Second Time Immigrant – Wales

It is not just Germans who can be ambivalent about their background. Questions of identity are among the most vexing and widely debated of our time. One of the distinctions that could be drawn is between people who look to affirm their inherited identity, and those who are more interested in a fluid existence amongst multiple identities. A number of well-established dichotomies can be set alongside this; remainers and leavers, locals and cosmopolitans, somewheres and anywheres. I am not trying to put a value judgement on either side of these divides, since neither perspective has a monopoly on virtue or evil. When indigenous communities are bulldozed aside by a more numerous and ‘modern’ culture, I find myself on the side of the ‘locals’. When people are suspicious of anyone different and treat them unfairly, I side firmly with those who are mobile, whether by choice or by circumstance. Perhaps the mobile, cosmopolitan, hybrid people can be divided again into those who are happy as a composite of a number of cultures, and those who throw themselves wholeheartedly into a single culture that is not the one in which they grew up. But then the division is probably never that neat, and once you begin to consider it more carefully it begins to disintegrate. 

I have been something of a cultural butterfly, perhaps I got a taste for it by being moved as a child and never quite stopped. Perhaps I’m just inquisitive by nature. In any case, for one reason or another I found myself at university in Bangor, in a strongly Welsh-speaking area of Wales. Most of the students there are from England and I blended in quite well with them. But I was intrigued by the strange looking Welsh-English bilingual signs and the snatches of Welsh one heard spoken around the town and the University. I think partly I was going into immigrant mode, i.e. remembering how I came to England and had to learn English in a hurry, and thinking: I’m in Wales now, so I should learn Welsh. I know this is not how most English people react when they arrive there. I think they tend to think of Wales as part of England and can be a little surprised and even irritated by this strange tongue they find there. In any case, even though I was interested from the start, I found it was not nearly as easy or quick to learn Welsh as it had been to learn English. For a start, the Welsh students were engaged in a political struggle to promote the language and tended to keep themselves apart. Then there is the fact that Welsh speakers are bilingual and will tend to speak English to you if they think you are not local. I did go to a couple of lessons in the beginning, but soon got distracted by the local music scene and student life. I had a Welsh friend at the time but he seemed to be as keen to hide his identity as many Germans are to hide theirs.

It was not until I had finished my degree that I renewed my efforts to learn Welsh. I had bought a house with my partner so we were already quite settled and began to make Welsh friends at the local pub. When a band project I had been working towards fell through and I used the demo songs to get music commissions for the newly set up Welsh TV channel S4C, I also came into contact with the language professionally. By now I had realised that learning Welsh would be nothing like learning English had been for me. For one thing, I was older, and it is more difficult to learn a language as an adult. Furthermore, it was difficult to replicate the same level of immersion and imperative to learn as I had experienced as a child in an all-English playground. But learning became an obsession. People would tell me ‘oh, you’re good at languages’ implying that it was easy for me. No. It is hard. I think my determination was the main factor in succeeding. One thing I needed to accept was that to learn a language as an adult is a journey rather than a destination. I am fluent and comfortable in Welsh. But I know I am not perfect. Very few adult learners of a language ever entirely lose their accent or make no grammatical mistakes. It goes to show how deeply the culture we learn a children marks us.

This brings me back to being German. After all, this blog series is about my experience of living in the UK as a German rather than about learning Welsh per se. It is just that Wales became my home and Welsh became a key part of my experience. In going to Wales and learning Welsh I became an immigrant for the second time. Of course, many English people live in Wales and don’t really engage with Welsh language and culture, but once you do, you are embarking on a significant process of integration which is by no means straight forward. Here I have to emphasise the distinction between learning a language and actually interacting with the people who speak that language naturally in their mother tongue. Many people take lessons or courses in a language, or practice it using an app. But only a fraction of these actually use it in everyday life. The second of these steps is harder, it takes some courage in terms of getting out of your social comfort zone and being prepared to make an idiot of yourself, but ultimately it is the best, I would say the only way, to really get to grips with a language. And, it is great fun and very rewarding when you make progress.

We Don’t Like Each Other Either

I assume that the ambivalence about their German identity felt by the post-War generation is the reason they tend to be standoffish towards each other abroad. Not for us the delight of meeting a compatriot far from home, the immediate interest and enjoyment of shared language and culture which is typical of many other nationalities in such situations. We tend to avoid each other, to be rather cold and uninterested. We observe each other with a critical eye, are quick to judge and slow to praise. As in so many things to do with my divided identity, I am split on this. On the one hand I find it ridiculous, and on the other I am exactly the same way. 

Years ago, I was walking off a hangover on a beach in Wales. I had been out for a good while and wanted to know the time. For some reason I had no watch or phone one me so I approached a couple who were also walking on the otherwise deserted beach. As I came within earshot, I heard them speaking German, so I asked them the time in German and they answered me in our shared language. No other words were exchanged. They went off in one direction and I in another. This may seem a little odd, but OK, the wind was blowing hard and perhaps it was not a conducive situation for striking up a conversation. However, after my hangover had begun to recede, I started to feel ravenous, as one does, and when I got back to town I went into a cafe and ordered a hearty breakfast. Who should come in and sit at a table near me, but the same German couple I had encountered on the beach. Not a word passed between us. No ‘so are you on holiday here?’, or ‘wasn’t it windy out?’ or ‘where are you from?’; nothing. I find this very strange, and yet it was not only they who were keeping their distance, it was me, too. I can’t imagine Welsh people, or Americans, or Spaniards behaving in this way. It is almost as if we have internalised some of the prejudices and suspicions about us that undoubtedly exist. I sometimes say, half jokingly, that ‘nobody likes us; and we don’t like each other either’.

Inside Germany this kind of attitude can express itself in damning criticism of the way things are done there. Whether it is the bureaucracy (no worse than in France), or the lack of decent dance music (definitely not true since the techno boom of the nineties) many Germans love to knock their country. This is not a uniquely German habit, but it is quite common and I think again is a way of demonstrating what an un-German German you are. Perhaps the most obvious form of this is the readiness with which we use languages other than our own. Of course it is nice that Germans tend to be keen on learning other languages, and it is quite a contrast with many English people. But again, I feel it often borders on the absurd. 

I once went to a party in the UK thrown by an immigrant academic and as it happened the first guests to arrive were all German academics, including me (far be it from me to confirm a stereotype about punctuality here!). There were four of us, and we were chatting together, but not a word of German passed between us. Again, can you imagine, four Italians, or Arabs, or Chinese doing this? I don’t think so. It’s just unnatural and it shows how ill at ease we are with ourselves. One of the guests in question actually refused to speak German to me, ever, and I met him in a few different contexts. This is by no means uncommon. People claim to have forgotten their mother tongue in a year or two, avoid speaking it, or simply refuse to, even with another German. I am keen to learn languages myself and like to practice them. But I am not talking of situations here where anyone needed to practice English. These are people who live in an English speaking country, but would be perfectly capable of speaking German, if they were not embarrassed about who they are.

Let’s Talk About the Holocaust

OK, let’s bite the bullet. Let’s talk about the Holocaust. Let me preface this by saying that the genocide of Jews perpetrated by the Nazis in the name of Germany is a crime and a tragedy of gigantic proportions and nothing of what follows is intended to take away from that. The pain and loss of that mass murder is borne primarily by the victims and their families and this is first and paramount in the memory and understanding of those events.

The killing of millions of innocent people by the Nazi death machine casts a long shadow and has had a huge impact on much beyond the story of Jewish people. I am tempted to say it has affected everything, but perhaps it is more accurate to say it has had far reaching effects in Western politics and culture. I believe that everyone should be aware of that history, but every German absolutely must. It is really impossible to understand post-war Europe without understanding something of the Holocaust. If you are German you are inevitably confronted with this history. If you live abroad then this is one of the primary facts that people associate with your country. If you live in Germany then there is plenty in education and the media to tell you about and remind you of the Holocaust. The days of ignoring the Nazi past came to an end in 1979, the year I happened to be back in Germany for my gap year. The Broadcast of an American TV series about the genocide, called Holocaust, opened the floodgates and that year the media were full of reports, pictures and discussions of it. It was the post-war generation waking up to what had really happened and being appalled and shocked. 

The thing is that the Shoa, as Jews often call it, is really difficult to comprehend, even if you are prepared to face up to it. It is harder if you are German, because it inevitably makes you feel guilt by association. The mere facts of it defy one’s imagination. How does one murder six million men women and children? That’s a huge city of people. How can that happen? How could people take part in this? How could people want this? How could people accept this? The more you think about it, the more impossible it seems. And yet it happened. There are Holocaust denyers who would prefer to believe that it is simply not true. I can see why they would prefer to believe that, but they are wrong. One of the dreadful things to come to terms with (beyond the tragedy itself) is that it was done by people like us. Firstly, I want to say that by that I mean everybody. For anyone to think that this was done by people who were fundamentally different to themselves, is a cop-out. Prejudice and hatred can exist everywhere, as well as elements of the suffocating weave of conformism, bureaucracy, authoritarianism and violence that made it possible. But it all came together in a perfect storm in Germany in WWII. There have been other genocides and mass murders. Some probably bigger. But the Nazi Holocaust is the best documented and the most inescapeable, and the most chilling. It is of course least escapeable if you are German. I am sure that for people from other countries there is a sense of distancing themselves from the crimes when they watch a film about them because, well this is something the Germans did, other people, not us. We don’t have that luxury. Of course, there are Germans who tell you that this is nothing to do with them… a long time ago, they had nothing to do with it. They are wrong. It was done in our name, it happened in our culture, we bear the legacy. 

And just as with African slavery in the New World, the present day effects and connections with the Holocaust can be found in a myriad of situations. Whether you work for a company that profited, or you look at artwork that was stolen, or live in a street where the Jewish presence was erased, or you are linked to people who lived through that time, or died in it, you are connected to the Holocaust. Once you have accepted that you have to face this calamity as a German it has profound repercussions in your sense of self. It makes it impossible to simply be ‘proud to be German’, in the way that other people casually pat themselves on the back for their accident of birth. If I am going to bask in the glow of great Germans like Beethoven and Kant, do I not also have to acknowledge a connection to Himmler and Mengele? If I am going to claim some credit for the achievements of the Reformation or of the Economic Miracle after the War, do I not also have take some of the blame for the inhumanity of the death camps?

One response to this is to dissociate yourself from your identity, and many postwar Germans tried to do this. I have met many abroad who after only a few months in another country claim to be forgetting their fluency in German. They try to blend in as much as possible, they don’t associate with their compatriots. Even in Germany these Germans try to be as un-German as possible, by identifying primarily with other cultures. I have great sympathy with this stance, and so some extent I share it. But, unfortunately, I also believe that it is problematic and fundamentally dishonest. It is not just that when you try to make other people believe that you are not really German, you are lying to them, but you are also lying to yourself. There is a German saying that ‘you cannot jump over your own shadow’. And you cannot simply renounce your heritage, no matter how uncomfortable it is, because it is part of you.  

Fish Swimming in Chablis

There is no doubt that coming to England initially made me much more aware of being German and what that might mean. Living in a culture is a bit like being a fish swimming in an aquarium; the fish is not aware of the water. Moving to another culture is like suddenly being transferred to another liquid, say Chablis. If a fish were to survive such a move, it would suddenly feel a number of differences between swimming through water and swimming through white wine. Growing up in West Germany was particularly transparent because any expression of nationalism or patriotism was totally taboo and did not really occur in my orbit. This was, of course, because there had been a surfeit of all that under the Nazis and it was the last thing anyone wanted to hear after that disaster. My generation, however, did not remember that and there was pretty much an information blackout on the matter, as I have said previously. Therefore, I had only the vaguest sense of what it might mean to be German when I arrived in Britain, where I was confronted with a population whose idea of Germanness was only too clear – and it wasn’t good. 

Not only did the English kids I went to school with have a strong Idea of what being German meant, but they were also much more forthright about Britishness than I could be about my own background. There was the obvious sense of pride and superiority about winning ‘two World Wars and one World Cup’, but there was also still an idea of the Empire, or at least the Commonwealth, of traditions like cricket, ancient schools and other institutions. Wider British society nurtured an impressive sense of continuity which contrasted markedly with the turbulent and fractured history of my country, and that of most other European countries. I attended two English schools which were named after a monarch from the 1500s, and apparently dated back to that time. The Gymnasium I attended briefly in Germany was named after the Scholl siblings, who were guillotined for resisting the Nazis. Germany had 7 different kinds of government in the 20th century: 

1) Monarchy under the Kaiser

2) A period of anarchy and revolution after WWI

3) The democratic but unstable Weimar Republic

4) The Nazi dictatorship

5) Occupation and administration by the Allies after WWII

6) Divided Germany: communist East and democratic, capitalist West

7) Reunified, federal, democratic, capitalist Germany

This made it difficult to have a sense of the place and its history. Earlier in the 19th Century, Germany was not even a nation state as such, but a crazy-paving of little independent territories, loosely presided over by a shadowy Holy Roman Emperor. Somehow, there seemed to be any number of obstacles to getting a sense of Germany as an entity, including its constantly changing borders. But the main problem was Hitler. In order to approach some kind of comfortable relationship with the German past, you had to get past him, and you don’t get much more uncomfortable than that, so most of it remained amorphous or out of bounds. 

The English, by contrast, seemed to have a way of loving their past, of telling themselves warm and comforting stories about it – and believing them. In many ways I envy them for this, it is one of the many things I have internalised. I love old houses for instance, Victorian-ish interiors and rustic cottages.The Germans managed to demolish much of what had been spared by the Allied bombing in the years after the war and most seem to be happy living in geometrical boxes. Despite the fact that British history is not always pretty, the English tend to have a strong sense of what it contains, with plenty of positive feelings about it and a great deal of pride, which is supported and reinforced by glossy period TV dramas, historical novels, and documentaries by celebrity historians. 

The Victorian era is particularly interesting in this regard. It conjures up scenes of aristocratic country houses, snowy Christmases, hearty plowmen, steam railways, the British melting in the Indian heat, but running the subcontinent with a stiff upper lip. We know, of course, that colonialism is wrong, that there was great injustice, that working class people were very poor. We know these things to some extent from the same TV dramas and documentaries, from the novels of Charles Dickens, and the TV dramas based on them. And yet there remains a sheen which makes the period approachable and nostalgically lovable. There is a sense of familiarity with Victorian England, although I dare say that if we were suddenly transported back there we would find it shocking. I always thought it was odd when Margaret Thatcher held up ‘Victorian Values’ as something to be emulated. What did these values entail? Children working long days in dangerous factories! Ostracising women for having sex before marriage, but allowing men to take advantage of underage prostitutes openly roaming the streets! And ethnically cleansing parts of Australia of the native population! But the fact remains that the English, for the most part, have an intimate and positive relationship with their past, whereas for Germans it is much harder to understand and accept their own.

England is much closer to Australia than to Holland

It was obvious during the 70s and 80s that whenever an English person realised I was German, there was an intake of breath and they had to try and reconcile the extremely rich store of German war images and stereotypes with – me. This usually took a few beats, long enough for me to interpose a comment such as, “yes, I left the jackboots at home today”. Postwar images of Germans in the media tended to be of unattractive or hateful; fat, harsh women; vain, pompous men; desperately uncool tourists and so on. The constant diet of negative images of Germans as ugly, ridiculous, humourless, unsubtle or downright evil often made my Mother feel defensive and ashamed. As for my teenage self, it simply made me want to integrate into English culture. Not that I simply wanted to blend in. When I arrived in Grammar School my English was up to speed and I was on my way to forging a personal identity which incorporated some of the popular culture of the time: progressive rock, hippie clothes, etc. Being German just made me different in a way which could be OK as long as I could explore being a kid in England without being hemmed in. 

Knowledge of contemporary Germany was very sketchy in the UK and paled into insignificance in comparison to the all-pervasive War imagery. While the Brits were still basking in the glory of victory, Germany had rebuilt and West Germany was forging ahead economically. Britain was fast becoming the sick man of Europe, with archaic nationalised industries riven by multiple strikes. Ironically, the Germany I knew was also more liberal than the UK. In school for instance, in Germany we had no school uniforms, corporal punishment was not an official sanction, whereas in the UK it still was. German school kids took days out to protest about issues and had genuinely independent school councils. In Britain the school regime seemed to me to have a kind of antiquated quasi-military organisation and discipline, with uniforms, calling teachers ‘Sir’, canings meted out by the headmaster, prefects who could punish younger kids, and so on. The scouts, which I did not know about in Germany but were a common sight in England, were shocking to my family because they reminded them so much of the Hitler youth. 

The lack of knowledge about modern Germany, and in fact continental Europe as a whole, is something which I have often found frustrating. Of course all countries are first and foremost interested in themselves. But it is obvious that the British media are much more concerned with what is going on in the predominantly white English speaking world than they are in their nearest neighbours. There is a cultural proximity which creates an easy flow of music, TV and films, particularly between the UK and the US. Culturally, England is much closer to Australia than to Holland. This is despite the fact that many Brits travel to and work on the Continent, and despite the many visitors and immigrants from those countries that come here. I think that apart from the history and politics of European countries what is very much missing in the UK is European trivia. Stories of everyday life and celebrities that populate the mind with a sense of what life is like in a place. We get plenty of this from the States, but hardly anything from Europe. More often than not, the stories that do come through conform to stereotypes. For instance, neo-Nazis in Germany have been a favourite topic in the UK media over the years. Don’t get me wrong: there is an extreme right in Germany and they are disgusting and of course we should be on our guard against them. However, for much of the last half century they have been marginal. The Greens (Green Party) on the other hand have been and are a powerful force. They began as a grass roots organisation and pressure group and eventually became a strong political party which was in coalition government from 1998 to 2005. They have been instrumental in bringing about the discontinuation of nuclear power in Germany and have been part of a transformation of attitudes which has been highly influential in other countries, and is of course at the heart of global discourse today. I don’t remember ever seeing a report on the rise or the influence of the German Green movement in the British media. I’m not saying that this was never mentioned, but it certainly was not something of which the British public were generally aware.

It was this cultural distance from Europe that made being German here such an effort at times. I felt like an ambassador and sometimes like a sole representative of a country about which so little was known in its present form, but about which historical narratives abounded, that the pressure to be a good example of a modern German was always there. The lack of closeness to the experience of life on the Continent also contributed to the antipathy to the EU. These people with whom one was supposed to be sharing the running of things now? The English simply did not know who they were. 

Oh What a Lovely War

When I landed in England in the 70s, the War was very present in the culture. Indeed it had ended less than 30 years ago, which does not seem very long now, but to a 10 year-old is like an eternity. But there was another time-distorting aspect to this. In Germany, at the time, the War was out of sight and out of mind, Basil Fawlty’s ‘don’t mention the War’ was actually not far from the German reality. People had suffered immensely; my Mother’s family were bombed out, my Grandfather was shot through the jaw, we know people whose parents had starved to death, or been swallowed by the Dresden firestorm. There must also have been huge guilt and guilt by association. Although they did not become widely publicised until the 80s, people knew of the horrendous Nazi crimes well enough. But also, the country had been transformed completely. From a strutting aggressive dictatorship with imperial ambitions to a divided country, each part beholden to a different superpower, one affluent and democratic, the other oppressed but at least stable and well fed. In between had been blanket bombing and destitution. It is not surprising that it seemed like a different world.

England in the seventies lived and breathed the War. In films, TV, novels, children’s comics, toys, comedy. The memory was brought out daily like a talisman, polished, enjoyed and passed around. Whereas kids in Germany played cowboys and Indians, in England they played WWII. When I arrived in my primary school in King’s Lynn, almost the only immigrant and certainly the only German, with hardly a word of English, the kids went crazy. The enemy had appeared in their midst. On the first day my mother had naïvely sent me out in Lederhosen, because that’s what German children wore to school at that time. At break time, for my first few days at the English school, I was followed around the playground by a mob of kids screaming ‘Sieg Heil!’, a phrase with which they were a great deal more familiar than me.

Is Liking Pickles a German Thing?

Why do I still think about being German? What’s the big deal? I have lived in the UK since I was ten years old, apart from a curtailed gap year back in the old country. I’m not particularly fond of the place, though I think it has a good deal more going for it than many Brits realise. I don’t make a point of hanging out with my compatriots, although they do seem to get everywhere so I meet them from time to time. I go back regularly to see my family but don’t have many other friends there and don’t usually stay for more than a few days. If it was not for my angular mouthful of a name I could certainly pass for English, and have been able to since I was 12, but I decided long ago not to try and hide my identity, although it is not always a comfortable one to wear, or should that be ‘bear’?

But for a number of reasons I find that being German in the UK in 2020 is something that I do want to write about. One of these reasons is obviously Brexit, which now seems inevitable with the leaving date due in less than a month. However, I do not want to go over the ground that has been so well trodden since the referendum, and which will no doubt be further churned in the coming months and even years. Rather, I want to offer a more personal account of a relationship between two countries, two cultures and of my own compound identity and experience. There has been much writing by people who look different about how they have negotiated the issues surrounding their identity, fitting in to a culture that does not always accept them, while trying to understand how to relate to another culture which they may or may not have direct experience of. I do not look different, but the difference is there, sometimes I feel it, sometimes I am made to feel it, and despite the proximity of our cultures and countries, the differences and frictions are, well, let’s say considerable. And whereas things have changed a great deal since I first came to these shores, Brexit is a rude awakening for anyone who thought that the old divisions were behind us. So, from now until the end of this month, when Britain is due to leave the EU, I am going to blog about Germany and the UK, and about being German in the UK.

The European Union is an Empire of Peace and Democracy

The history of the world is littered with the debris of empires: Roman amphitheatres, Inca cities, the great wall of China. Empires have been very successful in many ways. They have facilitated trade, travel and communication, they have enabled innovators and artists to work, improve lives and inspire people. The ancient Romans and Arabs influence our lives and cultures in many ways to this day. The British Empire was the latest and greatest in the procession, and it has shaped the modern world most of all, leaving many benefits around the world, not least parliamentary democracy and an independent judiciary in North America and India.

Yet empires are not something to wish for. Historically they have been forged by bloody conquest. Usually a people, led by ambitious generals and power-hungry leaders, attacks, subjects, controls and exploits other neighbouring or far-away peoples, mostly against their will. That’s if they are lucky. If they are not they will find themselves forcibly converted to an alien religion, with their language repressed, not infrequently accompanied by ethnic cleansing in the form of forced removal or straightforward murder and genocide (such as in the formation of the modern US). Not a pretty picture, and a high price to pay for railways and trade with the wider world.

The European Union is an attempt to create the benefits of empire: cooperation between neighbours, free trade over a large area, easy travel, order, prosperity and internal peace and security; without the bloody conquest and draconian repression. Uniquely, the EU is the coming together, by choice, of democracies in a larger formation which is governed partly by elected representatives of the member states, and partly by its own institutions, such as the elected European Parliament. It is based on the idea that you can have a large scale geopolitical entity without the domination of one culture over many others, without the persecution of minorities or the eradication of languages. Inevitably there will be tensions as such an organisation develops. The United States (which is a kind of empire, too) has always been riven by competition between the power of the individual state governments and the federal government. That is part of the checks and balances of the system. In the same way it is inevitable that there will be tensions in the EU between Brussels and the member states over many issues, perhaps sometimes leading to certain countries leaving. It is actually an important aspect of the nature of the EU that a country should be able to leave peacefully, because it underlines that this is a union of choice, and not one of coercion, both in terms of joining and staying in.

Why EU Regulations Help Us

One of the common complaints of Eurosceptics about the EU is that there are too many regulations coming from Brussels. Some of these, such as those protecting employees from exploitation, or rules protecting the environment, are welcomed in certain quarters. Even Boris Johnson’s father is a strong supporter of the EU’s environmental work. But other types of regulation are often resented and the ‘outers’ say that they want the single market, but not all these rules.

What they seem to overlook is that the single market has to consist largely of such regulations. Let me explain. Protectionism, i.e. the opposite of free markets, is not just a matter of tariffs which make imported goods more expensive. It is also often something created because countries have particular rules about products and services which in effect make it difficult or impossible for outsiders to import them. All developed countries have rules about the standard of manufacture of certain items, the safety of toys, for instance, what chemical may or may not be present in domestic paint, or the permissible ingredients in processed foods. If you are a British manufacturer of toy trucks, for example, you have to comply with the standards in your own country to sell at home, and then you need to comply with the standards of any country you sell into. If you are going to export to a dozen countries and they all have different regulations about your product, this will make your life much more difficult, and your product more expensive.

But suppose your country belongs to an organisation in which many countries agree the product standards for toy trucks together. This means that all you need to do is to manufacture to the standards which apply in your own country and the trucks will automatically comply with those in all of the other countries, because they will be the same. Your life will become much easier, your toy trucks cheaper, and the likelihood that your company can export and grow, much greater. This is why many EU regulations are not a hindrance but a help to British businesses and therefore to the prosperity of the whole country.

Leaving the (EU) Club

Listening to the Brexit debate in recent weeks I have been struck by the negativity of the ‘inners’. They spend almost as much time saying they have no love for the EU as the ‘outers’. The argument generally is very much fought around ‘what is in Britain’s best interest’. This is inevitable in the run-up to the referendum I suppose, but it also misses the point. Staying in or leaving are about much more than short or medium term economic interest. The outers are really motivated by nationalism and a deep seated antipathy towards the EU which has been fed for decades by the British Eurosceptic press. This is also informed by nostalgia for the days of Empire, when Britain had superpower status. These campaigners like to talk down Europe as a failed project (as MP Kate Hoey did on tonight’s Any Questions). This is ridiculous considering that the EU collectively is the world’s largest economy, even bigger than the US.

But the ‘inners’ have a much more positive story to tell, and this is one which should contain much loftier concepts than economic self-interest. The EU is primarily about co-operation. It is about solidarity, and it is about the peaceful and voluntary pooling of resources. It is a relationship, it is a partnership, and anyone who enters into either one of these simply for what they can get out of it, is not going to be a good partner – and is not going to get the best out of it. In order be a good partner or club member, you have to be committed and you have to be prepared to work for the common good. That surely is how joining together with others works. You recognise that you have common ground and you decide to club together to share the benefits and face the challenges together.

It is not just Britain that seems to have a blind spot here. In the refugee crisis a number of countries have refused to help either the desperate people fleeing war, or their European partners. Such emphasis on apparent self-interest is very short-sighted. Because working together means that today I help you, and tomorrow you help me. And if there is something I do not like, we talk about it and find a compromise. And ultimately we know that it is worth belonging, not because we are going to be so many millions better off today or tomorrow, but because if we help our neighbours they will also help us. Whereas if we are constantly trying to get the better of our neighbours, we will have to watch our backs.

If we are part of a Union with our continent, we can compete with the US and China, face down Russia and help Africa in ways that are just not possible for any European country alone. But most of all, we can help each other.