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14 June 2016

Dreams from my grandfather, the internationalist

British leadership has been crucial in Europe before, and it is crucial now. 

By Alison McGovern

A great part of grief is regret: the feeling that if only the clock could be turned back, things could be done that were not done. This comes to me quite often, because I miss my grandad terribly. He died ten years ago, on 2 April 2006, one month before I entered office for the first time, as a local councillor. Like most grandads, he was a special person. He was dedicated to the causes he believed in, and he gave me his time and his attention.

My grandad was an internationalist. He was born with next to nothing in the docks area of Liverpool, the son of Irish immigrants who had fled rural poverty and political trouble. But his first job was ferrying money around Liverpool stockbrokers’ firms. So much money, when his family had so little. He stole books from the (then pay-by-subscription) library in order to read. He once said to me that it was impossible for McGoverns to be xenophobic, because we know we have more in common with ordinary families in Barcelona or Turin than we do with the mega-rich in our own country.

I regret that he never got to know that I was elected just after he died. I wish he could have been there to help with my first speech in parliament. I wish my daughter could have met him. But I also wish he could see what has happened since he died. I wish I could tell him that I think our family’s story is not just an ordinary story of European migration, though it certainly is. It is also classically British. In three long strides across three generations, we have walked out from that grinding poverty he knew and – through a love of reading and education – moved on. When I sit on the benches in the House of Commons, I do so in the knowledge that great British institutions are what made it happen.

From the council housing that gave my family a safe and dry place to live, to the National Health Service that has repeatedly saved my dad’s life, to the state schools that made my mum a nurse and me a philosophy student, to the universities that accepted me and gave me confidence – these building blocks were campaigned for and designed by Labour governments. The path I have trodden is alarmingly common in Britain. And it is the vision of Labour people that paved the way.

We believe that ordinary people must have the way to make the most of their talents opened up. Progress comes not from trying to beat back the waves of technology or globalisation, but rather by demanding that ordinary British people have their fair share of the wealth that comes from such progress.

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That is why the demand we ought to make now is not to turn our back on our friends in Europe, but rather, to ask ourselves what change is necessary in order to ensure that people in Britain are able to make the most of being part of the world’s biggest trading bloc.

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Certain institutions are necessary for this redistribution – the treasures that Labour leaders designed: the health service, state schools, the welfare state. Though the Tories batter them, we do not give up on our principles, because British people need these institutions in order to make the most of the chances the world has to offer. Imperfect though it is, the European Union is also such an institution.

My grandad struggled to get hold of books before the advent of free public libraries. Today he would marvel at the technology that puts literary classics in your hands without a second’s thought. So our children won’t just want to study in a city away from home in Britain, as I did; they will want to have access to the world of knowledge that technology now puts at their fingertips.

And so, the question we should ask ourselves is: should the fight to get new technology into the hands of the many, not the few, best be taken on through British isolationism or in concert with other countries? I believe the latest tax rows – taking on global giants such as Google and Amazon – demonstrate that it is only unions of countries that can challenge their might on behalf of ordinary people.

A decade ago, when my grandad died, he could not have imagined how my daughter would learn to read and do maths using an iPad with apps made all over the world. What could the next decade hold that could increase our ability to share new technology, learn more things, and do more with our talents?

The idea, then, that in the face of change we should turn in on ourselves and away from our friends is foolish. British leadership has been crucial in Europe before, and it is crucial now. The next gains for British people depend on it.