In November 1931, Winston Churchill confided in Clement Atlee that he had: ‘seldom been so nervous about the state of British Democracy’. This was only two years after the Wall Street Crash and the UK’s National Government (a coalition of Conservatives, Liberals and Labour) at a time of economic and political division was yet to consolidate. Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists were on the rise and, as the book I have states: ‘If one casts one’s eye to other European countries (Germany, Italy and Russia) one could believe that the age of democracy was passing’. If any of this sounds familiar, it means that we need to think long and hard about issues of identity, co-operation and integration.
This summer we visited Italy. Walking in the South Tyrol, where there was savage fighting during the First World War, modern communities of Italians and Austrians live peacefully. Moving on, and passing over the several Brexit conversations with locals (most people think we Brits are collectively mad for attempting to leave), we enjoyed the sights of Venice, that most beautiful of European cities.
The photograph shows how Venetians are at ease with three identities. This is captured by the EU flag, the flag of the modern Italian Republic and the beautiful flag of the successful Venetian Republic which ended with the Napoleonic invasion of 1797. Localism sits comfortably with internationalism.
There are danger signs. On a wet Sunday morning we set off for High Mass in Basilica St Marco. Removing my sodden outer garments, I was surprised to be scrutinised by a soldier and I counted three more quietly circulating during the service at which the peace was shared as usual.
After mass, seeking coffee and further cultural enlightenment, we set off for the Jewish quarter where there are shops, cafes and restaurants as well as tours of the local synagogues. This area gave the loaded word ghetto to the World, and here Jews were forced to live from the sixteenth century until the Napoleonic invasion under limited civil rights and punitive taxation. Then, in 1943, a few hundred poor souls from Venice were carried off to the inevitable by the Nazis.
Outside our café, another military presence consisted of large and frightening-looking individuals. While the soldiers in the Basilica looked ready for parade, those in the former ghetto were armed to the teeth and wearing flak-jackets: special forces I imagined, ready for an attack. This, I mused, results from the unacceptable face of what is euphemistically called ‘identity politics’.
It seems concerning that attending mass in a predominantly Roman Catholic country necessitated a military presence. Then I ask: why should the Jewish population not be able to go around their daily business without constant reminders of what might happen? Here lies despair for the human condition.
Leaving the former ghetto that afternoon I was sporting a Panama sun hat (with an S4E badge, naturally) and a medium-length beard. I caught the eye of a man with a very impressive beard and a similar but dark hat. Shalom! he greeted me. Shalom! was my reply. His eyes lit up: ‘Are you Jewish?’ No. I replied and stroked my chin ‘It’s the beard!’ He smiled. ‘But I like your sentiment!’
Euro-unity surly lies in shalom and strength through unity?
Hadrian Cook (Chairman S4E)