For years I have always believed in not bringing politics into business – there lies only danger. But, the debate on Remaining or Leaving the EU is so much more than politics – it goes to the heart of who I am, where I come from and what I believe in.
Whilst I there are legitimate concerns about immigration and the pressures it puts on services, immigration is not so newly a feature of this country as you might think. The UK is built on immigration and very few British people do not have the blood of immigrants running through their veins. From Angles, to Saxons, to Romans, to Vikings, to Normans, to waves of Irish, to the flow from fledgling independent nations of empire including India, Pakistan, Jamaica and many more in the 50’s and 60’s, to the rescue of Ugandan Asians in 1972 – all before Britain’s entry into the EEC in 1973.
At times, immigration has met resistance, from Boadicea to Alfred the Great’s efforts to fight off the Vikings to moans, groans and outright hostility at times in the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s. It may seem hard to believe now, but in 1972 Leicester City Council took out newspaper ads telling arriving Ugandan Asians not to settle there. Now Leicester thrives as a result of the contribution of those very same people to its economy. Major immigration events have also been the prelude to many of our greatest achievements as a nation and we can take pride in being widely recognised as one of the most multicultural nations on earth.
My father served in the forces in the second world war whilst my mother lived in London through the blitz. After the war, my father taught French and German at Exeter School. He pioneered relationships between schools in Exeter and schools in Germany and France, leading the way in arranging for pupils from Exeter spending time with German and French families and their pupils coming to stay with British families. Family holidays were not unusually spent in Brittany, staying with or visiting French friends in the area.
My father’s concern was not only that we better learn each others’ languages but that, by being immersed in different cultures, we develop close relationships and better mutual understanding to put an end to the wars that had torn Europe apart for far too long. To me, taking advantage of free movement to live in Spain, close to Granada, for 6 years and experience life in another culture was almost as natural as breathing. Along with 1.2 million other Brits, in Spain and elsewhere in the EU, we were immigrants and were welcomed.
My family background, my interest in history and a career in hospitality and in tourism which, in the UK, relies very heavily on an immigrant workforce, all contribute to my view of myself as British, certainly, but European too. The UK will survive if the democratic vote on Thursday severs us from the continent in some weird and, as yet, undefined way. We will make our own way in the world as we have before. But the world has changed around us beyond all recognition since the 1970’s and the UK is far from being as important, alone, in the world, as it once was.
Just as crucially, the values which we in the UK hold dear and which lay behind much of our leadership in the EU in helping to create the Single Market, lay down the European Convention on Human Rights and much more, are not as highly valued in much of the rest of the world, beyond our nearest neighbours and fellow English-speaking nations in Australia, Canada, the US and others. What we need are not more walls, Trump-style, but more bridges – closer understanding and cooperation that does not lose our national identity or theirs.
Is the EU flawed? Certainly. This is something which we can lead the way in fixing – influential nations such as The Netherlands, Germany and Denmark hold similar views to ourselves in several respects that concern us. Britain in the EU will hold the rotating presidency in 2017 for 6 months and we can take that opportunity to start the process of fixing what is wrong. Leaving will achieve none of this. It will leave us outside the most important single market in the world and will force us to fend alone in a world that no longer looks up to the UK as a solitary entity in quite the same way it once did. Last, but not least, we may in due course find ourselves a rump of the UK, without Scotland – a situation much less likely to arise if we remain in the EU.
So, each of us must do as we feel is right because ultimately there is no perfectly right or wrong answer to the question that faces us on Thursday. What is important to remember is that this is not a political decision alone but an emotional and personal one about who you are and the opportunities you want your children and grandchildren to have. Most importantly, the appreciation you want them to have of Europe as a family of nations rather than the UK as an island apart.