I CANNOT fault Tom Watson’s passion during his speech to the Centre for European Reform on 17 June. However, I dispute his premise that we are all primarily European.
He drew from many different characters down through the centuries to prove his point that we are and always will be European.
But I am proud to be English and British. I am also proud of the United Kingdom and believe we are stronger together. Unlike Tom Watson I have never considered myself European and have no need to. That is not because I voted Leave – indeed, even if I had voted Remain, I would see no need to brand myself as European. Why would I?
When talking about the French, Tom Watson noted: ‘The French are as French as they have always been and always will be’. He continued: ‘Nor have the Germans come to seem just like the Irish, or the Italians become indistinguishable from the Danes. Europe’s languages, culture and identities have not been homogenised by a centralising bureaucratic behemoth, and never will. Why would they?’
Precisely the point. Why would they? They are who they are just as we are who we are. They do not see themselves as European either. That’s why they show national pride when their teams compete against each other. When knocked out of tournaments they don’t find the need to support the nearest European team just because we are ‘European’, and nor do I.
Tom Watson continued to draw from history and how our national literary writers were proud Europeans. Quoting from Professor Michael Dobson, Director of the Shakespeare Institute, he said: ‘I have written elsewhere about how misleading it can be to think of Shakespeare as modern Britain’s national poet. I would add that it is even more misleading to suggest that Shakespeare thought of Britain as anything other than part of a larger geopolitical entity called Europe.’
I would not dream of imagining what was in Shakespeare’s mind and heart. It is pure conjecture. We know he never left Britain and yet left us some of the greatest European-centred plays that the world has ever seen. Shakespeare had a great education. He learned the classics, philosophy, Latin etc. Later, he drew on material such as Boccaccio, Brookes, Grammaticus, Holinshed and Plutarch for the plays he wrote. A writer does not necessarily have to leave his shores to write a masterpiece set elsewhere. It is what writers do – they fictionalise and get you to believe what they write.
When Watson says: ‘Mediaeval London was a bustling melting-pot of migrants from all over the world. The greatest Englishman, 400 years ago, was wholly, deeply European,’ he is stating one fact and one conjecture. What we know is that Shakespeare’s use of language has become part of our global psyche. His words and images are so strong they transcend the spoken languages of European countries with whom we have the most in common. One only has to watch Akira Kurosawa’s samurai masterpieces Ran (King Lear) and Throne of Blood (Macbeth) to see what legacy Shakespeare left. Although he is globally the greatest English writer, what we can conjecture is not what Tom Watson would suppose. Rather than Shakespeare seeing himself as a European, he was probably too busy trying to please Elizabeth I and then James I with his craftily written plays to take any notice of who he was in the world. During those difficult times of religious persecution, his number one thought would probably have been just to stay alive.
Tom Watson then added other writers such as ‘Byron, who died fighting for Greece in their war of independence, and Mary Shelley who conceived of Frankenstein in Geneva, and Charlotte Bronte, whose novel Villette was based on her time teaching at a Brussels school and Keats, whose life and death in Rome is celebrated at the foot of the Spanish Steps. And of course of John Dryden, not just a great writer of English drama, but a great lover and student of French drama, and a translator of Virgil, Ovid, Homer, Boccaccio – the great canon of European classical literature that was the base of everything these English geniuses knew.’
Yet this works against his point that staying in the EU brings greater freedom. Europeans have always criss-crossed continents to and from Britain. Just as our writers travelled to Greece, Geneva, Brussels etc, so too was London a melting-pot of immigration, just as it is today.
To say on behalf of the vast majority of Labour members: ‘European is who we are and who we have always been. Our members are Remain. Our values are Remain. Our hearts are Remain,’ will turn away the 64 per cent of run-down and left-behind Labour constituencies who voted to leave the EU. The membership is almost two-thirds in favour of remaining, but 300,000 or so members do not elect the party to power. Sixty-four per cent of Labour voters are turning in swathes to the Brexit Party or other independents to have their voice heard.
When Tom Watson declares: ‘Our future doesn’t need to be Brexit . . . And only by remaining in the EU can we remain the same Britain at heart that we’ve been for a thousand years. If we leave, we become less than we were and less than our children have a right to expect. The patriotic choice is to remain,’ does he expect his party to win a general election?
The droves of underpaid, just-about-managing Labour-voting families who live from hand to mouth from food banks will never trust them again. Many of these families may not even care for Shakespeare or Shelley. These voters are just trying to survive whilst watching those who purport to stand up for them squander that once-in-a-lifetime, decisive vote. The likes of Tom Watson do not stand for them.
And whoever does not stand for them must be against them.