I almost became a historical demographer. Back in the ’70s, I started a PhD in that field (I didn’t finish; my life might have taken a very different course if I had). My main area of study was the application of centre & periphery theory to migration into British towns from the mid-19th century.
Predictably, then (as now), every country had its town or region which was a migration magnet: towards it gravitated the brightest and the best, as well as the desperate. The problem (then as now) is that these ‘centres’ (normally capital cities) tend not to be particularly central in geographical terms.
It seems to me that this phenomenon is at the root of Europe’s current political ills. The people of the ‘peripheries’ have, at long last, had enough of centralised power. It’s at the root of Brexit, and I suspect it’s at the root of the rise of far right parties all over Europe, and of the current stand-off between Spain and Catalonia.
I live in rural Scotland – not all that far from the Border, as it happens, but in an area with atrocious roads and lousy public transport. How many times I have seethed to read that taxpayers’ money (including mine) has been used to buy a painting or a sculpture or an archaeological hoard ‘for the nation’, when it has clearly been bought primarily for the citizens of London. If I want to visit that town, it means an incredibly expensive series of bus & train journeys; it takes a day to travel there, and a day to travel back – so realistically we’re talking train fares plus two nights’ accommodation, plus meals. A trivial example, perhaps, but an example of the irritants of living at the periphery.
Guy Verhofstadt, a politician whom I greatly admire, recently Tweeted: ‘There is a solution for the situation in Catalonia: reform Spain into a federal state in a federal Europe.’
He is absolutely right. During my time as a full-time seafood trade journalist, and as a lobbyist, I had a lot to do with the EU – both the Commission and the Parliament. I love the EU; I am much prouder of my EU citizenship than of “British” citizenship; I believe the European Parliament is an excellent model of true democracy. But possibly the ‘centre’, typified by the Commission, has indeed become too powerful, to the detriment of the periphery. That is something that the UK – a federal UK, comprised of three autonomous countries, if not four – should be helping to remedy from the inside.
Walking away from the success story that’s the EU is going to do nothing – not one solitary thing – to remedy the imbalance between centre and periphery in the UK. If anything, it will make it much worse. But I fear by the time that becomes clear to those who believed they were empowering themselves by voting ‘Leave’, it’ll already be too late. Meanwhile, although many tens of thousands of us strive to make our voices heard in opposing Brexit, the country in general appears to be drowning in apathy.