Hettie O'Brien is a freelance journalist who writes for the Guardian, the New Statesman, and the London Review of Books.
After World War II, town twinning was an expression of European solidarity. Even as Britain exits the E.U., many in the U.K. want the tradition to continue.
In 1942, Stalingrad was in the midst of a battle that would lead to the deaths of almost 2 million people. At the time, a group of women in Coventry, in central England, sent a tablecloth to the Soviet city stitched with 830 signatures. The partnership between the two cities became official in 1944 and still endures.
“I grew up in the 1980s, when Russia was seen as the ‘other,’” Derek Nisbet, a Coventry-based composer, told me. “The relationship between Coventry and Stalingrad [since renamed Volgograd] has been a really powerful thing—it shows you how people in faraway places aren’t really so different.” Both cities were heavily bombed during World War II: Coventry was partially flattened in a 1940 German air raid, and during the Battle of Stalingrad, six months of brutal bombing descended to hand-to-hand combat in that city’s streets.
The relationship weathered Cold-War hostilities. In 1972, Volgograd’s mayor visited Coventry and named a patch of land beneath the city’s freeway after its counterpart. Today, U.K.–Russia relations are again fractious, but the cities’ bond is “still strong,” said Nisbet. Volgograd’s children’s orchestra visited Coventry in 2014 to perform a piece that Nisbet composed, aptly titled “Twin Song.” Next year, the theme of Coventry’s biennale is “the twin.”
Today, there are close to 2,000 British municipalities twinned with towns abroad. Most of their twins are in European countries such as France and Germany. A smattering are farther afield; Birmingham (U.K.) is coupled with Johannesburg, while Barnsley in South Yorkshire is twinned with Fuxin, China.
But town twinning has lost some of its luster. It’s become shorthand for wasteful official junkets, and in recent years some towns have cited budget cuts as a reason to ax the relationships. Reports of German politicians bemoaning British indifference to twin towns—and of British councils “un-twinning” from continental cities—play to the idea that the U.K. is losing interest in this pan-European project in the era of Brexit. The truth is more complicated.
The foundations of town twinning were politically progressive. After World War II, the mood across Europe began to shift from enmity to reconciliation, and European towns turned outward in search of new solidarities. “Immediately after the Second World War, there was a widespread suspicion across Europe of nationalism and nation-states, and the sense that these were partly responsible for two world wars,” said Nick Clarke, a professor of geography at the University of Southampton.
Some Britons were distrustful of the nation’s hold on power, and believed foreign policy should be devolved to cities. “This was underpinned by the idea that if we could get rid of Westminster, and decentralize international relations to the local scale, perhaps we wouldn’t have these problems with world wars in the first place,” Clarke explained.
Two organizations were responsible for popularizing town twinning from the early 1950s: the Council of European Municipalities and the United Towns Organization. The former was allied to the Vatican and wanted to promote a cohesive European community protected from the dangers of communism in the East.
United Towns Organization had a different agenda. It was informed by Marxist and socialist ideals, and its membership was largely atheists who saw Cold-War hostilities between East and West as a threat to European peace. More worryingly for government officials, the organization was willing to befriend foes in the U.S.S.R.
Britain’s Foreign Office got nervous, fearing that left-leaning towns in the north of England would open lines for communist infiltration. In 1972, the government founded the Rippon program, which gave small grants to U.K. towns willing to couple with Western European municipalities. It was a way of disciplining town-twinners with a carrot, rather than a stick. But the program would also serve another purpose. Britain was due to enter the European Union’s single market in 1973, and politicians saw how twinning could provide a cultural basis for strengthening economic integration.
Like the 14th-century Hanseatic League, a group of market towns in Northern Germany that united to protect the interests of merchant traders, the town-twinning initiatives of the 1970s, ’80s, and beyond were as much about business interests as cultural bridges. As Margaret Thatcher and successive politicians cut municipal budgets, towns began looking for economically useful sponsors in countries like China and North America. In Cardiff, Wales, for example, the council has extolled the benefits of its relationship with fellow port-city Xiamen, in southern China, and has touted the Welsh city as a potential investment vehicle at an annual Chinese trade fair.
Now, as Britain prepares to exit the E.U., its membership of the single market is in question. Some Brexiteers have pushed for a no-deal Brexit, meaning the country would crash out and tear up all E.U. arrangements on March 29. But despite the drawbridge-up mentality of this camp, many people in “Euroskeptic” towns across the U.K. are keen to maintain relationships with continental cities.
Tendring, a district on Britain’s Essex coast, is home to Britain’s only member of parliament from the heavily Euroskeptic UKIP party, formerly led by Nigel Farage. Like Coventry, Tendring voted to leave the European Union in 2016. But in the months after the referendum, it also renewed twin relationships with Biberach, in Germany, Valence, in France, and Swidnica, in Poland.
Over the phone from her home in Frinton-on-Sea, on Tendring’s coast, Joy Philipps, the director of Tendring’s twinning association, spoke with pride about the popular French and German cultural evenings held regularly in Clacton-on-Sea and the annual stall that Tendring sends to Biberach’s Christmas market, selling jams and other quaint British groceries. Phillips’s family has lived in Tendring for almost half a century, but she herself worked in Paris for 15 years before returning home.
“We have around 80 members, many of whom probably voted Leave,” she said of the twinning association. Whereas the referendum stoked bitter political divisions, she continued, twin towns are “above politics. People see those they know in Biberach and Valence as friends.”
Like Tendring, Darlington, in northeast England, voted to leave the E.U. Shortly after the referendum, it renewed long-standing relationships with Amiens, in France, and Mülheim an der Ruhr, in Germany. “I’m British, but I’m also European,” Councilor Tom Nutt, the chairman of Darlington’s twinning association, said. Nutt is determined that Brexit won’t spell the demise of Darlington’s twin towns, nor the country’s relationship with the continent.
Clarke pointed out that town twinning is an attempt to combine the local with the global—to live as cosmopolitans rooted in geography. Brexit is unlikely to mark the end of alliances that began long before Britain entered the European Union, and citizens who feel they’re losing something from Brexit may make “an active attempt to foster new twin relationships,” he said.
Back in Coventry, I asked Derek Nisbet what the city’s vote to leave the E.U. will mean for Coventry’s twin relationships with 17 towns across Europe. He told me there are “bigger things than Brexit.”
“Coventry has always been better at turning out to the world than turning in on itself,” he said resolutely. As U.K. politicians prepare to close the country’s borders to the continent, solidarity with Europe may be found in the least likely of places.