become a small separate entity. From an economic, cultural and political point of view this doesn’t make any sense to me. As someone said in the campaign, it’s like claiming one’s independence by moving out of the house and moving into the garden shed!

When my 92 year old mother- in- law heard the referendum result, she cried. She vividly remembered the devastation of the 2nd World War  and feared that the Leave vote might lead to the unravelling of much of the progress Europe has made since 1945. The vote seems to ignore the lessons of history, and if further countries leave, might lead to a more insecure and dangerous continent. It’s not surprising that Russia’s President Putin is delighted at the news of the UK’s imminent withdrawal from the powerful bloc that has been opposing his aggressive policies. It may also lead to the further unravelling of the United Kingdom itself as the whole of Scotland and Northern Ireland voted firmly to remain in Europe. They may soon vote to leave us and leave us weaker and more vulnerable in a dangerous world. We are a proud, sea-faring nation, but how will we cope when we are cut adrift and are left alone in turbulent waters?

 

Visiting God’s First Stab at the E.U.

19 Apr

At first glance it looked like something from a medieval fantasy. In front of us stood two large, circular brick towers topped by cone- shaped, slate roofs. Long thin flags fluttered from the tips of the roofs. In between the sturdy towers was an arched brick passageway, decorated by 2 shining bands of terracotta tiles. The archway was mirrored by rows of small arched windows and was crowned with a fancy gable, complete with 3 ornamental towers. We expected a damsel in distress to appear from an upper window at any moment and Sir Lancelot to ride to the rescue on his white charger. Maybe I’m getting carried away but it was the sort of  building that evoked those sorts of romantic, mythical images. Only the cars and buses driving either side of the gateway spoilt this  pre-Raphaelite vision.

My friend, Ian, and I were visiting the picture-book city of Lubeck, in the north of Germany  near to the Baltic Sea. Many people have never heard of it, as it is not one of the more conventional tourist destinations. However, Lubeck’s  Altstadt ( old town) is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site, designated as such as far back as 1987. It was the first place in northern Europe to be given this important accolade. We were standing in front of one of the main gateways to the medieval city – the Holstentor ( Holstein Gate). As we got close to it we noticed it wasn’t as perfectly symmetrical as we first thought. One of the towers had sagged and was leaning inwards. Apparently, the gateway was built on marshy ground and so did not have  a firm foundation. Most have heard about the Leaning Tower of Pisa but not many are aware of its Lubeck equivalent. There were once 4 such gateways, punctuating the city walls at each point of the compass. Now only 2 remain — the Holstentor on the west and the Burgtor in the north. They used to be protected by moats and outer fortifications. The tree-lined moat still remains, diverting water from the River Trave and turning the egg-shaped Altstadt into an island. The lovely old buildings of the Altstadt are often reflected in its waters. The Holstentor, much restored in the 19th and 21st centuries, has become one of the most famous symbols of Germany. Before the introduction of the Euro, it featured on the back of the 50 DM banknote and also appeared on various postage stamps. Bizarrely, the old gateway is also frequently depicted in marzipan as Lubeck is where this sweet delicacy was invented using fine almonds imported from Italy. The ” marz” part of the name refers to St Mark’s in Venice. Watching our figures ( at least some of the time), we didn’t indulge!

That trading link with Venice gives us a clue as to why Lubeck was so important in the Middle Ages and could build such grand buildings as the Holstentor and the 7 spired churches that spear the skyline. Lubeck was one of northern Europe’s leading trading cities from the 13th to the 15th centuries. Beyond the Holstein gate is a whole medley of beautiful medieval architecture, mainly in brick, as stone was not close at hand. Wealthy merchants built lovely homes decorated with an array of ornamental gables. They erected: massive, brick churches in the French Gothic style, ornate, frescoed hospitals and charitable institutions, and a picturesque Town Hall ( Rathaus) which is still in use. The Rathaus, built mainly in the 13th century, features inventive, alternate rows of red unglazed and black glazed bricks, shield- like, colourful coats of arms and 2 large holes to lessen wind resistance. Next to the Town Hall stands the enormous, twin towered Marienkirche, built by the merchants to show off their vast wealth and to hopefully book their place in heaven. It puts even the Cathedral ( or Dom) in the shade, the latter being perched on the outer edge of the city centre. This was a merchant city and even the church had to know its place.

In fact Lubeck was  the leading city of the Hanseatic League, a huge, successful trading alliance of  German-speaking cities. It reached its peak in the 15th century. Not all of these trading centres were in Germany, or the Holy Roman Empire as it used to be known. Those outside included: Amsterdam, Danzig ( now Gdansk), Bergen, Stockholm and Riga. The League came to control much of the trade in and around the Baltic and North Seas of northern Europe. It was just a loose federation and worked in a cooperative spirit, based on mutual trust. Trading ties were strengthened by marriage and family connections. At its height the Hanseatic league included about 200 member cities. These included: London, Boston and Kings Lynn in England. The Hansa organisation owned very little but controlled much. Its power was based on a complex web of trading routes spanning the North Sea, the Baltic Sea and the great rivers of northern Europe. In effect , it linked the Volga to the Thames, controlling an area from Novgorod to London. The Hansa merchants connected eastern and western Europe. The League defended its trade routes by raising armed fleets. They waged war if necessary if their interests were being threatened but largely they were a peaceful, organisation, concentrating on making money. The Hansa had their own commercial laws and had a sort of parliament to discuss mutual interests every year in Lubeck.  In recognition of its wealth, power and success, Lubeck was declared a Free Imperial City . Buildings such as the Holstentor, the Marienkirche and the Rathaus were designed to reflect this wealth and high status. As with every era, medieval architecture was mostly about showing off!

The age of the Hansa only came to an end when the focus of World trade moved from the Baltic and North Seas to the Atlantic Ocean after the discovery of the New World ( America) and new sea routes to India and the Far East. Naval defeat by Sweden and a disastrous intervention in a Danish Civil War just about finished it off. Maybe there’s a lesson to be learnt there –war is almost always a bad thing. Cooperation is usually preferable to confrontation.

In a way, the Hanseatic League, at its height, can be seen as an early version of the European Union. It linked cities from right across the continent in a  mainly peaceful, cooperative, economic organisation. So Lubeck was the medieval equivalent of the EU’s Brussels or Strasbourg. Although it did get involved in a few military conflicts, it can be argued that the League did a lot to keep the peace in northern Europe for significant periods of time, as it was in everyone’s interests to get on and reap the material rewards of trade. It’s much later successor, the EU, has also kept the peace in Europe since its inception in the late 1940’s, with the notable exception of the Yugoslavian Civil War. Yugoslavia, being a member of the former Communist block was not a member of the EU.  France and Germany who had gone to war 4 times in 140 years, wanted to put an end to the constant tit-for-tat conflicts by deliberately inter-meshing their economies at the end of the Second World War. Thus it would be in neither country’s interest to attack the other. Four other countries — Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg and Italy — joined Germany and France, in the European Coal and Steel Community. This later morphed into The Common Market, the European Economic Community and finally the European Union.

Britain, at first, stuck its nose up about joining a pan-European trading organisation. This was despite Winston Churchill’s stated vision of a united Europe. Maybe, like today’s British Euro-sceptics, politicians in the 1940s and early 50’s didn’t want to exchange British independence for European cooperation despite the latter’s promise of  continental peace and prosperity . They looked to the Empire, the Commonwealth and the so-called “Special relationship” with the Americans as reasons for not getting too closely involved with Europe, even though the latter was their own continent. It was only when the British Empire started to disappear rapidly and the relationship with the USA was severely dented after the 1956 Suez crisis  that the British Prime Minister, Harold McMillan, did a dramatic U-turn and applied for British membership of the European club. Rebuffed, in the early 1960’s, by the French President Charles de Gaulle, who was still not convinced that the British displayed the right attitude to be good Europeans, it was another decade before Prime Minister Ted Heath finally led us into an expanded Common Market, a decision validated by the referendum of 1975 called by Harold Wilson’s Labour Government. It’s ironic that Wilson called the Referendum mainly to conceal the splits in his own party over European membership. Doesn’t that sound familiar? The probable reason for the current 2016 referendum on Britain’s continued EU membership is probably so that PM David Cameron can by-pass the severe splits in his own Conservative party over Europe. So Britain’s whole membership of the EU is being put on the line because of Tory party squabbles!

Should we stay or should we go? The interminable debate rumbles on, with journalists rubbing their hands in glee at all the opportunities they have to exploit the politicians’ divisions. Having just returned from Lubeck, it seems strange that large numbers of Britons seem to think they would be better off by going it alone. The strongest economy in Europe, Germany, is not having this debate. The Germans are in for the duration. Despite its many problems the EU has delivered, as it had brought peace and prosperity to the German people as well as to much of Europe. Lubeck and the Hanseatic league was an early example of the advantages of cooperation over competition. Lubeck also contains a stark warning of the dangers of non-cooperation.

About a quarter of its lovely, historical centre was destroyed in a devastating bombing raid by the RAF on March 28th/29th, 1942. Yes, I know it was Hitler and the Germans who started it. And I also know that the attack on Lubeck was in part retaliation for the Nazi bombing of London, Coventry and other British cities. I am not qualified to make a proper judgement anyway, as I didn’t live through the horrors of the Second World War, being born a few years afterwards. However, I think it’s a great shame that both sides seemed to think it was fair game to attack and devastate beautiful, historic towns and cities with limited military or industrial significance. The German reaction to Lubeck was the equally appalling “Baedeker” raids on English historical and cultural centres such as : Canterbury, Bath, Exeter, Norwich and York. Later the British destroyed Hamburg and the beautiful city of Dresden  — and so the sad story goes on! I suppose the nearest modern equivalent is Islamic State vandalising the ancient Roman city of Palmyra in Syria or the Taliban blowing up those sacred statues of Buddha in Afghanistan. The tragic Syrian civil war has also destroyed unique and precious historical cities such as Damascus and Aleppo. Back in 1942, Lubeck lost over a quarter of the historic buildings in its Alstadt. 234 bombers dropped 160 tons of high explosives and 25,000 incenduries. Bomber Arthur Harris’s idea was to blow open the brick and copper roofs of the medieval buildings and then the incendiaries were dropped into the ruins to create a fire-storm. He used it as a test case for the similar bombing of cities such as Hamburg and Berlin. In some ways it could be viewed as Britain’s Guernica! To judge from his memoirs, he was very pleased with the results. Joseph Stalin was also pleased, expressing his delight at this “merciless killing.”

The German people have now rebuilt Lubeck, restoring or replacing the buildings destroyed in the war. Unfortunately, this now means that some non-descript modern buildings have spoilt the medieval completeness of the main square outside the Town Hall. The magnificent, twin-towered Marienkirche has also been rebuilt — the third largest church in Germany. The church was severely damaged in 1942 and we saw a sad photo of it burning. Both organs and much fine wood-carvings were lost. The restoration is impressive but one part has been deliberately left untouched. The bells in the south tower have been left where they smashed, half-melted, to the ground. They are a memorial to the tragedy of war. I have also visited Coventry and seen the ruins of its old cathedral standing next to the impressive new one, also acting as a memorial.

Lubeck is a beautiful, historical city. It has somehow survived the ravages of time and of modern warfare. We enjoyed walking the streets lined with 15th and 16th century gabled buildings. We enjoyed walking along the waterways and exploring little cobbled alleyways leading to secluded courtyards. We viewed impressive art and artefacts in the museums and enjoyed coffee and strudel in several of the excellent bakery/ cafes.( We weren’t always watching our waistlines!) It is a very civilised place to visit and we enjoyed our stay. Lubeck also reminded us of two important lessons of history  — the rich rewards of free trade in a time of peace and prosperity, and at the same time, the grave consequences of confrontation and war. The Hanseatic league was a medieval forerunner of today’s European Union. Both of these trading organisations have produced peace and prosperity for many.

Now I’m back in the United Kingdom and the constant din of the EU Referendum campaign. The 24 Hour news channels love it! Should we remain or should we leave?  That’s a question for every thinking person’s conscience. But the lessons of history, as reflected from my trip to Lubeck, suggest strongly to me that  the UK should stay in a cooperative union with its European neighbours.