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Language barrier: Our sheer ignorance about how Europe works is worrying

Brexit will cause lasting uncertainty, and our linguistic indifference to Europe shoulders much of the blame, says ex-Labour government minister Denis MacShane

All political life should start with a bang. Mine did with a whimper. Born in Glasgow to a Pole and a Scottish-Irish woman, politics meant nothing to me for the first two decades of my life. At the outbreak of the Second World War my father, Jan Matyjaszek, was a newly commissioned second lieutenant from a poor farming family in a remote corner of Poland. He took a bullet in the shoulder leading his men against a nationalist army from Germany. The bullet went on to kill his corporal behind him. German efficiency. One bullet, two Poles knocked out of the war.

My father left Poland and via Romania came to France with other Polish soldiers and pilots to carry on the  fight the xenophobic nationalism of the Nazis. The Poles fought longer in 1939 against the Germans than the French did in 1940.

The Polish army was based in Scotland, where my father met my mother Isabel McShane, whose mother came from Donegal. For the Irish Catholic families of Lanarkshire the arrival of all these dashing exotic officers, who always kissed the hand of a woman of every age, could dance with a devil-may-care brio and were devout mass-going Catholics was proof that the ill-winds of war could blow some good.

Politics for me began in Birmingham in the 1970s when I joined The Labour Party in response to the racism of Enoch Powell

My father died when I was 10 and I cannot remember any politics in the house in Kenton, North-West London. On Sundays the Sunday Express was bought and I devoured the comment columns by AJP Taylor. I was a paper boy at 13 and liked reading all the papers but not really making a distinction between them.

At Oxford I wrote and edited student papers and in those crazy 1968 days enjoyed the sex, drugs, drink and rock’n’roll and occupying hallowed Oxford University buildings like the Sheldonian.

Politics for me began in Birmingham in the 1970s when I joined The Labour Party in response to the racism of Enoch Powell and his attacks on immigrants and Europe. I was a BBC news trainee. For the first time, I heard and saw casual racism in the streets, while canvassing for Labour or just a having drink after reporting on Wolverhampton Wanderers.

I stood as Labour candidate in Solihull in 1974 and became president of the National Union of Journalists in 1978. But still I could hardly speak a word of French and no other foreign tongue.

That was put right in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher was elected. I had been a militant NUJ strike leader in the 1970s, taking BBC journalists out on strike in 1975 and  provincial newspaper journalists in 1978. So when I tried to get back into employment as a journalist I found I was blacklisted.

So off I went to Geneva to work for international industrial trade unions around the world. It meant I had to learn foreign languages – French, German, Spanish. But more usefully I learnt that the vision of Europe presented by the English left led by Tony Benn, with new recruits like Jeremy Corbyn, had no relation to the reality I was now experiencing first-hand.

There were many countries in Europe where wages and public services were better, trade union rights stronger and democratic controls much firmer than Mrs Thatcher’s centralised union-bashing Britain.


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I don’t know at what point I began to feel European along with being fully British, or maybe English, despite my Polish-Scottish-Irish genes.

Bismarck said that speaking foreign languages was something head waiters needed to do. But I returned to Britain to become an MP in 1994 and then in 1997 working in the Foreign Office for Tony Blair as a minister up to 2005. Then the steam went out of Labour’s enthusiasm for Europe as bit-by-bit Eurosceptism then downright anti-Europeanism took over the Tory Party, and much of the media and fashionable soirées in our cities.

What struck me was how in Whitehall, Westminster, the BBC and national newspapers no-one spoke a European language or could read a page of Le Monde or Die Welt. Had I stayed in Britain to follow a journalist or political career after 1979 I would have been no different.

British political-media ignorance of European languages encourages many myths about Europe

It is not that Britain’s endemic monolingualism helped create Brexit. After all multi-lingual Switzerland has a fully-fledged anti-EU Party, the Swiss People’s Party, which is the biggest in the Swiss Parliament and has two members of the seven-strong cabinet.

But the sheer ignorance of how Europe works or what the EU does is worrying and British political-media ignorance of European  languages encourages many myths about Europe.

This is my fourth book on Brexit. It argues whatever happens next – deal, no deal, a general election, a new referendum, a new prime minister – makes little difference. Brexit will eat its way into British politics, business life and the UK’s international influence for many years to come. The era of Brexiternity lies ahead of us.

Denis MacShane’s Brexiternity. The Uncertain Fate of Britain is out now (Bloomsbury, £9.99)

Illustration: Joseph Joyce