The Noble Cause
There are many arguments for and against the EU, but for me the overriding reason for being a member is something I call “The Noble Cause”. I’ll have to explain it as a personal narrative, because it isn’t amenable to soundbites.
I have always tended to be an internationalist, because other countries and peoples fascinate me. When joining the EEC was mooted again in the early 1970s, I was all for it. I was very aware of European history and I knew all about the two world wars. When I was a kid in the 1950s, there were still bomb sites all around the street where I grew up in South London. So, I knew that unity meant peace.
From just before my 21st birthday at the end of 1970, I sang for 35 years with the Philharmonia Chorus, the world’s greatest symphony chorus. In early January 1973, we took part in a series of concerts in Paris and London, as part of the “Fanfare for Europe” celebrations, when the UK and two other countries joined, to make “the six” “the nine”.
We sang four performances of Haydn’s “Creation”. The first two, on the Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, were in Paris, at Notre Dame and the Cathedral of St Denis. The third was in London on the Thursday evening, at the Royal Festival Hall. The last was in Paris on the Saturday morning. The flights backwards and forwards made those four days exhausting. By the time we got to the theatre on Saturday morning, we were “all sung out”, but we had to give our very best.
The theatre (whose name I forget) had a tradition of running Saturday morning concerts of classical music at very cheap prices, for students and anybody else who couldn’t afford normal concert prices. We found that they were very similar to audiences at the London Proms concerts: full of enthusiasm, energy and eagerness to hear the best music. Before we even started, their energy had entered us and wiped out the exhaustion. We gave them our best and they loved it. It was one of those “beyond the pain barrier” performances that transcended the present.
We had to leave the theatre through the main foyer at the end of the concert. We were mobbed by teenagers asking us to sign their programs (never before and never since have I been begged for my autograph – except on cheques!). As we were happily strolling through the crowd and chatting to them in our bad French and their bad English, I noticed a small, middle-aged man, standing at the side of the foyer, wearing a white, short-sleeved shirt, slacks and sandals. It was odd attire for Northern Europe on only the second Saturday in January, so he stood out. He could have been Semitic; he had the complexion and facial features of somebody from around the Mediterranean. His hands were folded in front of him and smiling gently and wistfully at us. As a group of us approached, he came in front of us and said “Thank you for the most wonderful experience of my life!” As he opened his arms in greeting, we saw the numbers tattooed on his arm …..
Imagine that. A man who had been through Hell on Earth, whose eyes had the haunted look of so many holocaust survivors, telling us, nearly 30 years after his liberation, that we had given him the most wonderful experience of his life ….
I know that it sounds trivial in the great run of things, but for me it symbolised exactly what we were doing. Nations were reaching out to each other across Europe, from West to East, in gestures of bonding, reconciliation and healing. We were asserting our desire for peace and mutual forgiveness in unity, so that never – NEVER – again would there be war among us.
My grandfather fought in the first world war and my father fought in the second. Grandad was wounded in the charge up Vimy Ridge in 1917. He had already been gassed in the trenches on the Somme the previous year, inhaling poison that festered inside and caused the stomach ulcers that finally killed him suddenly, hardly five months before the second war started. So, I have a claim on Europe as my homeland, for my family has shed its blood over it.
Later, as we settled down in the EEC, which became the EC and then the EU, I saw many of its beautiful places, on trips with the Philharmonia Chorus and on holidays with our children. I remember 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down and then the Warsaw Pact countries suddenly gained their independence from the Soviet Union. Our Chorus Master of the time was Horst Neumann, from Leipzig in Communist East Germany. At the next rehearsal a few days later, he stood in front of us with tears in his eyes and said: “Ladies and Gentlemen. You no longer have an East German Chorus Master. You have a GERMAN Chorus master!” And two months later, at the traditional Berlin Christmas morning performance of Beethoven’s 9th symphony (the first in a reunited Berlin), Leonard Bernstein had had the performers change the word “Freude!” (Joy!) to “Freiheit!” (Freedom!). At long last, after three quarters of a century since they had started to go out, the lights were coming on again, all over Europe.
I marvelled on our holiday trips, as we drove at 70mph (okay – 68 mph / 110 kph) over borders with closed customs houses and disused immigration check-points. Soldiers of my father’s and grandfather’s generations had slaughtered each other over those borders only decades earlier, yet now we can speed over them without let or hindrance. In fact, I could drive to Folkestone, get on the Shuttle, get off at Calais and drive from there to the Polish/Ukrainian border, without stopping except for fuel, sustenance and sleep. That’s Free movement. FREE MOVEMENT – The ABSOLUTE symbol of the victory of peace over war and of hope over fear.
So, this is my Noble Cause. The cause that gives peace to a continent torn by warfare for over a thousand years. The cause that makes me at home as much in France, Italy and Lithuania as I am in England. The cause that means that British people can work freely in any of 27 other countries, and their people can bring their talents to us in Britain.
But for four months, we have been threatened with the disintegration of everything that has brought us peace and prosperity for nearly three generations. This stupid, heartbreaking attempt to rip our country out of its European homeland and cast it adrift, into a world that is laughing at the prospect of a UK without Europe, is the biggest act of mass suicide in history. As Shakespeare had Othello say of himself, the referendum vote was that of: “… one whose hand, Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away Richer than all his tribe”.
So, forgive me if I keep resisting Brexit. Forgive me if I still grieve and rage over it. For me, the fight is absolute. I will never give in. I will never surrender my Noble Cause.