It’s a beautiful, sunny evening and I am sitting with friends on the waterfront at Torquay. As we gaze out over the moored yachts and holiday homes, a group of youngsters walk past us.
It’s a large group, all about sixteen years old, smiling and happy, chattering to one another. They are obviously tourists and the language that they’re talking is not English, so I strain to listen to see which it is. It is French, but then there are some Italians, some talking in Danish, others still in tongue that I cannot identify and then some Portuguese. Finally, I realise that they are a group of Erasmus students on a programme of study. As a small group of them linger behind the others and talk together in English, the barriers of language and thousands of miles between their homelands drift away and I feel happy: This is what being European is all about, international togetherness, happiness and the enhancing of lives. I feel warm inside, proud to have voted Remain and pleased that all the opinion polls suggest that such progressive ideals will win through that coming night.
Ten hours later and my mood is different. 52% of Britons who went to the polls rejected that vision and opted instead for bigotry and isolationism. I felt angry: I wanted my son to have the opportunities that those young adults on Torquay waterfront had been enjoyed and now the older generations had snatched them away from him. My own people, 68% of the voters in my city of Stoke-on-Trent had snatched those life chances away from him, he who is too young to both vote and understand. What right had they?
But then I thought again. I wanted my son to enjoy the chance to go on Erasmus, yet I hadn’t. I’d have loved it, but I’d never done it. Why not? Why had I not taken up the chances offered to me as those youngsters were doing?
That night, sitting in the pub with a Brexit-voting friend of mine, it came through crystal clear. I told him about the Erasmus kids in Torquay and he replied, “But what opportunity like that was ever offered to a kid on the streets of Stoke?” The answer was, of course, the same opportunity that was offered to any kid in the EU but there was one crucial difference: they were never told about them. I never went on Erasmus because my parents never knew about it; no one from the EU ever went to the streets of Stoke to tell those kids just what riches were being offered to them if they’d only but take them up.
Brexit is still to me a tragedy of unimaginable proportions, but we must always learn from history rather than lament over it. And to me the lesson that we can learn today is this. Those in the North and Midlands of England, the Welsh Valleys, the South-West and the East are the left-behind. They are disenfranchised and have little to look forward to. They decided on the 23rd June to react with anger and give the elites a bloody nose. Categorising them as stupid does not help. As we move forward, we need to make sure that they aren’t left behind again, that instead of schemes like Erasmus being filled by the offspring of the metropolitan middle classes, we educate the children of the left-behind on just what is out there for them and how their lives can be transformed. We help them access the opportunities which they, as fellow human beings, deserve.
That way and only that way, can they learn just what riches international cooperation can bring into their lives and how the future can be made brighter for all.
Even the kids on the streets of Stoke.
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