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The Power of the Powerless
14 Jan, 2020

At the moment, we probably feel a bit helpless, and don’t really know what to do next.  So George Stevenson wants to offer a more optimistic approach, and some suggestions for how we might move to a new phase of campaigning and organisation.

In 1978, a Czech playwright named Vaclav Havel, until then mostly known to aficionados of absurdist theatre, published a short booklet called The Power of the Powerless, as a way providing comfort and encouragement to those living under communist rule in Czechoslovakia (as was).  He summed up the situation by using the example of a greengrocer who displayed the clichéd communist slogan ‘Workers of the world- unite!’ in his or her shop window, not out of any enthusiasm for communist ideology, but because of worries about getting into trouble if they didn’t do so, and because it’s what everyone was expected to do.

And so it is with Brexit.  The slogans ‘Brexit means Brexit’, ‘The will of the people’, ‘Get Brexit done’ are as vacuous as the communist slogan, but everyone is expected to support this, and any dissent is ridiculed or condemned.  Rights are being removed from the population, with no guarantee that they will be honoured or protected in domestic law or practice.

Havel’s solution to the overbearing power of the state and the lack of individual freedom was what he called ‘living in truth’.  A more down to earth description might be ‘living according to our values’.  He suggested that ‘living in truth’ would make the individual feel better, because they would not be suppressing their essential being, and could start to effect change in society, by refusing to live by the lies that were an essential part of it.

So we may not continue to be members of the EU, but we can continue to live according to the values which we believe are integral to being a member (it was never purely about a trading arrangement, or belonging to an organisation).  We can be open-minded, outward-looking, and compassionate.  We can support each other, and particularly our fellow citizens from elsewhere in the EU, who would probably like a bit of solidarity at the moment. Even if travel becomes more annoying, we can still enjoy travelling to a continent which is close by, and with which we still share a huge amount of history and culture.   We can continue to display our flags and emblems, and of course we can take advantage of our branch network to continue to meet with and discuss with like-minded individuals.

Havel also highlighted the importance of defending human rights, which the regime claimed to respect, but ignored in reality.  Here too, there is much we can do.  As the negotiations on the future relationship develop, there is all to play for in cementing the sort of society we would like to see.  We can campaign on the rights of EU nationals here, and of UK nationals in the EU.  We can fight against any dilution of environmental standards or workers’ rights.  We can argue for a liberal immigration policy, and for arrangements which make travel as easy as possible.

We can also highlight where the government is not living up to its claims on human rights, environmental standards or anything else.  Unlike a totalitarian state, our government would find it difficult to ignore sustained domestic or international criticism.  For example, we could highlight that curtailing the independence of the judiciary, restricting the rights of railway workers to take industrial action, or being more interventionist regarding broadcasters are largely against the values which the country claims to stand for.

Finally, Havel suggested that individuals acting together would inevitably start to join together in their own groups.   He called these ‘parallel structures’, which effectively bypassed the state’s control and created a parallel society.  We are fortunate in already having a structure of branches, where we can meet like-minded people, discuss issues and decide on campaigning (and think how more enjoyable these occasions would be if accompanied by food and drink from across the continent).  We have our own newspaper (The New European), web-sites and social media.  We could become a formidable campaigning force, and provide information and education on how the EU and domestic politics works.  We could become the ‘go to’ organisation when broadcasters want information or opinion on EU-related subjects.

The goal through all of these actions should be to influence public opinion in such a way that the country becomes a more humane place, but also so that (re)joining the EU becomes the natural way of demonstrating and cementing these values.  This avoids being caught up with being perceived as just wanting to join a particular, not very perfect, organisation.  I will be ambitious, and state that we should aim for a major political party to offer rejoining as a credible option for the 2024 election (or sooner if it happens).

We may feel powerless at the moment, but we have considerable power within us to change things.

London4Europe blogs are edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.