Devon, United Kingdom – Brigadier Stephen Goodall has always fought on the winning side -and hopes he will be doing so again in what he admits will be his last battle: Brexit.
Sitting upright in his armchair at his home in Devon, England, the 96-year-old British Army veteran recalls the ultimate sacrifice made by comrades to end warfare in Europe.
“My own experience of the Second World War has convinced me that we must defend the peaceful and democratic Europe that so many of my generation died for,” he says.
“I am an old man and the outcome won’t affect me – but it will affect my family and many people that I know for years to come.”
Goodall is an icon in the campaign for a second referendum on the UK’s relationship with the European Union after a first vote in 2016 started the clock ticking towards withdrawal on March 29.
He made headlines by volunteering to lead the first march for a “People’s Vote”, calling for a plebiscite – just as he had volunteered to fight fascism in 1942.
He is also the honorary commanding officer of the Veterans for Europe anti-Brexit campaign, launched by former military personnel.
The European Union was designed for peace, and personally, I believe that Brexit is the single most cowardly thing this country has done because we are running away from our friends and allies.
Stuart Thomson, Veterans for Europe cofounder
As the People’s Vote campaign intensifies its pressure on the UK’s divided parliament, the former brigadier epitomises the sense of duty that has prompted veterans to put their heads above the parapet.
“It is essential to do all we can to build international institutions like the EU that reduce the need to risk the lives of young men and women in the future,” he says.
The brigadier exudes a strong sense of duty as he recalls the 31 years he spent serving his country.
|Brigadier Stephen Goodall (right) with a German colleague during his time at the Royal School of Military Engineering [Courtesy: Goodall family]|
Wounded in Burma during the campaign against Japan, he returned to Europe where he served in Germany before running the Royal School of Military Engineering, which brought him into close contact with former European friends and foes.
Goodall reels off a list of reasons why he believes Brexit would be bad for Britain and is “unpatriotic”, from threatening to break up the UK to barring immigrant professionals who care for elderly people.
But he is particularly angry at the “shambolic” approach taken by Theresa May’s government to this issue: “Where are we being taken by these idiots?”
Veterans for Europe
Goodall epitomises the prominent role military veterans have at times assumed in the campaigns for and against Brexit.
For example, 97-year-old British veteran Harry Shindler – who now lives in Italy – led a failed legal sortie at the European Court of Justice to declare the result of the 2016 vote invalid for excluding 1 million UK expatriates.
|Harry Shindler, a 97-year-old British veteran, led a legal sortie at the European Court of Justice to declare the result of the 2016 referendum invalid [Courtesy: British Embassy in Rome]|
The Veterans for Europe campaign was launched after the 2016 referendum to dispel the idea that military personnel are instinctively pro-Brexit.
Cofounder Stuart Thomson says: “The European Union was designed for peace, and personally, I believe that Brexit is the single most cowardly thing this country has done because we are running away from our friends and allies.”
Thomson, a Royal Air Force communications engineer from 1987 to 2000 who served throughout Europe, stresses the strong EU links formed by military personnel in their personal lives.
Many have European spouses after being stationed with the British Army of the Rhine, at the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in Belgium, or at bases in Cyprus and Gibraltar, and Brexit calls their right to remain in the UK into question.
Duncan Hodgkins, another cofounder, heads up work supporting those European spouses. He is married to a Dutch woman.
An army administrative official who served for 10 years in Germany, he revealed that Veterans for Europe was attracting the interest of colleagues in EU countries and had already gained members from France and Germany
“We are now looking to expand Veterans for Europe on the continent because we have the unity and we all believe in the same thing, peace in Europe,” he says.
Veterans for Brexit
Not all military veterans oppose Brexit, however, and some fix their bayonets against European integration.
The campaigning organisation Veterans for Britain was created during the 2016 referendum to make the case for EU withdrawal, but has since taken a lower profile; it did not respond to requests by Al Jazeera for comment.
Other veterans not aligned with any group spoke of their support for Brexit.
Lewis Campbell, a 68-year-old from Surrey, served in Northern Ireland with the Royal Green Jackets between 1969 and 1979, where he lost seven friends in action.
He voted for Brexit.
“I didn’t mind being a member of the European community, but became disillusioned when they started to impose rules that we must obey,” he says.
Campbell, who also served in Germany and was a corporal when he left the army, opposes the free movement implied by membership of Europe’s single market.
“The way things are going, we won’t be a country if we don’t get out of Europe.”
Michael Massey-Beresford, 81, from north London, served in the Green Jackets for 27 years, ending up as a major before retiring from the military in 1981.
He spent long periods in Germany and insists that European military integration threatens NATO.
“I served NATO, which is effective, but then there’s the European army, which would not be,” he says. “You can’t have both: it just doesn’t make sense.”
|Michael Massey-Beresford, 81, is a former major in the Royal Green Jackets who backs Brexit [Gavin O’Toole/Al Jazeera]|
However, while both former soldiers have different reasons for backing Brexit, there is one thing they share with their adversaries: criticism of May’s handling of this issue.
Campbell says: “It’s a hell of a mess.”
Massey-Beresford adds: “I just don’t understand what’s going on in Westminster, it’s absolute turmoil.”
As the UK’s Brexit preparations take centre stage, with the deadline for quitting the EU fast approaching, the military itself is being deployed.
Thousands of troops have been put on standby to support government contingency plans if Britain ends up crashing out without a deal.
This reflex, to see the armed forces as a source of stability in times of crisis, helps to explain why veterans have emerged as powerful symbols in the Brexit debate.
Professor William Philpott, of the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, said Britain’s military role in Europe has been central to its self-image.
“In the 20th century we fought two world wars in Europe, and that certainly shaped our national psyche and our relationship with it,” he says.
He noted that warfare has shaped two ideas in the popular imagination: an image of Britain standing alone and an image of Britain as a force for good in the world, both evident in Brexit debates.
“There are those who will be attracted to that atavistic view that we don’t need to be with the Europeans,” he adds.
“And on the other side, there are those that appreciate that Britain has been and always will be part of Europe.”