European elections: Gavin Esler on Brexit, Poles and real change
When I first came to London in the 1980s it was to live in Ealing, a place with a strong Polish community. I’d been brought up in Scotland and Northern Ireland and so like me, my Polish neighbours had roots somewhere else. Like me they were Londoners. Like me they had parents or grandparents who fought for freedom in World War 2.
When the greatest Pope of modern times - John Paul II - came to visit Britain in the early 1980s I talked with some of my Polish neighbours about their stories. One man told me he came to Britain to escape the Nazis. His wife came after the war to escape communism. Their son was driving vans with (ENGLISH TRANSLATION) “Packages for Poland.” He told me one day he would go back to a free Poland. I admit I was sceptical that communism would ever be overthrown. But our old neighbour was right. A couple of years later, communism fell and he did return.
In this one family we had the history of Europe - fighting against totalitarianism and repression, seeking freedom, struggling and winning through. And by coming and working in London this family enriched our city and our country. In their inspirational stories they enriched my life.
When people ask me “what has the European Union done for us?” I always have the same answer. It helps stop the hatreds of the past. There are many other positive things - ease of travel, improvements to the environment, free trade — but helping to maintain peace on what historically has been the bloodiest continent on Earth is the key achievement of the EU and the post-war era.
Of course the European Union is far from perfect. I have many criticisms. But it binds us together on a common set of principles - for freedom, democracy, a better life for our children.
I now live in a different part of London, and my neighbours have many different backgrounds, Polish, French, German, Asian, Caribbean and so on. London attracts talented people from all over the world because it is the ultimate outward facing city. But over the past three years I have become increasingly worried that every one of the values I most cherish is under threat. I have listened to some politicians stir up hatred with their speeches, and when I hear them talk about foreigners, immigrants and refugees as if they are some kind of threat — I look down my street and I see people who are my neighbours and friends.
We have given the traditional political parties almost three years to sort themselves out. They have many good MPs and millions of decent, honest supporters, but any version of Brexit will make us poorer as a country. And by poorer I mean in terms of money but also in terms of the people who come to Britain from Poland and elsewhere and enrich us with their talents. Worse, Brexit has divided us as never before.
Nigel Farage is taking us into Trumpland. Like his friend Mr Trump he wants walls and barriers. He makes comments about foreigners and racial groups which stoke up fear. And he has stolen our patriotism. I want to take it back. At least he is honest about one thing. Nigel Farage says he wants to replace the NHS with an insurance based system — just as in the USA. I think this is a terrible idea. Health care is the single biggest cause of personal bankruptcy in the US. But at least Mr Farage and the Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan are honest enough to say that’s what awaits us after Brexit. I’d rather bin Brexit and save the NHS.
Like most of Britain - whatever way you voted in 2016 - I am utterly fed up with Brexit. Brexit is not an event, over with on one day when we leave. Brexit is a process. That means - if we leave the EU - we will be talking about the consequences and negotiating trade and other deals for years to come. And this is why I am running as an MEP for London for ChangeUK. We want a People’s Vote - a confirmatory referendum on any deal with the EU. We are the Remain party - no ifs, no buts - we stand for staying in the EU. We want a better Britain and a better London for all our people - wherever they come from - and especially for those who really understand the meaning of Freedom.
Gavin William James Esler (born 27 February 1953) is a Scottish journalist, television presenter and author. Esler was previously a main presenter on BBC Two's flagship political analysis programme, Newsnight, from January 2002 until January 2014, and presenter of BBC News at Five on the BBC News Channel. Since 2014 he has served as the Chancellor of the University of Kent.
On 11 March 2017, Esler confirmed via his Twitter profile that he would be leaving the BBC at the end of the month to concentrate on his writing activities. He returned to the BBC later that year as host of Talking Books. On 23 April 2019, he attended a press conference with Change UK – The Independent Group parliamentary party as a candidate in the May 2019 EU elections. The party announced its intention to stop Brexit and pursue a second referendum.
Gavin Esler is standing for the European elections for Change UK in the London constituency.