22 December, 2011
2378 miles–5,101,001 steps
When I had embarked upon the walk back in April, the route I had mapped out was to take me up through Austria and Germany to Berlin and then across to Cologne and Brussels. At the same time, I had arranged to meet up with family for Christmas in Berlin. The route changed but the plans for Christmas didn’t, and I was glad because in attempting any explanation as to the nature of war and peace in modern Europe, then to visit and try to understand what went on in Berlin is as instructive to the enquirer as the visit Sarajevo or Verdun.
The British Embassy in Berlin had pulled together a short programme of visits and meetings on the Thursday morning. On arrival I was met by Astrid Ladd, who along with Julia Mueller, had done a great job of organising visits in Frankfurt, Bonn and Cologne a couple of weeks earlier. The Embassy in Berlin is very modern in design and impressive in terms of scale. It was unlike any other I had visited, which was explained by the fact that this Embassy was only built in 1998, as it was then that Berlin was re-designated as the capital of Germany following re-unification. The Embassy is rebuilt on the same site as the pre-war British Embassy, which was flattened, along with most of the rest of Berlin by British and American bombers.
My first meeting was with a group of students and faculty from The Centre of British Studies at the Humboldt University. There are few joys in life greater than engaging in discussion with interested young people, because interested young people become interesting young people in the process of application. The experience of debate and discussion from informed positions helps to clarify understanding in open minds willing to learn. I was particularly honoured that Prof Jürgen Schlaeger, who had founded the Centre, was able to come along and as is often the case, you can get slightly embarrassed by how much more the students of Britain seem to know compared to the citizens of Britain.
There was really only one topic on that the students wanted to explore and that was the exercising of the British veto at the European Council by David Cameron. I could see puzzled looks as they first tried to get their heads around a Conservative Party politician undertaking a walk for peace; then speaking with great feeling about visits to Strasbourg, Luxembourg and Verdun and the rationale for Europe and yet apparently supporting the use of the veto by David Cameron. Was I having an identity crisis? I don’t think so:
You see I don’t know where it was ever written that Conservatives should favour war. Conservatives favour freedom, minimum interference from the state in the lives of the law abiding citizen, a focus on opportunity rather than outcome, the sound management of the public finances, the encouragement enterprise through fair markets with low levels of taxation and regulation, the encouragement of international trade and the intrinsic value institutions be they the family, monarchy or the NHS. Now I just can’t see in some cases, not all, how these aims are strengthened by military intervention overseas. When it comes to Europe, I do now see the point of Europe in a way which I had not seen it before, but the view from Britain is different. As an island we are more independent, we do have a global network of relationships through the Commonwealth and with the United States which are in reality as important to us as our relationships with European neighbours. We should no more be required to sacrifice our national interests or international relationships than Germany, France or the countries of the Benelux. We should have mutual respect and recognise that the EU and NATO have guaranteed the peace in Europe for over seventy years and we want this to continue and to a strong economic and for those that seek it, political union. In my view, what David Cameron said ‘no’ to at the European Council was a deal which was first and foremost not good for Europe. As you can imagine this sparked a lively debate and I loved every minute of it because in the process of the debate, I was able to refine my thinking and better understand, chiefly, the German position.
After the meeting with the students, I had the privilege of meeting Simon McDonald with our hugely impressive and unstuffy ambassador to Berlin. I have had the opportunity to spend more time with British diplomats and officials over the past eight months of this walk, than I have in my eight years in Parliament. I knew before that they were all intellectually able and effective, what perhaps I hadn’t appreciated was (a) how hard they work, it really is more of a calling than a posting, and (b) how passionate they are about promoting Britain at every given opportunity. Simon was no exception. I had arrived in the midst of a diplomatic maelstrom caused by the consequences for Anglo-German relations following the European Council. Like the forbearing host of a wild party when the guests (ministers and entourage) fly out having had their rave, it is the diplomats who are left in country to discretely tidy up the mess, smooth the egos and rebuild the relationships. They do it all unseen without complaining, but we should value their service every bit as much as we value the service of all other servants of our nation, who selflessly serve overseas to defend and advance our interests.
After a very enjoyable meeting over tea, we even had time to have a walk up to the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate together. Simon explained some of the history and significance of this square mile where NATO and the Warsaw Pact squared up to each other during the Cold War when, in the nuclear arms race – where once cities were under threat, now civilisations were under threat. Fortunately we got through that stand-off by the skin of our teeth and for that reason Berlin represents the best example we have of what is possible when we choose peace over conflict. As someone who was born in the year that the Berlin Wall was erected, I walked through the Brandenburg Gate with the British Ambassador (pic) with the only military uniforms visible being worn by actors posing for photographs with tourists. We walked down a little way towards Potsdammer Platz and the Holocaust Memorial and then came back through the Gate where a large Hanukkah menorah was lit to celebrate the Jewish festival. We can sometimes get too wound up with the bad that we become blind to the good that we see all around us and Berlin has seen the extremes of both and has today chosen the better path.
As I stood by the Christmas tree and over the Hanukkah lights to the Brandenburg gate that are there and the Berlin Wall that now is not, that passage from John 1, 5 in the bible came forcibly to mind:” The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcomeit.”