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Friday, 22 April 2016

The whole purpose of a political leader is to make successful alliances

Last Sunday The Observer published an interview with Neil MacGregor in which he made what seem to me to be some of the most pertinent observations that I have heard to date on the issues surrounding the EU referendum and the possibility of Brexit. In the interview he talks about acts of memory as a defining difference within Europe:

'In Germany, he says, “the thing I continue to find striking is that in the centre of Berlin you keep coming across monuments to national shame. I think that is unique in the world.”

Did they really have an option but to confront what had happened though?

“Well,” he says. “Austria hasn’t done it. Post-Soviet Russia hasn’t done it. Japan hasn’t done it.”

And, he would suggest, Britain and France have never really done it. “If you compare the way we remember, the perfect example was the opening ceremony of the Olympics, that selective national memory: all true but not looking at any of the difficult bits.”

Two things, he says, in the past couple of months have highlighted that complacency. The Cecil Rhodes statue debate “shows that we still cannot look at the past dispassionately, even a hundred years on”. Likewise, the centenary of the Easter Rising. “There is still no appetite to look hard at British behaviour in Ireland. What I find so painfully admirable about the German experience is that they are determined to find the historical truth and acknowledge it however painful it is. You can’t be an informed adult – or an artist – in Germany without doing that.”

The great thing a museum can do is allow us to look at the world as if through other eyes

That reflexive act of memory also colours the great political schisms of our times. Much has changed in Europe in the 18 months since the British Museum’s Germany show and the first publication of his book. It contains many chapters of forensic storytelling, but the one that stands out reading it now is MacGregor’s analysis of a simple refugee cart. That cart was representative of one of the most forgotten events of the last century: the forced “repatriation” of German speakers from eastern Europe after the war. About 30 million people were “ethnically cleansed” and 12-14 million returned to a devastated homeland they didn’t know, and became absorbed into a society that was rebuilt and reordered within a decade.

“If you try to explain why Germany has taken its unique stance on Syrian refugees in Europe you can’t ignore this,” MacGregor says. “Some argue the policy is another way of atoning for the Nazi era. But another absolutely central motivation, rarely mentioned, is that almost everybody now in Germany in their 20s or 30s has a grandparent or great-grandparent who has been a refugee. Pretty well every German has direct family experience of knowing what it means to be welcomed.”

The other debate that has become more charged since the book first appeared is the notion of sovereignty. MacGregor believes that the British and Germans mean completely different things when they use that word. Partly because of its own traumatic experience of nationalism and partly because of the history of shifting borders and alliances during the Holy Roman Empire, in Germany, he says, sovereignty always means an appetite for coalition and compromise. “Any German knows that as well as the Bundestag there are 16 other parliaments making laws within its borders. In Britain we don’t have the language for that.”

The European debate in Britain looks so strange if you are a German for precisely this reason, he suggests. “German people see the whole purpose of a political leader is to make successful alliances. The proper use of sovereignty is all about pooling it to achieve your aims. The British idea that you should entirely do these things on your own and try to assume total control over your environment is unthinkable.”'

This, it seems to me, explains, in part, the shortcomings of the argument currently being made by anti-EU campaigners that Barack Obama is guilty of double standards when he encourages the UK to remain part of the EU. What those campaigners fail to acknowledge is that the USA is, as it says on the tin, a Union of States. Obama recognises the importance of cooperation rather than isolation and interdependence rather than independence because that is built in to the existence of America, part of its raison d'ĂȘtre. By contrast, the anti-EU campaigners believe, as McGregor notes, that we should entirely do these things on our own and try to assume total control over our environment. In my view it is this refusal to recognise the value of cooperation and interdependence that causes the shallowness in the arguments made in favour of Brexit.


Woody Guthrie - This Land Is Your Land.

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