My first brush with political life at University late in 1988 found me plunged into the midst of the merger between the Liberal Party and the SDP. I attended a meeting of the student group attempting at that time to call themselves the Democrats (later to become the Social & Liberal Democrats, and finally just the Liberal Democrats, which is the title which has sort-of stuck): I was instantly given an insight into what was happening as the Secretary of the society, Comrade Tankengine, sat virtually biting his ring-binder, emblazoned with a sticker labelled ‘I’m Staying Liberal’, while the President stood beside him saying exactly the opposite. I got to know Comrade Tankengine fairly well and contributed ill-natured screeds now and again to the satirical-political newsletter he used to produce. In those days I found myself definitely opposed to the European Union, that sprawling behemoth which managed to combine grinding bureaucracy with destructive capitalism. Comrade Tankengine didn’t see completely eye-to-eye with me on that, though he appreciated where I was coming from and allowed me to say it in print.
As I sat with the radio this morning and heard Mrs May and Mr Tusk announcing the agreement which enables the negotiations between the UK and the EU to proceed to the next phase – whatever the ambiguities of that agreement – I thought of how far I’d come, and why. I ceased to think of myself as any kind of liberal, philosophically, long ago, concluding that liberalism was insufficient to answer the difficulties human beings face. The EU referendum campaign last year, in which I havered and hesitated and changed my mind repeatedly until, surveying the massed ranks of madness on the Leave side, I concluded I had to vote to Remain, forced me to face another change in the way I view political priorities.
Frankly, money has become my ultimate concern. Not my own personal finances, which are likely to remain reasonably healthy unless there’s a complete social and economic collapse, an eventuality the UK’s membership of the EU will probably have no effect on either way. Rather I look around me at how hard things are for many people I know, how public services are pinched and restricted, how mean-spirited and sclerotic the benefits system has become, and I really, really don’t want these aspects of British life to become any worse. Spiritually, a downward spiral of resources and services is hardly the kind of national environment which encourages optimism, kindness, and openness to the world: it was disproportionately the poor who voted to Leave. Monetary security, like physical security, reduces the grip of the fear and rage which ever threatens to engulf us. Money’s important, or rather, security is: it produces the things we really value.
So now I care very little about abstract matters of government and control, definitely if the choice is between two structures which both allow people to participate in governmental and economic processes – say, the UK within, or the UK outside, the EU. The question is what gives people the greatest scope for self-expression, mutual support and organisation, and problem-solving. If they’ve got that, they can cope, and gradually improve their condition, which is as much as anyone can ever expect. Everything else is detail.
It’s a surprise to discover what really bothers me, and how prosaic my concerns ultimately are; chastening, in fact.
"Who cares where national borders lie
Who cares whose laws you’re governed by
Who cares what name you call a town
Who'll care when you're six feet beneath the ground"