Sunday, 5 March 2017

Bearing Witness to Europe: a day in Newcastle

Yesterday I got on the train and went to join the North East March for Europe in Newcastle. For a couple of hours I stood with a crowd of several hundred at the Monument in the city-centre. There was a home-spun party atmosphere with banners, flag-waving and singing. I felt a bit underdressed, not sporting the celebratory attire of yellow stars on blue. Even a well-dressed canine looked better suited for the part than I did. But it didn't matter. I was glad to be there.

"Celebratory?" you ask. Hang on, who actually won the EU referendum? No-one was denying the way the vote went. But far from rendering everyone despondent, it seemed to have had the opposite effect. This was a crowd that was energised and enthusiastic, eager to do our best for Britain and Europe, and confident in affirming all that we valued in the EU. Yes, and determined to try to win hearts and minds in the aftermath of the Brexit vote by urging our country to look again at its consequences and prevent lasting damage not only to ourselves but to our European friends and neighbours.

I'd decided to go for two reasons. The first was simply to show solidarity with the millions across the land who voted to remain in the EU. At a time when the momentum of Brexit seems unstoppable, there's a lot to be said for turning out on the streets en masse in order to show our political leaders that they can't assume that Britain has given them an "overwhelming" or even a "clear" mandate to drive us to the cliff-edge. And even if we had, we would still have the right to change our minds as a nation. That's what democracy means.

In the vocabulary of Christian faith, I call this kind of public activity "bearing witness": telling our story, sharing our experience, and inviting others to make it their own and become part of it. Getting out there is to become active rather than passive, not to be a bystander but to do something. And that changes for good the consciousness not only of those who take part but of the many more who watch or listen or read news reports and social media. Becoming participants makes a difference. Maybe a bigger difference than we can know at the time. Standing at the heart of Newcastle, this great cosmopolitan city that voted to remain in the EU, I think we all felt empowered.

The other reason for going was that I wanted to hear the speeches. An impressive line-up of speakers represented the worlds of politics, education, the unions, health, and business and commerce. I don't suppose many of us learned much that was new. But it was the conviction with which they spoke that impressed and even moved me. They were clear that our country had made a disastrous mistake. They were clear that the electorate had been misled and lied to. They were clear that the values of Europeanism were still alive and well across our nation. They were clear that it wasn't too late to row back from our decision. They were clear that the UK still had a future in the EU provided enough people believed in it with conviction.

In their different ways, the speakers underlined a simple message. "We want our country back. We want our continent back too. Being in the EU isn't only about the economy. It's about the values we share. We stand up not only for ourselves but for the next generation. We love Europe. We are Europeans. We shall fight for a second referendum on the negotiated Brexit deal with the option Remain in the EU on the ballot paper."

At the end, Professor A. C. Grayling spoke, one of the most intelligent and ardent champions of Britain's membership of the EU. In a long series of writings and tweets he has mercilessly exposed Brexit for what it is, the non-sense of "this crazy, absurd, damaging project". We must lobby our MPs, he told us. Too many Remainer parliamentarians are going along with Brexit because, as the cry has it, "the people have spoken". This needs challenging by rigorous argument. And maybe our elected representatives who, presumably, haven't stopped believing that EU membership is a good thing need a little encouragement to stand up for that belief. (It's a pity that there were no North East MPs among the speakers - had they been invited and refused, I wonder?) And as for the electorate as a whole, we should raise the morale of despondent Remainers while continuing to challenge those who voted to leave. In other words, the debate is far from concluded. It's more urgent than ever. We need to keep it alive.

It wasn't lost on me that we were gathered at the foot of  a monument that celebrates the great Charles Earl Grey. His fame rests, not on the scented tea named after him but his achievement as a courageous, pioneering, forward-looking politician. He was Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834, and it was under his government that slavery was finally abolished in the British Empire. More than that, he was the principal advocate of the Great Reform Act of 1832 that did so much to ensure the proper representation of the people in Parliament. His memory as a champion of democracy is treasured in his native North East. It's dangerous to claim the great men and women of the past as supporters of present-day causes, but I couldn't help thinking that he would have approved of our act of witness by his monument.

But the name of Grey sounds a warning note too. Someone responded to one of my tweets by pointing out that it was Earl Grey's descendant Sir Edward Grey who famously said in 1914, on the eve of the Great War, that the lights were "going out all over Europe". A few yards away from the monument, a small but noisy group of counter-protesters, some wearing Trump masks, were displaying a large banner that read: "Refugees Not Welcome. We Are Full". A sign that the lights could well go out across Europe if we are not vigilant for democracy, decency and peace-making, for justice, inclusion and equality, all the values that the European vision at its noblest represents. At a time when we do not know what will become of the West in the era of an unpredictable US president, and when Alt-Right movements are springing up across our own continent, we would be wise to be vigilant. And keep our European alliances in good repair.

1 comment:

  1. Pity the "refugees not welcome" group wished to remain anonymous. I don't think people differentiate between illegal, or even legal but unnecessary, immigration, and those seeking refuge.
    But, to your main point. I voted remain, but only just. I think the arguments on both sides have not always been honest. Now we find that other Europaean countries are considering whether to leave or not, and we are to be given tough terms "pour encourager les autres". Does that not suggest that the EU no longer has a good enough product to offer? There is a lot of corruption and waste. Perhaps, if the indications that others wanted to leave too persuaded our neighbours they needed to sharpen up, then we would have something worth protesting about.

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