The U.K. is currently paying the price of forty years of failure to educate its people about ‘Europe’. I’m not suggesting that we should have been indoctrinating people into one particular view, but the current hypertension over the forthcoming referendum – and the manifest shortcomings of both camps when it comes to making reasoned cases – could have been avoided had the nation actually known anything at all about that which is it supposedly deciding upon. We are now at a point when nothing less than the future of our country hangs on the votes of ignorance that will be cast by the majority of people, largely based on issues that have little to do with the actual one in question.
For quite a few years, I taught ‘AS’ level European Studies, which I should emphasise was not the same as ‘E.U. studies’, as it contained historical, geographical, cultural and environmental elements as well as an in-depth study of the workings of the E.U. Arguably this is what Europeanism is or should really be about, rather than single issues, and an appreciation of this would certainly have provided a more stable basis for a referendum. I wonder how many British people really identify their holidays in Spain (or wherever), pizzeria visits, school exchanges or football fanaticism as acts of Europeanism.
Each year, I took groups of teenagers to the European Parliament and European Court in Strasbourg. We travelled by train and spent several eye-opening days on the Franco-German border. They watched the Parliament in action, talked to M.E.P.s of several nationalities and discussed the work of the Court with one of its lawyers. Despite my efforts to be scrupulously neutral, and despite my working in one of the longest-standing Euro-sceptic parts of the country, during that course the more the students discovered and discussed, the more their views shifted inexorably in favour of pan-Europeanism. The fundamental good sense of co-operation just became more and more evident. Wherever they are now, those former students should be equipped to make informed decisions when they vote in a couple of weeks’ time.
And then, around 2005, the exam board scrapped the course on cost grounds; even my direct appeal to then-Prime Minister (supposedly pro-European) Tony Blair produced nothing more than a letter disowning the decision.
During the same period, the scheme of work I had designed for our Year Eights, which included a more rudimentary view of the E.U. was also ditched by my then colleagues – our current pupils have had no education on the issue whatsoever. And yet the associated day-trip on the Eurostar to Lille has endured because it was so enjoyable. We ran it again last week, to much favourable comment from the pupils. They were certainly unprepared for the speed of the journey – just one hour from Ebbsfleet to Lille – and the vibrancy of the fourth largest city in France, which they had barely realised lies virtually on their doorstep.
During the follow-up lessons, the matter of the referendum inevitably arose; despite views on both sides, it was evident that the issue of immigration is dominant, with quite a few pupils feeling that the ease of travel was a bad thing. Well, I suppose they never knew the days before the Tunnel when it took nearly a whole day just to reach Lille. They were more mixed when I pointed out that the forthcoming abolition of roaming charges within the E.U. would presumably not apply to Britain if we leave. Nothing like a little self-interest to motivate, but the general growth of parochialism is profoundly depressing, particularly since the U.K. was the chief protagonist in the drive to enlarge the E.U. in the first place.
Eurobarometer, the E.U.’s polling arm has repeatedly shown that of the original fifteen nations, general public knowledge of the E.U. has remained lowest in the U.K. For many years, U.K. governments apparently refused to have E.U. information offices in major U.K. towns, as was common in every other member-state. Even now there are few, mostly hidden in the depths of other buildings and too far from many people to be of any practical use – even assuming their existence is known about.
And short-sighted government is still making mistakes – for example, the link between High Speed 1 rail line (London – Paris) and the planned High Speed 2 (London – North) has been abandoned, which will make the seemingly-obvious integration of, and synergy between the two networks impossible. Things like direct international trains from one’s nearest city do more to raise a sense of connection than might be assumed. By contrast, many of my students are flabbergasted when I point out how much closer they live to much of France or Germany than, for example, to Scotland.
I have always been pro-European in the widest possible sense. Not only does my experience of the European institutions convince me that they are better-conceived – and functionally at least no worse – than Westminster, but my travels and friendships on the continent give the whole thing a personal meaning in which I take genuine pride and pleasure. There are places and people ‘over there’ whose doings are real, every-day part of my own life – and there is only one way to achieve this kind of immediacy. I will be devastated if we leave.
Given the U.K.’s island nature, British people do need to be prompted to think wider – but what, if not that, is the point of education? Attitudes to language-learning have still not been cracked (though pragmatically the spread of English is reducing the barrier). And yet there seems as much of a complete vacuum of real understanding of Europe in this country as ever.
I’m not suggesting that mine is the only valid point of view, and there are certainly plenty of improvements that could be made to the E.U., but the ugly and parochial mentalities becoming evident in the current debate represent a catastrophic failure to equip Britain’s people with the necessary information and perspective upon which to decide. A few months of media distortion were never going to do what years of formal education should have been doing.
Once again, for all the narcissism and drum-banging the British education system and its political masters have utterly failed the nation when it comes to equipping it with knowledge of something of real, practical and now critical importance.