Brussels Midi/Brussels Schuman/ Cinquantenaire
Distance: Total: 6.3 miles (Total: 391.5 miles);
Steps: 14,077 steps (Total: 842,854 steps)
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
― T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets
So there, it was over, 391.5 miles, 25 days, four countries but so what? Was it worth the effort? Not just mine but Xuelin’s whose business had been put on hold for nearly a month whilst she supported her ‘crazy’ husband every step of the way on yet another walk to ‘change the world’. As we travelled back to London on the Eurostar we had time to reflect.
It is important to recall what the objective was before we set off:
First, I had been genuinely distressed by the toxic nature of the debate over Brexit in the UK. It was marked by a level of intolerance and personal abuse that I had not witnessed in my forty years involvement in politics. The so called ‘Brexit divorce’ had descended into a bitter court room battle in which the hatred of the parents for each other had surpassed their shared love and responsibility for their children. The tone and content of the debate need to be moderated and respect shown to all points of view.
Second, I came to the conclusion that Brexit was no longer the biggest issue on the table, that was the divisions which had opened up within our country and between our country and our closest friends and neighbours. I pointed to an opinion poll which found that 83% of those questioned felt our nation was divided. This healing of this division needed to become a national priority.
Third, I wanted the freedom to listen and think about how we might find common ground on the issues which divided us and seek to identify ‘win-win’ solutions for the future. This was the reason for stepping down as a minister and stepping out on the walk providing the freedom to think and the opportunity to engage.
So that was what we set out to achieve. Did I achieve any of this? In short, in relation to the first two the honest answer is ‘No. Not at all.’ And in respect of the third objective, only in a limited way. So let me set out what I learnt:
1.Northern Ireland and peace and security on the island of Ireland is the No 1 priority. We set off on our walk from Belfast on the morning of Good Friday as the world was waking up to the news of the murder of the journalist Lyra McKee in Derry. That tragic death dominated conversations and thoughts during the first week of the walk down to Dublin. It culminated in Father Magill’s damming indictment of the political class with the words ‘Why in God’s name does it take the death of a 29-year-old woman with her whole life in front of her to get us to this point?’ The resumption of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive should be the absolute priority for all parties in Northern Ireland and the governments in Dublin and London. Brexit comes second to this political imperative for peace and stability.
2. Britain is not as divided as the poll, and my initial fears, suggested. As I walked across from Liverpool to Hull I found little evidence to suggest that people were as divided and as aggressive as they were in London and especially in Westminster. Whether it was a café owner in Widnes, a pub landlord in Bradford or a laundry owner in York they were focussed on getting on with life, working hard to build a better future for them and their families. I suspect this finding merely confirms the resilience of the economy in terms of employment, wages, exports and tax revenues despite the gloomy predictions. Invariably in Whitehall and Westminster it is a big firms in the City or the major multinationals with their government relations teams and the public sector that we hear from most. I found this discovery, that ‘real Britain’ was actually in fairly good shape, one of the most heartening findings of the entire walk.
3. The impact on the Republic of Ireland of Brexit is perhaps even greater than on the UK. This was certainly the feedback I got from many people I met. There was an anger at the Brexit decision in Ireland that was absent in Netherlands or Belgium. One owner of a B&B we stayed at said it was ‘like your neighbour sets his house of fire and refuses to lend you the phone to call the first brigade’. A dairy farmer from just outside of Dublin said he sold all his produce to a Cheddar cheese factory exporting to the UK and if tariff he would be out of business in a matter of weeks. On my visit to Trinity College, Dublin I heard of the major uncertainty over joint research programmes with UK universities, laboratory supplies and the impact on student fees. Ireland was particularly badly hit by the financial crisis and has worked incredibly hard to get back on its feet. I sense the frustration that despite all of this effort over the past ten years Brexit could set them back. The Republic of Ireland are our closest friends. They are the only country we share a common border with. It is vital that we work with them to repair relations, minimise risks and maximise opportunities for the future, beginning with restoring a functioning Assembly and Executive at Stormont.
4. People react to conflict and controversy in different ways. This was a personal finding. When I resigned I was struck by the fact that many colleagues got in touch to say that they agreed about my assessment of the aggressive nature of public debate exacerbated by social media. But many others said they didn’t agree. They pointed out that this was the most important issue of our time and therefore people were bound to be passionate about it, feelings would run high but this just reflected what was at stake. I realised through this that I react to conflict and controversy differently to others–I absorb it, it weighs heavily on me emotionally until I can simply bear it no longer and then I burst, or more accurately, slowly deflate and have to go on a long walk in order to reflate. I recognise now that for many colleagues it is not like that. I think it bounces off them. I am reminded through this that we all tend to see the world, not as it is, but as we are. I am no different.
5. They really do like us. People I met, especially in Holland and Belgium have a great affection for the British. They remember our solidarity with them during the dark days of two world wars. Today that affection is shown in the fact that the birth of the Royal baby received as much coverage in Holland when I was walking through as it was receiving in the UK. The fact that people would far rather talk about ‘the baby’ rather than ‘the Brexit’ gave me hope for the future. There are areas of difference and that is to be expected–I watched the Champions League semi final in a friendly bar in Rotterdam full of Ajax fans. When Lucas Moura snatched his dramatic injury time winner for Spurs I decided this wasn’t the best time for Anglo-Dutch diplomacy and made a swift exit.
All that said, I have felt the release from ministerial office, and temporary absence from Westminster, to be liberating and even healing experience. I have had space to think and reflect. I have had fresh air and exercise and been purged by heavy rains from Warrington to Antwerp. I have listened to glorious birdsong, seen amazing sunsets and sun rises, met inspiring people and visited some incredible places. I have learned so,so much. It may not have changed the world, but it has certainly changed me and for that I am immensely grateful. That gratitude is directed first and foremost to Xuelin who cared for me, supported me and believed in what I was trying to do even when I doubted it myself.
So I arrive back in Westminster, the point from where I set off from nearly a month ago, in better shape emotionally and physically, hopefully better informed and with a renewed sense of perspective and optimism. Ghandi said, ‘We must become the change we wish to see in the world.’ well, if nothing else, I feel as if I have placed a small tick in that box.
So what now? We’ll see. My aim is simply to make a positive contribution to debates and deliberations over how this great country navigates these stormy Brexit seas and sails on together toward an even better future, not only for us but for our closest friends also.
Let me close this blog with a line from the great Irish poet, Seamus Heaney which hangs in the Northern Ireland’s Assembly at Stormont and reads ‘Believe that a further shore is reachable from here’ I believe that none of us can reach that distant shore alone but together we can and we shall.
Thank you for following……