IT was an irony of timing that Simon Weston, the most famous and recognisable survivor of the Falklands conflict, should have been the guest speaker at The Yorkshire Post literary lunch this week as MPs prepare for a historic Saturday sitting over Brexit.
The last time that Parliament convened at a weekend came in April 1982 immediately after the Argentine invasion of the South Atlantic islands when MPs sanctioned the sailing of a Royal Navy task force to liberate the Falklands.
Even though proceedings were not broadcast on television, families across the country huddled around radios, listening to every cough and spit of the debate, because they recognised that this country’s international reputation was effectively on the line. More pertinently, the lives of those sent in to defend the nation’s sovereignty were also at stake in a debate which had consequences. And, ultimately, more than 250 British military personnel did not return home – including the 48 killed when the Sir Galahad was bombed in Saint Carlos Water.
A lucky survivor of the explosions and blaze that followed, it makes Simon Weston’s comments even more apropos. Talking about his lifelong physical and mental scars with characteristic dignity, he respects the sincerity of MPs who took part in that historic debate in spite of a rather naive view that Argentina would back down before the Task Force passed Ascension Island.
However, while the liberation of the Falklands is very different to Brexit, in spite of the military metaphors used so liberally, and sometimes irresponsibly, by Boris Johnson and others, today’s occasion is just as historic.
Like 1982, Britain’s standing in the world is on the line – albeit whether this country’s future global prestige, from an economic perspective, is best served by continued membership of the European Union or not.
And though the tone of the debate is likely to be far more rancourous than the still memorable exchanges a generation ago, not least because Brexit has become all-consuming for so long, many MPs will find themselves in an invidious position as they try to wrestle personal and political conflicts of loyalty.
In doing so, they need to resolve two fundamental questions – which outcome will be in the best interests of their constituents and what, in their view, is the best way of honouring the outcome of the 2016 referendum so Britain, and its partners in the EU and wider world, can begin to move on with certainty, clarity and confidence.
And here the comparison with the Falklands becomes event more valid. The decision taken on April 3, 1982, galvanised and united a dispirited and divided nation at a time of profound social unrest and economic tumult.
Yet the outcome of proceedings on October 19, 2019, another day of destiny, risk having precisely the opposite effect unless MPs on all sides show statesmanship and begin to chart Britain’s future course. Brexit is not primarily about them. It is about the livelihoods of families across the land – a point that they must recognise as they prepare to take the defining decisions of their political careers.