My grandfather fought in both World Wars in the last century. I have a postcard sitting in front of me which he sent from Belgium to Flo, his wife. It is dated 1920 and it shows a photo of his battalion. His note finishes with a suggestion that the war had changed him. He had been away, on and off, for five years.
Not to be downhearted he also ‘fought’ in the Second World War too, but in Intelligence and this time he was away for six years. I never was brave enough to ask him but I suspect being away from a marriage for eleven years – they did celebrate their Golden Wedding Anniversary – affected him deeply. And it must have impacted on his subsequent relationship with his two sons born in 1920 and 1921. And they, in turn, with their subsequent families. Patterns of behaviour in families, as we know, re-occur.
My Dad signed up in 1938. To be frank he had run away from home to join. His father had been in the Artillery but Dad signed for the Engineers. He too was away for six years. He fought in France (he was mentioned in Dispatches) and in Egypt. He was a prisoner of war in Crete and tried to escape. He ended up in the mountains eating grass because he had not eaten for three weeks and could not find a friendly boat off the island. He gave himself up. He was then subjected to a month in isolation. He never told me about this element of his life until he was dying.
By comparison my life has been easier. I missed National Service and my older brother and I were the first for seven generations not to enlist in the armed services. My father did not think much of us for some considerable time. We lived as boys in Nigeria and Hong Kong. Allen, my brother, had been to France and Austria by the time he was sixteen. By the time he was twenty-one he had flown the nest and gone to live in Vancouver. I was a little late to the dance floor and only started travelling and holiday-making in my twenties (Singapore/Australia/USA) and thirties and now I am itchy if I have not been on a plane for two months or so. Currently, I am quietly going mad (I know, nothing new there).
I mention all this because my lot – I am seventy – have benefitted from the NHS and from Laker travel, which begat Ryan Air, EasyJet et al., giving us cheap air travel anywhere in the world but especially Europe. (When I last went to Edinburgh by train I could have flown to Berlin and back for the same price.) We’ve also had a chance to go to university which is now almost a given for our children. I was the first of our family to chance his arm at university and have not stopped, having just completed an MA. And more of us own our own properties. We have been the fortunate generation. I like to think it is what my grandfather and father fought for.
So most of my generation have worked hard, saved harder and enjoyed the benefits of cheap travel. For a time, I shared a property – with a dear friend – near Siena and used to drive down, stopping en route at Rheims, Lyons or Marseilles or, when using my coupe, Turin! I loved and love Italy. In Tuscany, or Chiantishire as we called it, there are 20,000 Brits domiciled there. You have the weather, the wine, the people, outstanding cuisine and the infrastructure. But the banking crisis showed how little Italians pay tax and how overbearing their public services can be. There are now four different types of political machinations from national to regional to local to local-local. It is maddening.
Back to Granddad and Dad: they both loathed Europe. They went to war against them. They were supportive of Marshall Aid in the late 1940s and 1950s which helped rebuild much of mainland Europe (and the UK), but not of the Europeans per se. Perhaps the idea of us being in Europe disgusted them. Why did we beat them in two World Wars and now befriend them, was how my Dad saw it. Whereas I saw it as the other side of being in NATO – the peaceful bit. It was the perfect circle though the EU itself was not necessarily perfect.
The facts are that according to the UN (2019) there are 1.2 million Brits living in EU countries. Many are retirees but there are no statistics which tell us who is working and who is not. And that 1.2m is spread out: 309,000 in Spain (Swansea’s total population), 255,000 in Ireland (City of Westminster), 185,000 in France (Swindon) and 103,000 (Woking) in Germany, no less. This means that 1:65 of us Brits live abroad. Brits abroad can still vote, can still receive their old age pensions, with some restrictions, and only pay local taxes where that is appropriate.
The current pandemic has shown us, methinks, how behind the curve we are. Apart from Italy – bureaucracy again – our figures are the worst in Europe and, after the USA and Italy, the worst in the world. Being “Little England” does not suit our temperament, nevertheless we shall leave the EU for good at the end of this year. For a decade we willingly spent less and less and less on our public sector. That political decision was a different type of virus. It is not that we are a poor nation, as the Chancellor – “Priti Rishi” – has shown by showering money on us as though it was confetti. He had to because there was no alternative. Well there was; we could have had the highest number of deaths in the world and been locked down for a year.
To my mind, we are stronger together in Europe. The pandemic has exposed a fault line in our attitudes. The Cabinet was utterly opposed to Europe as it was to properly funding our public services. We must be grateful for its volte-face on the latter – whilst the Labour and Lib Dems went missing in a ‘lack of action’ – once it realised its errors of the past. I hope too that at some stage it will also see that being part of the European idea, not apart from it, is worth a rethink too.