Wednesday, 22 June 2016

June the 23rd: a choice of walls or bridges

Is our world one that needs more walls, or more bridges?

The British electorate has that decision to make on 23 June. Should the Channel be a moat we bridge through closer integration with our neighbours in Continental Europe? Or should we raise the drawbridge by leaving their Club, the European Union, choosing to run our affairs without reference to them?

In ten days’ time, on 1 July, we’ll be celebrating (if that’s the word) the centennial of the start of the Battle of the Somme. In the end, it lasted four and a half months and cost – wait for it – over 1.3 million lives. That, like the whole of the First World War, represents a celebration of walls (if, again, that’s something to celebrate) of walls: over those 140 days, several hundred thousand men battled over barbed wire, ramparts, trenches – not brick and mortar, maybe, but certainly the most bitter of walls, designed to divide man from man.

The Battle of the Somme: a huge cost
What did it achieve that hasn't been done since, better, in peace?
Not all walls are as bloody as those of the First World War. But make no mistake about it: if the Trump wall is ever built, and let’s hope he never gets into position to do it, people will die on it. Don’t forget the words from A Few Good Men: “Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns.” Walls attract guns, and guns attract death. And pain. And suffering.

My grandfather served in two world wars, they came so close together. My father served in the Second. The experience of a double-helping of world-scale killing led many in the generation that were young adults in the forties and fifties to work to tear down a few walls and build a few bridges.

The Battle of the Somme was fought principally by British and French troops (supported by men from their overseas territories) on the one side, and Germans on the other. It was that enmity, between those combatants, that it was most important to end. The river Rhine had to become a waterway, not a Franco-German border to struggle over. That goal was the spur that gave birth to the European Union.

Seven decades on from the end of the Second World War, the progress made can be measured in a little town which my wife and I will be visiting again this weekend: Kehl, in Germany, but separated from France only by the Rhine. Across which the municipalities on both sides have thrown a footbridge. Dog walkers, which at one time included me, can take their pets over that bridge and give them an international walk. In principle, they should take identity papers, but I’ve never known of anyone being asked for them.

In November 1944, men died trying to secure that crossing.

The footbridge at Kehl soars across the Rhine. In peace
Surely a more appealing sight than the other one?
The graceful walkway over the river is an eloquent symbol of how much bridges are to be preferred to walls. Sadly, as the generation who fought has died out, there has been a growth in the fashion for walls again. Trump secured the Republican nomination. Intelligent, sensitive friends of mine tell me they want Britain to withdraw from the EU, because “they want their country back.”

I can assure them that neither country linked by that Rhine footbridge has been stolen from its people. They’ve merely said, “from now on we’re going to work together instead of against each other.” The EU is a symbol of that cooperation, of the same kind as the bridge, but at a larger scale.

Why would anyone want to damage either? But that’s our choice in Britain on 23 June. To reinforce the bridges or to tear them down – and revert to walls.

Just in time for the Battle of the Somme centennial.

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