This is an edited transcript of the report given by Michael Roberts as Chair of the BCSA at the AGM on 4th May 2017.
Well, don’t let’s pretend that last year, 2016, was just a normal year like any other.
In a moment, I shall tell you what the BCSA has achieved and about the good news that you can find in our Accounts.
But, to put it all in context, I first have to remind you of the cataclysm that was 2016. And then I’ll explain what it has to do with the BCSA.
On 19 May last year, I attended a memorial service in the City of London for Sir Nicholas Winton who had died the previous year at the grand old age of 106.
Nicky Winton, known personally to many of us in the BCSA, was a magnetic presence at our Annual Dinner just four years ago. And the children whom he helped rescue from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939 are very much part of the life and soul of this Association.
His memorial service, as he would have wished, was a cheerful occasion. Milena Grenfell-Baines, a past chair of the BCSA, was one of those who described her childhood journey to England. Karl Jenkins conducted a children’s choir in one of his own compositions.
But the drama, and it really was a piece of political drama, came when two contemporary politicians were invited to speak. First up was Lord Dubs, another familiar face in the BCSA and who at the age of 6 had been on one of those trains from Prague organised by Nicky. Lord Dubs’ message came from Nicky himself: “If it’s not impossible, there must be a way to do it” – reflecting his belief that goodness is not passive but active; that the world requires individuals who not only refrain from harming others but energetically seek out those in need of help.
Lord Dubs had put this into practice a week or two earlier by persuading the Government, and a reluctant Home Secretary in particular, to commit to bringing an expected 3,000 or so vulnerable child refugees from the Calais “Jungle” to safe homes in Britain, mirroring his own experience 77 years earlier.
Next up was Nicky Winton’s local MP – Theresa May, Home Secretary. She was gracious, recalling how Nicky had on several occasions drawn her aside to gently point out some home truth. Mrs May, an adept politician, won some sympathy from her audience. I wonder, if they had known then what we know now, that her government has accepted significantly fewer vulnerable child refugees from Calais than Nicky Winton brought over from Prague in 1939, whether her audience would have been so forgiving.
2016 will of course always be remembered for that referendum. I’m sure all of us can remember the moment we first heard that Britons had voted to leave the European Union.
Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of that decision, how it came to be taken, and how it is now being given effect, the implications for us all are immense.
Some will be concerned for their ability to continue living and working in this country; by the tortuous bureaucratic hurdles put in the way of those seeking to clarify their own futures; and by worries fuelled by politicians on all sides that the issue of citizens rights may be far more complicated than might at first sight appear.
Others are concerned for our continuing ability to travel and trade freely across the European continent, and indeed for how in future we connect with fellow Europeans. I’ve never enjoyed being referred to as a British expat; but am I soon to become a “West European immigrant”? Perhaps I should dust down George Mikes’ advice on “How to be an Alien”.
And none of us can fail to have been alarmed by the acrimonious tone of political exchanges across the Channel in recent days: “she’s living in a completely different galaxy;” “some in Brussels want to punish us”. Believe me, I know: it can be uncomfortable being a Brit in some capitals of Europe right now. And that includes Prague and Bratislava where, of course, they know a thing or two about divorce.
As Ambassador Réhak told us at our Annual Dinner last November: “Unlike the Czechoslovak example, this decision is creating a much deeper political, economic, social, psychological and mental gap between the peoples of Great Britain and rest of Europe. The voluntary destruction of a functioning system, the irrational motivations of Brexit dreamers, and a diminished capacity to consider all the pros and cons of such a fundamental change is something that goes beyond my understanding.”
Well, we are where we are. Brexit means Brexit. But the final, lasting legacy of 2016, as the psephologists are telling us is that it was, above all, the issue of immigration that prompted a majority a British people to vote the way they did last June.
Not a flash-in-the-pan reaction, but rather a steadily growing perception that there were simply too many Poles, Slovaks, Lithuanians and other European migrants living and working in our communities, enjoying the benefits of our health system, our education system, and our benefit system. To those like me, who have spent much of our lives exploiting the EU as a vehicle to help entrench peace, stability and prosperity across Europe, to make another war on our continent unthinkable, this came as a bitter blow.
And I guess many of us feel uneasy about the message it appears to send about our once open, generous and tolerant society. Have we really put that behind us?
So if our lack of a welcome for refugees, the harsh reality of Brexit, and the new hostility shown on these shores towards those coming from other corners of Europe to study in our universities, to work on our farms, to staff our care homes and NHS, to transform our tech culture with their innovative ideas, to help manage our financial institutions, and of course to discover love and parenthood – if this was Britain in 2016, what happened in the Czech and Slovak Republics?
The Czech State Secretary for European Affairs, Tomáš Prouza, proved adept both before and after the referendum at reminding his British followers on Twitter of what Brexit really meant, very much in the style of his cutting tweet to David Cameron in November 2014 posting a picture of Czechoslovak airmen standing beside an RAF spitfire “These Czechs ‘worked’ in the #UK for less than four years. No benefits for them?”
And Slovakia pulled off its first Presidency of the Council of the EU with panache, our hosts in the Slovak Embassy in London playing a major part in that collective success. Indeed, we should congratulate Ambassador Lubomir Réhak for being awarded the prize of Best European Diplomat in London for 2016 – a well-deserved recognition for his energetic and effective diplomacy.
Why should we in the BCSA be concerned by these developments? Because our Association and its members include some of those welcomed off the kindertransport in 1939; they include another generation who found refuge and eventual prosperity here following the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; and they include a still larger generation who came here in the early 2000s, initially to pick fruit or to become au pairs, but then to enjoy their rights as citizens of the EU (an organisation that we encouraged them to join) while contributing enormously to our society, its innovation and its wealth.
And how did the BCSA response to this turmoil? Largely by carrying on as before. And I don’t mean to attach any blame to that. All of us, I imagine, watched with incredulity and incomprehension as so much of the fabric that has bound us together for decades was ripped from under our feet.
But the BCSA carried on doing what it is good at. As you can see from the Annual Report, we held a successful Garden Party and an Annual Dinner. We put on events, listed in the Annual Report, focused on the history and culture of Britain and the Czech and Slovak Republics. We continued our theme of tracking the First World War one hundred years on. With the Czech Embassy next door still out of commission, our activities were based very much here in the facilities of the Slovak Embassy to whom we are enormously grateful. Besides Ambassador Réhak and his Deputy Imrich Marton, I should like to single out Barbora Posluchova, recently returned to Bratislava, but who made so many of our events sparkle with energy and fun.
An innovation that I should be happy to see repeated was our holding an event on the other side of London, at the EBRD (the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development) in the City. This was important not only because we were able to attract a former Slovak Government Minister, credited with persuading Jaguar Land Rover to build their next range of vehicles in Slovakia and with lots to say about how his country has transitioned over twenty years into a thriving economy. But also because this event reached out to a new audience – those working in the City of London. The BCSA needs to get out more, to join the conversations that others are having, rather than simply hoping that new members will somehow drop in on us here and join our conversation.
We also addressed the issue of outreach by taking steps to build up our online presence. I am delighted that, at last, we have a modern website with considerable functionality and potential, to sit alongside our Facebook Group and Page, Twitter and Eventbrite accounts. If you go to our website now, you can see our Accounts there. You can register for our events. You can buy tickets for our Summer Garden Party. And you can become a member of the BCSA. With a password for the Members’ Area (ask for one at firstname.lastname@example.org), you can read recent editions of the British Czech and Slovak Review – and they look just as good on your screen as they do in hard-copy.
In fact, we are now in a position to communicate not just with you, our members, but with anyone out there with an interest in the Czech and Slovak Republics. This is what every organisation is doing to reach out to potential new recruits; this is what we should be investing in if we want the BCSA to remain relevant, in touch, and sustainable.
The website has already brought in new members who have agreed to pay their membership subscriptions by direct debit. In so doing, they avoid getting embroiled in a paperchase of reminders, prompts, cheques, confusion and delay, which in far too many cases characterises the way we are forced to persuade you to part with your membership subscriptions each year. Some members seem to take those unnecessary demands on our time and patience for granted.
Our standard membership rate – just £25 – is well in line with similar organisations. So why are so many members of this Association reluctant or unable to pay their membership dues when asked at the beginning of year? By March of this year, we had 300 current members. But of those, 14% were paying the wrong rates, rates that applied five or more years ago. We really need to think seriously about getting everyone to pay upfront and online, just as they are currently buying tickets for the Garden Party online. It really isn’t that hard, that dangerous or that unreasonable.
Now you may ask whether £25 represents good value for money. We put up subscription rates significantly at the start of 2016 because we were regularly spending more than we were receiving – to the tune of about £2,000. Now we have substantial reserves, around £50,000. But while these give us a substantial safety net, we simply couldn’t afford to sustain annual deficits of over £2,000 with no process in place for reversing that trend.
If you go back to our accounts for the years 2014 and 2015, you will find that our income from membership subscriptions did not quite equal the cost of producing the Review. In other words, the Review which is produced for – and posted to – members only, was gobbling up all our subscription income and more. Moreover, because we wanted the Review to be a perk of membership, it was doing nothing to help bring in new members.
We addressed this dilemma last year both by putting up membership subscriptions and by reducing the number editions of the Review from 6 to 4. We were at pains to avoid this detracting from the quality of the Review, now in its 154th edition: we gave them 16 pages to fill rather than 12, which means that over the course of a normal year you will only lose 8 eight pages. And the result is there for you to see in the Accounts: we have significantly reduced the deficit from £2,751 to £540, and we have raised membership subscription income to more than the cost of the Review, allowing us to do other things.
In my view, other things start with the website and the BCSA’s online presence; we need to reach out to other potential members, drawing them in by showing that we are relevant, modern and in tune with their interests and lives.
Our writing competition elicited many brilliant contributions, and I’m sure you will have admired the winning entries of Jennifer Moore and Jack Mullin in recent editions of the Review and on the website.
We have our annual educational award which, in 2016, should have gone to a Slovak school. In practice, we delayed making the award. But we have taken the decision to rename the grant of £1,000 as the ‘Sir Nicholas Winton Memorial Award’. As a charitable organisation, I suggest that the BCSA should be doing more to spend its reserves on such worthy causes rather than simply to keep them for a rainy day.
I am stepping down today as Chair of the BCSA. It may seem odd that I have chosen this moment to map out a manifesto for the direction in which I think the BCSA should be heading.
I do so because I think we are living through grave times. Having taken a step back to consider what is going on (and, of course, others may have a different interpretation of events), I believe the BCSA shouldn’t be content with carrying on as before, allowing our appeal to fade, our membership to dwindle, and our resources to drain away.
I have had an enjoyable three years at the helm. I regret not having pushed things on further and faster. I trust the BCSA will flourish and prosper under new leadership. I wish it well, and I thank my colleagues on the Committee, all of whom have put themselves out, time and time again, to go the extra mile for you, our members.
My thanks to all of you for your support. And my best wishes for the future health of the BCSA.