This week in East Berlin wherever I went, I seemed to hear the sound of bagpipes. First, a man in a Glengarry playing the pibroch in the famous street Unter den Linden; then a Pole in a Celtic top playing an ancient set of pipes his grandfather had acquired in the Highlands. Then, one rainy day in Alexanderplatz where we had gone to get the British newspapers, I heard a lament and glimpsed a piper busking outside the train station. The melancholy air seemed to capture perfectly the mood engendered for me by headlines about the poll shifts towards Brexit. Even before the tragic death of Jo Cox, the idea of Britain leaving the EU had begun to make me deeply sad.
There are both personal and political reasons for my feelings. I love Europe. Being in Berlin, particularly the former East, reminds me why. There is so much history of suffering here, but the city has stoically moved beyond that and become a great place to be.
For all its history of oppression, East Germany under the Soviets was a child-centred society and East Berlin retains some of that character. In the leafy streets round Prenzlauer Allee there are little sandy playgrounds full of families. The children on their way to school travel in wooden boxes on the front of bikes, the older ones rolling along the smooth pavements on skateboards and scooters. It still has a fantastic tram network and most people use it. As a result, car traffic is light so you can have a coffee at a pavement cafe and hear yourself think and talk.
Germany has absorbed many more refugees than the UK, but we saw little sign of them. There were fewer street beggars here than in Glasgow. We saw no armed police either. Perhaps, as much as numbers, dealing with immigration is a question of how well-managed the situation is.
On a trip to an art gallery in an old station, the Hamburger Bahnhof, we saw the work of Turkish women artists including Gulsun Karamustafa. In particular I enjoyed a room full of plinths on which stood oversized bric-a-brac, brightly coloured gold cherubs and rose teapots: it seemed warm and witty, a riff on what you might see at your Turkish auntie’s house or on a magical market stall. An example perhaps of how a little Turkish influence can add to the joie de vivre of modern Germany.
I love the idea that as a citizen of the EU, I belong in Berlin. I have an entitlement to be here. It’s not just that I can come on holiday but I could live here if I wished. Maybe I never will, but it was a kind of freedom just to know that if I wanted to, I could. I could use the health service, I could access school or university places.
Brexiters say that travel is easy outside the EU and that is probably true but you can’t easily live somewhere else. Getting a visa to work in the US for instance is difficult, and renewal is not certain.
I am also personally aware of British pensioners who have moved to Europe and made their lives there who are worrying about their situation in the event of Brexit. I have EU citizen friends who live in the UK also who fear for their futures. It seems unfair that they are not allowed a vote.
Personally, I don’t want to give up the benefits of European Union citizenship. This is similar to how I thought two years ago in the Scottish referendum on independence. Then, as a committed supporter of devolution and of the Scottish Parliament, I voted against independence. I wanted to keep my birthright of a British passport.
For me, I decided, devolution did not have to be a stepping stone to independence. I was sincere when I argued through the long years of campaigning for a Scottish Parliament, that a federal structure was the right one for Scotland, That we could address specific problems closer to home while sharing sovereignty with other institutions such as Westminster and Brussels. That we did not have to give up our membership of important institutions. Sovereignty isn’t like a football in a children’s game, where the kid who owns the ball can suddenly pick it up and say they are taking it home when they don’t like the way the game is unfolding.
At the time of the Scottish Independence referendum, I wrote about my support for remaining part of the UK, for my respect for England, for its openness, tolerance and values. But the fire-breathing nastiness of the Brexit debate has been depressing. The dragons of English nationalism seem to have been thoroughly awakened. It seems to me looking back that it was at the time of the Scottish independence debate that they started to stir, murmuring: “Take back control,” and, “We want our country back”.
Nationalism in general makes me uncomfortable. I’m not saying that you can’t be proud of your country or even love it. Perhaps Samuel Johnson was going too far when he said that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” But there are very few problems for which more nationalism seems to be a good solution.
The way in which the leaders of the SNP Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond have put aside the nationalist cause to campaign for Britain to remain in the European Union is impressive. But there is definitely a strong group of hardcore nationalists in Scotland who will be hoping that England votes Leave because they see that as the best way to reopen the debate about Scottish independence.
I really don’t want to see that whole painful subject opened up again with a new referendum. But if it does happen, I know I for one will find it hard to speak up for Scotland remaining part of Britain. I will feel, as many ‘No’ voters will, let down and betrayed. England, don’t let us down! Don’t make a choice that will inevitably threaten the unity of the United Kingdom. Not after all that we have been through together.
But this isn’t just about Scotland, the UK’s integrity, or the economy or jobs or exchange rates. The global geopolitics are also keeping me awake at night.
In East Berlin, at a street stall some young people were campaigning with a sign in English proclaiming that “Putin is not your Enemy; the City of London is,” A man with pale blue eyes the colour of a summer dawn told me that Vladimir Putin was offering Germany the hand of friendship and collaboration, unlike the City of London, home of money men, drug dealers and terrorists.
A recent editorial in the Financial Times said that Brexit would be “a grievous blow to the post 1945 liberal world order,”. At stake, it said, is “the coherence of the West.” In the New Statesman, Linda Colley, professor of History at Princeton wrote “Like other relatively cosseted peoples in the West – British civilians have become blissfully forgetful about the prospect of military conflict. Yet, historically the comparative peace that western Europe has enjoyed since 1945 is an aberration…this seems to me the prime reason why Britain needs to keep its close European relations in good repair and strengthen them”
The US, she went on, has a “long, only partly buried, history of isolationism..It would be unwise “ to assume that America will always be available to prop up the European powers. Instead Europeans – including the British – will need to collaborate ever more closely to defend themselves.”
Scot David Edward, a former judge at the European Court of Justice made a speech last week in which he warned that Britain is in danger of “losing its reputation for reliability” and needs to show its European allies that it is committed to facing up to world dangers. He said Russia was governed by “an unpredictable autocrat with ambitions” and that these ambitions would be encouraged by Brexit and a weakened EU. But Brexit’s Michael Gove says “people in this country have had enough of experts.” Is that really the case? Are Brexit supporters thinking: who is that Professor Sir David Edward anyway and why should we care what he thinks?
I once heard him get the most inspiring end-of-school Assembly speech I have ever heard. In it he talked about the work, in which he played a part, of building the democratic institutions of modern Germany after the Second World War, institutions which were nurtured and strengthened within the European Union. He ended his speech by saying “This is what we achieved in our generation, now you must go out and achieve for your generation.”
I was thinking about this the other day and the fact that It is people who like me, who were born in the baby boom of the 60s and 70s, who are now largely leading the UK. I guess I don’t want to be part of the generation that fucks up.