For 37 years, Axel Scheffler, the German-born illustrator of The Gruffalo, has made his home and his career in Britain. His contribution to the lives of millions of our children has been simply immense. If we leave Europe, his hitherto guaranteed right to call the UK his home is under threat. Can we imagine how this affects his life, how it makes him feel? And how do we feel that such a circumstance might yet come to pass in our country? This man is a treasured friend to us and to our children. We have to think again, and think hard.
The European Union, as we know it now, was created after the second world war by France and Germany to ensure peace and prosperity. There was a determination that war should be no more. They had good enough reason. In the preceding 300 years there had been many wars between these two countries, the last two catastrophic, not just to them, but to us in the UK, and to people all over the world. There has been peace in Europe since, mostly. And democracy, mostly. And for many people, though not enough, there has also been great prosperity. Peace and prosperity and democracy – these are fine aims for us and our children.
In a democracy people are entitled to change their minds. That’s the point of it. In an election we vote in a government, and if we feel they have let us down, not running the country as we would like, then at the next election we can vote them out again.
The same must be true, surely, whether the democratic process takes the form of an election or a referendum. In the referendum in 1975, 67% voted to stay in Europe. In 2016, 52% voted to leave. If we can change our minds after that first referendum, after circumstances have changed and upon reflection, then we can also change our minds now, after the second one, after circumstances have changed and upon reflection. And that to my mind is what we should now do, in order to save ourselves from ever greater decline and division.
We have had almost three years now of bitter debate, toxic to national unity, to the national psyche, as deeply depressing, unpleasant and dishonest as the referendum itself. We blame the prime minister. We blame the government. We blame parliament. We should not. We have brought this on ourselves. This is a self-inflicted wound that will not heal, until we can agree to settle our differences, or simply agree to disagree.
That we find ourselves a deeply troubled country is hardly surprising. After all we are a family going through a divorce. The referendum told us we must. We are the children in this divorcing family, and we are riven by it. There are those who blame Europe for most of our ills. Many are rightly angry at the unfairness of our society and lay it all at the door of Europe. They were encouraged to do so during the referendum campaign – a campaign which was a travesty of democracy. They are suffering through these bitter times, and are simply longing for the process of divorce to be over. They were given hope: hope of finding better jobs, of improved living conditions. This was the way to put the Great back into Britain, to renew national pride, to recover our lost sovereignty, to rediscover our Shangri-La.
Some, though, still feel part of this family of European nations, despite all its idiocies, its squabbles, despite some awkward relatives. We know the benefits of peace and prosperity it has brought us. We are used to Europe now. It is home, as Britain is our home. And now we might be leaving. At the same time, we feel increasingly alienated from our fellow countrymen and women, and traumatised at the prospect of the breakup of the family. We feel the country has lost its way.
There will be a life after this divorce. But how will it be? Leave or remain, half the country will be greatly hurt. It is our insensitivity to the immense hurt all this has caused to the rest of the European family of nations that I have found most shameful. Right from the start of negotiations we insisted on playing it the haughty way. We are the fifth biggest economy in the world. Europe will roll over and do our bidding to keep our business. We can dictate our terms for the divorce. The trouble, we soon discovered, is that Europe too has its pride, and they don’t like being talked down to or dictated to any more than we do. They bite back. That’s what happens in divorces.
And after the divorce? Well, there are two stories. Either we leave, and the Shangri-La land of milk and honey beckons, or we stay in Europe and play our full part in creating a reformed Europe that we and so many in Europe would like to see.
I prefer the latter choice. We have fought well enough in the past for a free Europe. So let us stay, and work to achieve a better Europe. I choose this way because of the children. We should remember that more than 70% of young voters in the referendum wanted to stay in.
The umbrella of peace in Europe is protection for the young in an ever more threatening world. Look at how that umbrella has helped bring peace on the island of Ireland. Two European nations, Ireland and the UK, determined between them that war should be no more, and Europe helped to create an atmosphere in which peace could begin and prosper. But peace, like marriage, like friendship, has to be worked at, can never be taken for granted.
It is time now to think again. And I am not the only one. Remember, 48% of us voted to stay in Europe. Six million of us this week echoed that by signing a petition. And then there was the recent march of the families in London. Hundreds of thousands of people walking in peaceful protest, declaring their fervent wish to remain in Europe. This was not an angry mob. This was a serious protest, but full of good humour. This was Britain at its best, at its greatest.
So let us end these intractable and angry divorce proceedings, for our children’s sake. They hope for a future in Europe, to create a world of peace and reconciliation, to tread ever more softly on our planet. It will be their world. Let’s listen to them, follow them.
We need to revoke article 50, pause, think, and then not rush ahead. We need to do this for Scheffler and others like him. We need to try to commit to this marriage, to make it work better for us, for our children, and for Europe. And if in 10 years or so, there are many of us who still feel Europe is not home to us, then we can think again. Nothing is for ever.