Whenever I lived in North America and people asked me about Europe, I’d tell them that – as a Doncaster-born “bloke” living most of my adult life in Sheffield – I didn’t know all that much about the place. Then they’d remind me that my own beloved Britain was, after all, in Europe, and with raised eyebrows and a tone of admission I’d say, “Oh, yeah…”
The reality is, very few of us British really think of ourselves as European. We still queue without instruction, remain patient at traffic lights, huff and puff in a rush, complain about being charged to use public toilets, and avoid being direct unless we’re openly slagging off foreigners, at which point diplomacy goes out of the window.
I’ve just returned from a week’s jaunt around mainland Europe, and I’ve been reminded of the differences but also the similarities we have with those at the other end of that tunnel under the English Channel.
When you’re from the “People’s Republic of South Yorkshire,” you kind of get an intuitive vibe for similar places, and when I walked around Liège, in Belgium, with Jane Watkinson, we both took an instant liking to the place – and sure enough, the hip, cosmopolitan but down-to-earth and diverse population enjoying the late night bars represented the traditionally socialist post-industrial regenerative spirit of a city moving beyond coal and steel.
We went by Dachau, in Germany, which from Nazi headquarters in nearby Munich, troops following Second World War orders were directed to develop from a prison for crooks, to a detention centre for political prisoners, to a concentration camp for homosexuals, socialists, vegetarians, the disabled, most of all Jews, and also the “work-shy” to be put into forced labour under the infamous gates bearing the message “Arbeit macht frei” – or “work will make you free.” Of course, this “forced labour” was torture, with the concept of freedom a dangling carrot guiding the inmates into gas chambers and ovens that exterminated tens of thousands of people.
When allied forces finally approached the area, Dachau’s SS soldiers started betraying signs of guilt by attempting to destroy evidence of the atrocities there, and even began sending prisoners towards coasts (to be drowned) or on to trucks and trains headed for Tyrol, Italy. There, before going to Venice, we visited a military cemetery in Bolzano, where Jews and Nazi soldiers have been buried side-by-side – demonstrating the desperate desire of the former fascists to treat all of those who died in the war as victims of the same oppression and propaganda that we all shudder at the thought of ever becoming.
And it’s fair to say that all the people of then-fascist Germany and Italy were victims – of division, fear and propaganda. After the humiliating and devastating after-effects of the First World War, this was understandable – as angry peoples wanted to strike back, needing to feel good about themselves again, and susceptible to nationalist and racist language and laws.
On the way back towards the Channel Tunnel at the trip’s conclusion, we sat on a bus driving into Calais as the coach staff took to the microphone to draw the passengers’ attention towards immigrants sat in nearby bushes, hoping to find a route to a better life. As one pathetic man slumped there in one ditch, looking cold, hungry and tired, predominantly white, middle-class tourists looked through the glass at his miserable frame; some pointed and laughed.
For once, my big Doncastrian mouth was shut. I was speechless. I wasn’t angry; I was gutted. I refused to look at the man in the bushes for more than a moment, instead looking around at our fellow passengers and feeling ashamed. Some of these desperate immigrants – wanting a better life just like those British who move abroad – cling onto trucks and are severely injured; entire families have been found dead in truck containers they hid in, hoping to arrive to a place that less closely resembled hell. Well, my own country’s on the road to a fascist hell itself.
Is this what we’re reduced to? Ridiculing the poor, the persecuted, the desperate? Is this what we’ve become?
Nazism was able to slowly grow like a cancer because of propaganda that convinced people to see other people as slightly less human: the “lazy” or the disabled, ethnic minorities or people of different faiths. Through a democratic process, citizens actively voted for tougher laws against immigrants and Jewish people.
In Britain today, our anti-European sentiment isn’t the biggest story. No, the biggie is the fact that – while banks who got £1.5 trillion of taxpayers’ money and have yet to repay it – the main concerns of the British people are based on the utter lie that our way of life is somehow threatened by people less fortunate than ourselves wanting to escape conditions that our government, in most cases, historically caused while using our brave soldiers as pawns in their plans. Of course, given that Rothermere’s Daily Mail supported the Nazis in the build-up to the Second World War yet is still one of the most-read “news” papers in Britain, this should be no surprise. The old tricks are the best.
Today, the most right-wing British government after the Second World War thrives on this divide-and-rule fascistic propaganda to implement totally unnecessary social security cuts, introduce forced labour for the “work-shy,” throw disabled people off welfare, and demonise immigrants to the point where we’re actually pointing and laughing at them.
This is not the Britain I was born in back in 1976, and it isn’t the Britain I care to die in. And I have no plans on leaving.
I am so glad to be back here in Britain, with all its double yellow lines, and red postboxes, phone boxes and buses, and black cabs; its numerous towns and cities within near spitting distance of each other; its easily-accessible vegan grub. And let’s not forget about the modern model of democracy it exported to all four corners of the globe, its far-reaching empire that sees its subjects now wanting a little something in return.
What we have left now is too important not to fight for. And you have to fight for it – before it continues down this road that leads to a very dark place that history has already shown us.