The glimmer of humanity

Published in the Newcastle Journal July 2019

Forsaken, almost human. Leonard Cohen’s words from Suzanne spring to mind, unbidden. Christian theologians would take umbrage at the word ‘almost’ being used in reference to Jesus. Cohen’s capricious muse mixed whimsical, crazy humanity with overwhelming vulnerability. These last five years have seemed an eternity, or gone in the blink of an eye, depending on my vantage point observing this Kafka-esque place.

Certainly it’s been packed with action: the euphoria of election night, being chosen to scrutinise a one-candidate election and giving my disarmingly brief maiden speech to refuse to legitimise such a process being used to choose the most powerful man in Europe. Demanding in broken French that a hotel breach privacy to allow me into a friend’s room; being sadly proven right by the time six paramedics arrived. Standing on the podium in the televised education debate. Beating Tim Farron at chess on live TV; getting knocked out chessboxing for charity. Watching my political party slide from decency to repugnancy whilst not having a long enough lever to pull it back from the precipice; making amends for the previous defeat by winning another charity boxing bout. Sitting in the Conference of Presidents the morning after the night before, being the sole eurosceptic in the room as EU leaders vented their anger on June 24th, 2016. History. The bizarre bureaucratic processes. The trip to the Ukraine to prevent TV channels closing; speaking out about persecution of Christians and other faiths. Losing 4 stone. The correct yet difficult decision not to seek re-election. Then, like Doctor Who, it seems there’s always running. Maybe I crammed my days too full.

And now, it’s my last day. A Parliament ceremony pays tribute to outgoing MEPs. I receive the European Parliament medal and a certificate bizarrely thanking me for my ‘service to the EU project’. The irony! I love Europe; therefore, I despise the EU. The EU represents the lowest common denominator, the worst of our continent. 

Yet momentarily, the tiniest chink of light: a brief flash of humanity escapes the EU’s bureaucratic nightmare. The President gives a decent, conciliatory speech in at least four languages. In English and Spanish, I understand. In French, I can cope. In Italian, I reach for the translation. The families of deceased MEPs from this term are honoured, pro-EU and anti-EU alike. The President hugs the families. A rare moment of emotion. Then the Ode to Joy plays. 

Tomorrow, my replacement Brexiteer colleagues will be forced to stand for the EU’s anthem; they’ll respond by turning their backs in protest: political theatre in response to political theatre, choreographed by Beethoven. Nothing will be said about other MEPs turning up in sweary T-shirts, showing even greater disrespect. Tomorrow, I’d probably do exactly the same as my colleagues. When the EU Parliament’s President describes the EU’s anthem as ‘national’, he’ll define the problem: he sees it as supplanting the nation state. And then, the professionally-offended will deem Brexiteers’ protest offensive – making the most vile and odious comparisons. Oblivious to the illogic of their words and spewing paroxysms of hatred, they’ll make the most vile and nonsensical of false equivalence comparisons. 

Today, though, is a time for extreme respect: respect for the families of the deceased. For those of us who merely depart, less mortally, it’s an odd moment. Today, I cannot protest anything. There’s a time and a place for that. Jude, my Labour counterpart, is there supporting a Labour colleague who’d lost their seat. I couldn’t disagree more with Jude’s politics: what she represents, I fundamentally oppose. The feeling, doubtless, is mutual. We say our goodbyes, politely and civilly. 

We’ve avoided personal attacks, however much our politics differ. It’s not a Ron Atkinson-like “I never comment on referees – and I won’t break the habit of a lifetime for that muppet”. It’s more that we can reasonably despise opposing opinions without despising the people. Failure to grasp this basic concept of civility is the cause of so many problems in British politics today. Quite likely, I’ll never see Jude again. It never harms to depart on good terms, though. 

Tomorrow, the curtains will be firmly closed. There will be no chink of light. Behind the scenes, European politicians will carve up – in opaque, antidemocratic backroom deals – the future governance of Europe, and, by extension, the UK if we’ve not left by October. I shudder. And yet I can’t escape noticing that for just one tiny moment, that awful system had been almost human.