I spent the weekend with Oberbürgermeister Stefan Schostock marking the 70th anniversary of our cities twinning.
We share a remarkable story. Our bombers destroyed 90% of Hannover through the Second World War leaving it’s people with little hope. But in 1947 a small team from Bristol visited the city and helped establish the city’s first trade fair, an important signal to the world of confidence in the potential of the economy. On hearing how Hannover’s children had no shoes, Bristolians collected shoes and sent them over. These acts of graciousness and compassion were the seeds of this remarkable 70-year relationship, one I believe can be an example to us today.
The depth of the commitment our friends in Hannover have toward us comes out of an ongoing commitment to reconciliation, not as a singular gesture but year on year for 70 years. Our nations had fought each other and killed each other’s children in two world wars. I was taken by the fact that as he told me the story of his city’s destruction, my German host pointed out that Germany had been the aggressor. And yet it was in the horrific aftermath of victory and defeat, good and evil, liberation and destruction that people reached out to draw people back into the community of humanity. And these two peoples (Bristolians and Hannoverians) have worked on this ever since. I do not want to suggest this is a simple story. The atrocities of the war cannot nor should not be forgotten in the face of feel good stories. But true reconciliation is about taking on impossibly broken relationships in complicated circumstances that are often contradictory and committing to the restoration of community whatever the cost. And that is what we have done.
Every day my hosts mentioned Brexit. I pointed out each time the Bristol voted to remain and shared the remarkable fact that in the 14 months since the referendum, the Brexit Secretary has not once proactively approached the leaders of the Core Cities to ask what they need from the Brexit negotiations, and so couldn’t really claim to be speaking for us. I explained Bristol’s ongoing commitment to our twinning and relations with Europe. There was a genuinely emotional response to this. In Hannover we have friends who will look out for Bristol’s interests while our Brexit leaders fumble on.
We also spoke of Trump and Charlottesville and the open assertions of white supremacy and neo-Nazism. We talked of the similar threats across France, the Netherlands, Austria and the need for cities to take a stand and national governments show themselves unable to cope with the world the way it is. The stark reality we are learning is that a good society cannot be taken for granted. We must work for it every day. As we have invested in the relationship with Hannover, so we must invest in good relationships with all people. If we do not, we risk mischievous individuals such as Farage and Trump exploiting small disturbances and legitimate grievances and turning them into open conflict for their own distorted reasons. Martin Luther King famously warned of those who lazily believe that ‘progress’ rolled on with the inevitability of time. He suggested that progress was not actually inevitable, and that people of ill will had historically made better use of time than people of good will.