Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Brexit Tales 2: Talking To Bob

Bob is in his 90s, but he was just too young to be called up during World War 2, which he remembers clearly. He left school at 14 (they lowered the age during WW2) and he worked at Chilwell Ordnance Depot, which was one of the largest in the UK during the war. He remembers an air raid which failed to hit the depot, but left holes in the road. He greatly admired Churchill for saving the country, despite all of the risks. What may surprise you is that Bob voted remain.

I knew he had voted to stay in the EEC at the previous ballot in the 1970s, but I didn't know if he had changed his mind.  It turns out that he and I bucked the trend of our respective generations - especially in the Midlands. Since then we have had a number of conversations about it, and I found it fascinating to hear his reasons for voting the way he did.

One significant factor for him was that the European Union bound together the destinies of old enemies, which was one of the driving forces behind the foundation of the community in the first place. I remember seeing an interview with John Major where he described the change in his party after the 1992 election. A lot of older MPs retired, who had seen active service in the war, and the new intake had no such experience and many were more Eurosceptic. The older MPs had regarded the sacrifices involved in being committed to the European Union as a price worth paying for never seeing conflict in Europe such as they had lived through. I sensed that Bob felt the same way - after all his own father had been in the trenches of World War 1.

Another thing he remembers well is the era of post-war austerity. Working at an electronics company, and also having radio as a hobby, he remembers the problems and paperwork involved in obtaining imported items. Import controls limited what could come in, and in what quantity. Britain was faced with repaying loans from the USA, and money was tight. It also gave the United States a lot of influence over the UK in that period. I recently read a book called 1946 by Victor Sebestyen, which describes the events of that year and their long-term impact. In a chapter on the UK, he describes how pressure from the US accelerated the decolonisation process, and may even have meant that the withdrawals were done in a more disordered rush than they otherwise might. 

Bob remembers the Suez crisis, when the UK and France acted as if they were still superpowers and rapidly discovered that they weren't. US pressure, through the threat of withdrawing finance, led to the rather humiliating climb-down by the UK that followed. Britain had to face the fact that it was no longer in a position to act in the world without reference to its much bigger ally. As Harry Truman's Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, put it: "Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role."

So Britain effectively had a choice either to become increasingly under the sway of the US, or to grow economically closer to Europe. As Bob pointed out, we have spent the last 45 years moving in one direction, so what sense can there be in uprooting all of that. All of the alternative possibilities we might have pursued instead of the EEC are now gone. It's not like we can go back to the end of the 1960s and have another go with the Commonwealth or the USA as if nothing has happened since.

The other key point Bob made was that the government has been completely consumed by brexit since the referendum. He feels that there were so many other things they could have been sorting out, which have been slowed or even put on hold. As we talked we even wondered if some of the very grievances that prompted some people to vote leave could have been dealt with, had the government been free to get on with addressing them. Either way, brexit seemed an unnecessary waste of a huge amount of money, staffing and energy, when so many other problems are before us.

So he voted remain. How do I know? Bob is my dad.


Charlesdawson said...

Just a pedantic niggle: they didn't lower the school leaving age in 1939 - they had been considering raising it to 15, but postponed that till after WW2. How do I know? Because I had lots of uncles & aunts who grew up during that war and my parents who were born too early left at 14 during the 'thirties.

PS my grandparents all left school at 12, for 60-hours-a-week jobs in factories and on farms, before WWI.

Mike Peatman said...

Thank you for the correction. That is what dad said - I remembered it slightly wrong. He would have left at 15, had the change not been deferred due to the war. My grandad left school at 9, following the early death of his father in a farming accident in 1896.