In all the fevered debates shadowing the UK’s departure from the European Union one word is rarely mentioned – peace. The historian Winston Churchill behind the better-known politician passionately supported the formation of the 1951 European Coal and Steel Community. General de Gaulle subsequently prevented Britain from joining, thus setting the pattern for recent European history. As a historian, Churchill knew that wars were often waged to protect existing trade links or to extend these lifelines of survival and, ultimately, prosperity. Trade within agreed rules and regulations to ensure a level playing field for all sounded like common sense in the post-war era.
Older people seem to have forgotten what happened and the younger generation did not live through the post-war period from1945 to the 1970s when Britain became ‘the sick man of Europe’. Outside the common market, its manufactures faced tariffs on its goods entering the free trade area across the English Channel. Two years have passed since the referendum which split the U K into almost equal opposing groups – the Leavers and Remainers – and the bitter divide remains.
There were lies, or misleading rumours, during the campaign. As a result, London is losing key players on the Stock Exchange to Paris and Frankfurt. Two lasting images remain. One is of a leaflet which implied that, if Britain remained in the EU, it could be flooded by thousands of Muslim immigrants from Turkey, implying that this country was about to join the EU, something that is unlikely to happen for decades because so many reforms would be required. It was a patent but persuasive lie. The other is the side of a bus (donated, incidentally, from a company in my area) proclaiming in huge letters that the £350,000 sent every week to the E U could instead be spent on the nation’s most cherished institution, the National Health Service ‘free at the point of need’. Founded in 1948, it has been widely admired. How clever, but dishonest, of those who wanted to leave the EU to proclaim this. Once the UK leaves, medicines with other goods from the EU will now bear tariffs making them more expensive. No mention is made of possible trade partners to replace the 450 million population of the EU. Nebulous trade deals, we are told, can be made, but the UK with a population of only 66 million consumers would have to wait a long time at the end of the queue. Murmurs abound of trading deals with the scattered Commonwealth communities, but Australia already has its own treaties with neighbouring countries and so does Canada. The Commonwealth countries are scattered all over the world and the E U, crucially for trade, is on our doorstep. Time and transport costs would outweigh any potential goodwill towards such a relatively small market as the UK. Inside the EU Britain has a strong bargaining position in Brussels and Strasbourg and obtained favourable agreements and opt-outs, such as not joining the euro and keeping frontier controls.
The attempted poisoning of a man and his daughter and the flow of true and false information and rumours on the internet reveal a potentially dangerous substructure of information and influence. Is that where wars will be waged in the future? Mercifully there may be no repeat of the horrendous loss of life in the two world wars of the last century. Online, however, opaque battles are already happening, unbeknown to us, outcomes unpredictable and usually hidden. Perhaps there will be no wars as in the past. Peace on the surface.
In the late 1990s some feared that the electronic systems underpinning our material and financial survival would crash because they might be confused by the three zeros. Fortunately, they understood them! Now I read that incomprehensible BOTS are travelling through the veins of the cyber universe. Might they be waging a new subliminal war to cripple systems that underpin our daily survival without creating physical destruction as in the past? Except for four people – the Skripal, now in hiding, Dawn Sturgess and her partner. Dawn died after finding the discarded perfume bottle used to spray deadly novichok on to the door handle of the Skripals’ home.
I have been glancing at the clear blue sky outside as I write this. Is blue the colour of peace?