Paul Willner was a dynamic but modest person who made things happen but did not seek the limelight. He was a collaborator and an organiser of collaborations. For the events that he created, he recruited and orchestrated the performers but was often content to stand back, sometimes providing a framing introduction or a conclusion.
The Spanish newspaper of record El Pais published, in 2020, a remarkable piece titled ‘The Brexit Diaspora’, telling the story of Paul’s family over several generations, which is as poignant and compelling, in a brief span, as the acclaimed family memoirs by Philippe Sands or Mark Mazower.
Paul’s life originated in the shadow of the Holocaust and the diaspora of its survivors, and ended in resistance to Brexit, in a time which prompted new passport applications and thoughts of possible migration. Paul’s busy life was cut short by a cerebral bleed, suddenly and unexpectedly, only days into a terrible new stage in the Holocaust’s deadly aftermath. He died in Oxford, where he had relocated after semi-retirement to be closer to his family. His last article on the demographics of Rejoin was published by Yorkshire Bylines on 19 October, the day he died.
Paul dedicated his career to research in psychology and the neurology of chronic depression, and in later life brought his skills and contacts as a teacher, clinician and researcher to the inventive application of science to political persuasion.
Paul’s daughter Jessica has followed in her father’s scientific and clinical research footsteps in studies of addiction, another domain of suffering prevalent in the shadow of social and political breakdown. His son Matthew has a career, between Oxford and Brussels, now as a dual national, working in an EU programme close to the core of international policymaking on development, security and peace. Matthew’s French wife Alice, formerly his colleague at the EU mission in Beijing, recently helped Paul and Grassroots for Europe to set up a discussion and webinar with the Financial Times journalist Peter Foster, who she knew during Brexit negotiations in Brussels. Paul died while he was coordinating a training event for pro-EU campaigners, focusing on the case for restoring freedom of movement.
Paul came to the late challenge of Brexit formed by tragic historical and family memory, but with the strengths of a well-lived life, settled in his chosen Welsh university and homeland, where he was active in the Labour party and in later years took on a founding role in the pro-European campaign.
In some ways it is surprising, in other ways not, that Guillermo Abril’s beautifully written El Pais history of the Willner-Reids has been unnoticed and untranslated until Paul’s sudden death. The resonances it conveys are powerful and disturbing. It is hard not to think of Priti Patel and Suella Braverman when reading of the bleak encampments of the displaced in wartime Kent, and the ambivalent response to Jewish refugees in WW2 England. It is not surprising that Paul’s co-researcher on Brexit and freedom of movement, Richard Bentall, cites the classic study of authoritarianism by the German Jewish philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno, The Authoritarian Personality.
Paul’s resistance to Brexit was rooted in therapeutic and enlightenment optimism, tempered by tragic realism. He was a tireless advocate of persuasion through empathetic listening; their research showed that more people are more persuadable than our intimidated progressive politics is usually liable to assume. He knew viscerally the meaning of the EU as a peace project, and the life-saving value of free movement and asylum. By preference and instinct, in Brexit politics and in life, he was a remainer, not a leaver.