THIS ENGLISH BREXIT
a personal reflection by Paul Oestreicher
Brexit is, I believe, an English tragedy, a self-inflicted wound, English, not British. My own story leaves me no choice but to believe this. I will tell you why a little later. But first, forget who is writing this. I need to admit that maybe, dislike it intensely as I do, it had to happen. And not because of statistics.
It is likely that Le Général was right. Charles de Gaulle lived as an exiled Frenchman in England during the Second World War. His nation had been humiliatingly defeated by Germany. The English did not allow him to forget it. Instead of respecting him as the leader of the Free French, the English proudly ignored him. He gained an insight into the English character that led him to respect, not Britain, but Germany. On that, he built his vision of a future Europe without the English. Non, was his reply, to our first application.
Henry Vlll was convinced that the number of his wives was none of the Pope’s business. So, The Church of England was born. The break with Rome was at least as dramatic in its consequences as the break with Brussels now. Anglicanism turned out to be neither flesh nor fowl, Henry his own kind of Catholic, his successors their particular kinds of Protestant. It worked, after some bloodletting. What mattered was, the English were different, with the Queen’s Prayer Book ironing out the differences. Not to forget putting down the Scots. And a short-lived Revolution that incidentally dealt cruelly with the Irish. And going on to build the world’s greatest Empire. Blue blood was a problem. It kept ignoring frontiers, kept fomenting continental wars of succession but, having crossed the channel, skilfully Englished the aristocracy, even the many whose mother tongue was German. The royals did nothing to unite Europe. Britannia turned her back and took to ruling the waves – globally. Spaniards be damned.
So much for part of the background to Brexit. Who am I writing this, and why? The only child of a Jewish-born Christian German paediatrician and a German mother, singer and artist, of peasant background. In 1939, aged seven, I arrived in New Zealand with my refugee parents. That same year, World War ll began, making us enemy aliens. The children chased me around the school yard. Their game was called: ‘Hunt the Hun’. I played along. A little girl shouted: ‘He’s not just a German, he’s a Jew!’ Did she know what a Jew was? Anyway, not nice.
In 1955, an Anglican ordinand with a degree in politics, I returned to Germany as a New Zealand postgraduate student. My paternal grandmother had died, a victim of the Holocaust. I was subsequently ordained in London and went on to serve the British churches for the rest of my working life, much involved in public affairs: East Europe Secretary of the British Council of Churches, Chair of Amnesty and finally Director of International Ministry at Coventry Cathedral. Even, for a decade, a South London vicar.
People sometimes ask me: ‘Where is home for you?’ ‘Where God sends me’ cuts through the complexities, but is really an evasion. Germany is my first answer. I never spoke to my parents in anything but German. I’m glad to have my German citizenship back. New Zealand is my second answer, my home by adoption and conviction. I return regularly. The landscapes of both countries are my landscapes.
England? It has never felt like home. For 64 years I have remained one of its many, many immigrants, well treated (unlike too many others) but kept at arms’ length, never quite ‘one of us.’ Strange perhaps, that Scotland should feel closer. Dunedin, my New Zealand home, as was my University, was a Scottish, not an English creation. Brexit now underlines that for me. My closest ties to England are now, happily, my most certainly English children.
The fact that, until now, my British passport has also made me a citizen of Europe has made me more comfortable with my UK citizenship. Now, no more. I can understand why my friend and colleague Michael Sadgrove feels he has lost an important part of his identity. Given his refugee mother, a restored German passport might come to his aid, as it has to mine.
Being the passionate European that I am, I need to return to the experience of President de Gaulle. He suffered emotionally under English attitudes. Happy as I was with ‘European Union’ on my UK passport, I nevertheless realised that this did not chime with the feelings of most of the people among whom I live. There have of course always been exceptions, even among prominent Tory politicians, most of whom Boris Johnson has fired. My former boss, Noel Salter, International Secretary of the British Council of Churches, Winchester, Oxford and Travellers Club (how much more English can you get?) was passionate about Europe. As a young diplomat, Churchill’s assistant at the Council of Europe, he never began a day’s work without half an hour with Le Monde. He was part of a small internationally minded and often Christian elite, very aware of how out of step he was, a Tory with a big liberal heart. He told me that once, on a Surbiton commuter train, sitting opposite two bowler hatted Telegraph readers, he muttered under his breath: ‘Gentlemen, I fear for your eternal souls’. Were he still alive, Brexit would break his heart.
With very few exceptions, throughout the years of British membership of the EU, British politicians, Margaret Thatcher included, and finally David Cameron, knew very well that British membership was to the UK’s advantage. Yet it was a membership of the mind but not of the heart. Many of my friends, all remainers and friends of Europe, nevertheless think of Europeans as ‘them’, not ‘us’. They go to Europe, gladly and often, but still do not feel that they live in Europe. This is true of both left and right, across the classes. Now, those Brits who do live on the Continent are left confused and bereft. Thank God for academics and some journalists like Timothy Garton Ash, as much at home in Berlin and Warsaw as in Oxford. ‘If you think you are a citizen of the world’, mocked Theresa May, ‘you are a citizen of nowhere.’
Symbols matter, because they express feelings. The European flag was never flown on British government buildings, as it is in the rest of Europe. Across the Continent, every car’s registration plate carries the European stars. Only in Britain is that optional for each owner to decide. Just over one third have it. Most don’t even know there is a choice.
For more than 40 years Britain has remained the emotional outsider while politically, the outsider inside. Our governments of every brand have never ceased to belittle ‘Brussels’. Hardly a word about this peace project. Public silence on all the benefits, economic, environmental, legal and cultural. As often as not, Britain has simply sought exceptional treatment. And all the while, an anti-European press worked its poison. Even so, in a first referendum, Europe remarkably won. During the second, it is surprising that after all the lying propaganda and a lacklustre six-week ‘remain’ campaign, Cameron came so close to winning. Had his government campaigned with conviction and campaigned for longer, the UK would almost certainly still be part of the EU. The mind might well have triumphed over the heart. I’ve sadly got to face it: England has never felt European at heart.
Nevertheless, on every indicator Brexit remains an English tragedy. Economically, the nation and specially the poor will suffer. Business knows it. The hyper rich will not care a damn in their tax havens. We shall all lose politically, culturally, environmentally, scientifically, legally, humanly, morally. Workers’ rights, human rights, equality and environmental protections will suffer. Shame on our Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’. Shame on No 10’s closed door to child refugees. Yet we have opened our doors to the prophets of hate. The police and MI5 know it. We will not be more secure.
To all this there is a spiritual dimension, ignored because religion has virtually disappeared from the public discourse. Who has even heard of the Conference of European Churches? One of its Presidents was John Arnold, former Dean of Durham. The three fathers of the EU, Schuman, de Gasperi and Adenauer, were devout Christians. Their peace project was deeply imbued with their aspiration for social justice. Powerful trade unions were built into the structures. Their Christian Democracy was an answer to what they saw as the Communist threat. Their ideals chimed with classic Social Democracy. The Christian socialist Jacques Delors became its most passionate advocate, all in defence of the Common Good. The English Right hated it. The English Left simply did not and does not want to understand. It remains so.
An English radical right cabal has taken Britain over a cliff, refusing to admit that, by now, a UK majority may wish to remain part of a Europe that ruefully mourns our departure. I cannot forget the many who marched for Europe. Not in vain. In politics, never say never. The dye is not cast forever. A compassionate Europe is under threat across the continent. Its soul must remain our cause. How dare we leave the fray.