I was born in 1951, soon enough after the war to experience the black dread amongst all the "grown ups" I met at any enquiry about "what it was like in the olden days before I was born". Everyone had happy memories of the 20s and early 30s, but no one could speak of the War period at the end of the 30s and early 40s. During the war, my relatives, like many others, had met refugees from Europe, many of whom had left a big impression. Just down the road from where we lived was a Polish family, who had escaped the German invasion of their country to fight for the allies. "War heroes" we were told. It was clear that WWll was a war with Europe, not against Europe.
Our war ravaged economy struggled to recover from debts incurred fighting the war, bomb damage, and the necessary disruption to our industry. While the recovery in London seemed to go ahead quite quickly, elsewhere it was very slow. I remember seeing un-cleared bomb sites in Sheffield in the early 70s, and at about the same time seeing small farmers in Scotland still making hay by hand, while in the Midlands we visited a farm where silage was still made by hand as it had been decades before. While mains electricity never reached remote villages in Cornwall and elsewhere until 1970, it was still intermittent in smaller holiday resorts and market towns. Our gas supply stopped every time bad weather stopped the small collier sailing across the Bristol Channel to fetch supplies of coal from South Wales for our local gas works.
By the mid 1960s Britain was widely known as the "sick man or Europe" because our economy was in such a bad state, and our old Empire was rapidly crumbling away. Some countries had been promised independence in recognition of their support during the war, while others opted to leave a sinking ship. Some were ravaged by civil wars between those who favoured remaining in the Empire and those who wished to leave. Our exhausted army was no longer big enough or well enough equipped to be much help to those who would have supported them, and fought dismal retreats before the British Government bowed to the inevitable, often leaving a mess that plagues those countries to this day.
There were calls for "Free Trade" based on Disraeli's model from the mid 19th century, but a few years as members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) showed that in post war conditions free trade was a pipe dream with few opportunities, and was no longer a route to prosperity, The "sick man of Europe" became sicker.
Then there was an opportunity to join the European Economic Community. At last we were working with our European friends to build a better world. While globally free trade was a dead idea, free trade with our friends in Europe opened up opportunities, and British Companies and the whole economy grew. At the same time there were opportunities for British craftsmen and experts and academics to work in Europe, and Europeans with complementary expertise to work here. Friendship circles expanded and, and marriage across national boundaries became more common. Opportunities for gap year travel, trans-national academic courses, and even ordinary holidays increased. For many British people, Europe became an extension to our own country and for Europeans Britain became part of theirs.
For 40 year the economy grew until by the second decade of the 21st century we had one of the best performing economies in Europe and the World. We had gained so much from Europe on the social, academic and business fields, but even those who did not benefit from these would have seen huge infrastructure improvements thanks to the European regional Aid funds. While Government support for agriculture is always controversial, and the Common Agricultural Policy had been designed for continental farms, rather than those in the UK, it did provide UK farms with some sort of stability, even if it did mean a constant reduction in the variety of farm sizes and types across the UK. With the resultant increase of uniformity of farmland the diversity of wildlife declined. But while farmers struggled, the consumers benefited hugely from cheap and plentiful food of great variety.
Throughout this period there were people who did not like having to obey the European Regulations that provided all the benefits. Indeed it seems likely that these people will never be satisfied which has lead to the current result of the Brexit negotiations. The neglect by recent UK Governments of the basic needs and welfare of about half of the electorate has fed into the debate. I just hope that links with our friends on the continent will be maintained.
Huw Jones is a member of European Movement.
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