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1989 began with a by-election in Richmond, Yorkshire. This was to replace a Conservative who had resigned following his appointment as a vice-president of the European Union. Our former constituency chair person was chosen as the candidate for the new party and I joined many others campaigning hard for her election. There were eight other candidates, including a Liberal and one from the SDP, as well as Labour and Green.
The election was won by a young William Hague with 37% for the conservatives, the SDP candidate receiving 32% and ours 22%. A bitter disappointment that could have been avoided if the SDP leadership had accepted the decision to merge the two parties. The new party was now in debt and facing council elections and a European election.
It became obvious that the four Liberals on Humberside County Council would be unlikely to retain their seats at the May election. Were any of us to do so, we would have much reduced roles and it would be necessary for me to return to full-time employment. When the election came, only one of the four was re-elected, joined by two others. My vote reduced me to third place on the ballot for the Cleethorpes division I had represented for the preceding four years.
By then each of the other three had separated from their wives/partners, at least in part as a consequence of the heavy workload, mostly self-imposed. Only one of our number went on to achieve a modicum of success in politics – our leader. He moved to London where he quickly got elected to Camden Borough Council, a position he held on to for many years.
When I say the workload was self-imposed, it was the inevitable consequence of our insistence that we must play a full part in the work of the council. Four of us chose to attempt to undertake the same amount of work as that shared between 30+ members of each of the other parties.
There were recruitment panels, such as that already mentioned for head and deputy headships in Grimsby, but extending also to a new Assistant Chief Constable, a Manager for the Airport, and various other vacancies that occurred from time to time during the four years. There were disciplinary appeals panels organised as a final tribunal for staff members who contested a sanction imposed in response to unacceptable behaviour. There were several meetings each summer to dispense discretionary grants for third level education.
One of the more pleasant duties associated with membership of the Education Committee was school visits. In particular, there was a national award for the “best community school” given to the school that demonstrated active involvement between school and community. A small panel of councillors and education officials sifted through the various applications from our area, visited the ones whose initial presentation seemed most promising and selected the one that would be put forward to represent Humberside.
The winning school was located in a picturesque East Yorkshire village. The school was clearly at the heart of the community. The primary aged children were encouraged to participate in many activities beyond the traditional curriculum, with a section of the playground given over to the creation of a small farm with chickens and small animals.
I can’t recall now if that school won the National award, but I do remember attending the award ceremony at a prestigious London venue. Interestingly, I see that there is now an annual Community Education Award in the UK but, according to the website, it has been in existence only since 2011.
At that time the late Paddy Ashdown was Education Spokesman for the Liberal Party in Parliament. He invited each of us who were members of local government education committees to submit a report on the state of education in our areas. My report featured the importance of community within the ethos of Humberside Schools. Subsequently an organisation promoting community education asked permission to publish my report as an article in their magazine. A version also appeared in Liberal News.
A couple of newspaper articles caught my attention yesterday. The first was in the Irish Times: a review of a book about prisoners of war in England during WWII and the way they were treated.
You might expect that, as soldiers, sailors and airmen fighting for Britain’s enemies at the time, they would be shunned, spat at, feared. The reality was rather different. In fact, as the review’s author points out, “it wasn’t uncommon for friendships to be struck up and for POWs to be invited into civilians’ homes for Christmas lunch.”
Many were permitted to leave the camps in order to work on farms and in forestry projects alongside English (mainly female) workers. It reminded me of my own experience growing up in rural Herefordshire in the 1940s and ’50s. There was a camp in the village which, at different times, held POWs and Polish refugees. One German and one Pole each married local girls and set up homes next door to each other in tied cottages on the farm where both worked.
Their children attended the local school. As a schoolboy I often worked on the same farm and got to know both men.The young woman who married the German POW had a younger brother the same age as me who became my best man at my 1963 wedding.
And then I discovered the other article, in The Guardian, about European citizens, skilled workers resident in Britain for decades, who are returning to the continent, some with their British spouses and all saddened by last year’ Brexit vote and its aftermath in which so many of them were made to feel unwelcome. It made me wonder what has become of the country of which I used to be proud, the country of whose values my father fought and died for.
From being a place that welcomed all comers and extended the hand of friendship to enemy POWs, it has become a place in which many want to shut themselves off from the rest of Europe and embrace the same nationalistic fervour that destroyed Europe in the 1930s and ’40s and which the parents of my generation sacrificed so much to overthrow.
Have the people who voted ‘leave’ not studied history? Do they not realise that, right across Europe, we share more than a thousand years of common history? Admittedly, it was a relationship often characterised by the struggle for domination between the members of the land owning aristocracy. But it seemed for a while, in the 1950s and ’60s, that, having emerged from two terrible world wars, we understood that co-operation was better than conflict. Social liberalism trumped nationalism and the majority of us understood that it was better to share the product of our labours with people like ourselves wherever they were born.
What happened? How did so many ordinary British voters come to believe that the EU, and those of its citizens who chose to make their homes in Britain, were responsible for every symptom of their country’s economic failure? Why did Cameron and the other leaders of the Remain campaign embark on a doomed quest to scare people into voting to remain in the EU? Why did the media not give much greater attention to the words of men like Lord Ashdown who made the arguments that mattered with such passion?
I wrote several posts ahead of the vote pointing out the folly of what was being proposed. Now the case for leaving is beginning to unravel as the real implications of extricating ourselves from 40 years of working together in mutually beneficial endeavours, from aviation safety to radioactive isotopes for medical use, become apparent. If only more attention had been paid to these things in May and June last year perhaps the vote would have been different. They certainly strengthen the case for a second vote once the details of the deal are published.