Roger Roberts: Are we to be known as the Canutes of History?

Here is Roger Roberts’ speech to the House of Lords on the Brexit deal. His theme was what sort of life are we setting up for future generations?

Leave and Brexit are about   my seven grandchildren, all your Lordships’ grandchildren and all the children in our country. Will it be better for them to have fewer benefits than we have had, or should we think first of them when we vote on this deal?

Just after the Second World War, the community of Llangollen in north Wales established the international musical festival, which has brought people from many countries together. It still goes on; I spoke only this morning to its press office. This past year it brought applications from 3,919 competitors from 64 locations; it brought together people who had been at enmity ​with one another. As people who have been fighting each other, we suddenly find ourselves in a situation where we either stretch out to one another in friendship or say we want to carry on building a wall.

When the first eisteddfod was held, one choir hitchhiked from Hungary to reach Llangollen—I find it difficult to think of a choir hitchhiking. The following time, a German choir from Lübeck came over to Llangollen. Members of the choir were not sure what sort of reception they would get because we had been at war. They were going to sing to those who had been their enemies and they were very uncertain. But the compère at the eisteddfod on that day was Hywel Roberts, who greeted them by saying, “We are now going to hear from our German friends”. It has taken a long time to build this: to build relationships and get over the enmity of the past. But it has been done, in many different ways. Will we continue with these feelings of friendship? Will we continue building bridges and not walls?

A decade after the Llangollen eisteddfod started, we had the embryonic European movement. This also brought together countries which had been at enmity. When I was in Berlin at a conference some time ago, I said, “The last time one of my family was here he was in a bomber plane over the city, but now we are talking together”. One of the major competitions in Llangollen is the Pavarotti choral competition. So why are we taking a step back? What reason have we for becoming more distant from those who once were distant from us but with whom we are now comrades?

Union takes a long time; of course it does. In Wales we united in a way with England in 1534. We still have our problems; it is an evolving thing. We have our Assembly and certain powers. Our union will always evolve. It is not ready-made or a finished product, and neither is the European Union, or our place in the European Union, because we are in an evolving situation. Without Llangollen and without the European Union, the world would be far more threatening and far more unstable. Every move towards co-operation and understanding is in the right direction. The weakening of our ties with Europe is a backward move. We halt the free movement of people; we withdraw the status of our own people as citizens of Europe. What are we doing? Do we know what we are doing? Are we to be known as those who built walls and not bridges—the Canutes of history? Or are we people who will build this relationship and this understanding? Our children will benefit from what we do in this debate or they will look back on us and say, “Ah, things were different in my grandfather’s time”.

I appeal to all Members of the House—the details, of course, will be worked out over many years—to let us build a world fit for children to live in. We can either do it or be a barrier to it. It is our decision.

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  • David Evershed 6th Dec '18 - 11:43am

    Prior to the UK joining the EU with no visa or impediment to my journey I went on holiday to Belgium, France and Spain.

    Prior to the UK joining the EU I worked in Germany and the USA. I needed a visa for the USA but no visa for Germany.

    Being in the EU made no improvement to freedom of movement for me.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 6th Dec '18 - 12:51pm

    The excellent attitude and exemplary record of Roger Roberts, makes these comments worthwhile.

    His is an approach we can share in or adhere to.

    Yet David Evershed is correct. We did not invent harmony on starting the EU, indeed to some degree it got worse because it became too not in keeping with the direction of travel at that moment in history, away from homogenisation towards liberalisation.

    There is a quote from Gorbachev in which he says that. The EU was trying to become the sort of organisation the Soviet Union was no more, ie one size fits all.

    There is an argument for Remain and reform. Nobody in our party has put it. Not a single one at top level, or not that has been read or heard .

    We cannot convince until we try. As on other Liberal issues of heartfelt concern, the good tunes have been sung, loudly , by opponents.

  • I too travelled and and worked in other EU countries before the UK joined; in my case, working in Belgium. Those were simpler times, before terrorism and concern over refugees tightened borders. I could even work in Belgium without any special permission – but only for a few months. After that, I had to return to the UK and apply for residence and work permits, and the company had to show why they could not find someone local to do the job. After that, I had to visit a police station regularly to renew the permits.
    I was welcome, but only so long as they needed me; I was not there by right.
    Travelling to Germany with German and Italian colleagues, our car was about to be waved across the border when they noticed that one of the passports was British. That meant holding us all up until they had checked that I wasn’t on some list of unsuitable persons, and only then allowing us to proceed. The others had a RIGHT to be there; I was there by their PERMISSION.
    Those experiences are among the reasons I campaigned for YES in 1975 and REMAIN in 2016. Some of the other reasons were summed up better than I could do by Spanish politician Esteban González Pons:

    “Europe is not a market, it is the will to live together. Leaving Europe is not leaving a market, it is leaving shared dreams. We can have a common market, but if we do not have common dreams, we have nothing. Europe is the peace that came after the disaster of war. Europe is the pardon between French and Germans. Europe is the return to freedom of Greece, Spain and Portugal. Europe is the fall of the Berlin Wall. Europe is the end of communism. Europe is the welfare state, it is democracy.”

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