Of course the UK is a Christian country (and we don’t need the PM to tell us…)

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby during the Easter service at Canterbury Cathedral in Kent.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby during the Easter service at Canterbury Cathedral in Kent.

Hallelujah, brothers and sisters. The Prime Minister has found God. Just in time for Easter, it seems.

Rather than the usual platitudes and inoffensive quotes from the gospels, this year ‘call me Dave’ spoke of the importance of his own faith, assured us Britain was still a Christian country and told us we should be confident about the fact.

In doing so he somehow offended a bunch of people and even prompted a well-known collection of humanists (I thought we were all humanists, but there you go) to write to a national newspaper accusing the PM of fostering alienation and harming society.

What a load of rubbish.

While I find it difficult to stomach faith being used as ammunition by politicians, the hypocrisy of people being offended because the UK is described as a Christian country is laughable.

Indeed, I‘d go so far as to say that only in Britain would a debate like this even take place because we seem to live in a society where everyone seems terrified of upsetting someone else.

The fact is Britain has been a Christian country for around 1,500 years and, technically, we can still be described as such given that 59 per cent of respondents in the 2011 census indicated they felt an attachment to Christianity.

This figure may have fallen sharply since 2001 (72 per cent) but, nevertheless, it’s still a majority.

Yes we are a cultural melting pot and other religions are welcome and are flourishing. However, it is fair to say that – if pushed – a majority of people in Britain would still probably pigeon-hole themselves as ‘Christian’.

The problem is, of course, that a vast majority of people in this country don’t go to church and are not practising Christians.

Therefore, it is probably more accurate to say that most people in the UK aren’t actually religious at all.

Earlier this week public figures including writers such as Sir Terry Pratchett, Nobel Prize-winning scientists, prominent broadcasters and even comedians argued passionately that the Government has no right to “prioritise” religion or any particular faith.

Ironically, it is once again Christianity which is being challenged here. I suspect that had a leading politician spoke out in support of another faith no-one would dare take issue with it for fear of being labelled intolerant or worse.

You see, it’s easy to criticise the established faith of the UK and the followers of that faith. In fact, what surprises me is that Christian leaders and their flock are so timid in the defence of their religion.

Being an atheist seems to be rather trendy and cool these days. Social media, for instance, is full of sarcastic images and slogans denigrating religion. Some people without faith look down upon those who trust in God as if they have professed belief in fairies or the Easter bunny.

Personally, I’m glad that religion is being talked about and I do believe that our fragmented, struggling society can benefit from people of faith offering spiritual guidance. After all, you’re unlikely to find it at Westminster.

Let us also not forget that it is predominantly Christian organisations who are running huge numbers of foodbanks across the UK at this time of austerity.

I only have a problem with what Mr Cameron says when this proclamation of faith seems to come out of nowhere.

After all, we didn’t see much acknowledgement of Christian beliefs when the current Government was pushing through the gay marriage legislation last May.

I wasn’t bothered either way. However, it seemed to me that those who opposed gay marriage on religious grounds were often painted as out-of-touch bigots.

Now that doesn’t seem very tolerant, does it?

My view is that politicians, or rather political parties, make token gestures in order to garner favour with certain sections of the electorate – whether that be gay people or Christians.

I object to either being used, as and when it suits politicians, in order for parties to create the illusion that they stand for certain values or groups of individuals.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Advertisements

Why Fenton and our city need the Town Hall and memorial to be saved

The Great War memorial inside Fenton Town Hall.

The Great War memorial inside Fenton Town Hall.

Tomorrow the first of The Sentinel’s four Great War centenary supplements is published and I can honestly say it has been a privilege to be involved in the project.

Occasions like this, when we are required to delve deep into the newspaper’s archives are rare, and the process has thrown up some astonishing tales, some wonderful images and – I have to say – some terrific writing by my predecessors.

Slowly but surely the 100th anniversary of the start of the ‘War to end all wars’ is seeping into the nation’s consciousness and here in North Staffordshire we are uncovering just how the conflict changed lives forever.

It was a war which altered Britain beyond imagining and had a dramatic and often devastating effect on communities and families across the land.

Among them, of course, were the 498 men of Fenton who paid the ultimate price for serving King and country and whose names are recorded on the unique Minton Hollins tiled memorial inside Fenton Town Hall.

For many of those brave souls that memorial is, to all intents and purposes, their grave marker.

They include Frederick Heath, of Mill Street, Fenton, who historians recently credited as being the soldier most likely to have written the definitive account of the famous ‘Christmas Truce’ of 1914.

Sadly, in the year that some of the £50 million the Government has set aside starts to be spent on a variety of projects to commemorate the Great War, this memorial – and indeed the building which houses it – remain under serious threat.

Fenton Town Hall, created for and bequeathed to the people of Fenton, is up for grabs with a price tag of around £500,000.

A moratorium on its sale has just expired and campaigners seeking what is snappily-titled a ‘community asset transfer’ are concerned that officials at the Ministry of Justice – which somehow acquired the building during its time as a magistrates’ court – have gone awfully quiet all of a sudden.

The positive meeting which took place in December between the Friends of Fenton Town Hall and the man who will ultimately decide the building’s fate gave everyone hope that Whitehall’s bureaucrats were perhaps listening at last.

After all, a 10,000-signature petition calling on the building to be given back to the community was handed in at Downing Street late last year and campaigners have, to their credit, made an awful lot of noise.

Even the national treasure that is Stephen Fry Tweeted his support for their cause.

But having been fobbed off for weeks now I can understand why campaigners are growing increasingly worried that this historically important building may be sold off from under their noses.

If that were to happen then, irrespective of any protection order placed on the memorial as a condition of sale, its safety could simply not be guaranteed.

Also, I suspect it is unlikely new owners would want members of the public trooping up their stairs to view the memorial or pay their respects to relatives.

I find it hard to understand why the cenotaph outside Fenton Town Hall – which links directly to the memorial inside – was given listed status and yet the unique tiled memorial was not.

Sadly, a man with a clipboard from English Heritage decided not to list Fenton Town Hall and, therefore, its interior – including the Minton tiling and the memorial itself – is unprotected.

I am in full agreement with campaigners and the Victorian Society who are urging the MoJ to work with Stoke-on-Trent City Council to find a new role for Fenton Town Hall which ensures that its vaulted chamber and First World War memorial remain intact and accessible to the public.

I believe the town and people of Fenton need this building as a focal point. The city owes it to philanthropist William Meath Baker who built it, and to the men whose names are listed on the memorial inside, to preserve it for future generations.

How can we, in all good conscience, sit idly by and allow it to be sold off in the year when we commemorate the centenary of the start of the First World War?

Wouldn’t it be great if the city’s MPs and the city council could help to broker some sort of deal whereby the campaigners – and indeed the people of Fenton – were given a chance to resurrect the Town Hall for community use?

The campaigners are doing their bit and I would suggest it is time for the powers-that-be to stand up and be counted.

Ultimately, of course, the decision on the building’s fate lies with civil servants in Whitehall.

The department these taxpayer-funded civil servants work for is called the Ministry of Justice. So let’s see some justice for the 498 men of Fenton who gave their lives in pursuit of the freedoms we all enjoy today.

*Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

A poodle is one thing, but we shouldn’t be anyone’s lap-dog

I am pleasantly surprised to record that my faith in British politics and politicians has been somewhat restored in recent weeks.

First MPs shocked us all when the Government was defeated in the House of Commons in a vote over the possibility of military intervention in Syria.

Appalled as we all are at the thought of anyone using chemical weapons, I have to say I felt hugely uncomfortable at the prospect of the UK rushing into another Middle East conflict it can ill afford and which our over-stretched Armed Forces can certainly do without.

Thus I was encouraged that Parliamentarians seemed to have learned from past mistakes and, in particular, the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’ and exercised a degree of restraint.

Some were even prepared to vote against their own parties rather than galloping towards another endless war in a country most of us would struggle to pinpoint on a map.

No nation should ever go to war lightly but it helps when the public at least understands the reasons why its leaders may choose to do so and are sympathetic to the cause.

In the case of Syria, at the time when the Prime Minister called for the vote there were simply too many unanswered questions and a majority of MPs quite rightly, in my opinion, said no.

They had correctly judged the mood of the nation and certainly, at the time, there was simply no appetite for more ‘world policing’.

To his credit, the Prime Minister took the defeat on the chin as his right honourable friends on the opposition benches revelled in the moment.
David Cameron then, quite unexpectedly, did something I haven’t seen a British PM do for about 20 years.

Reacting to remarks allegedly made by a Russian diplomat who had described Britain as ‘a little island nobody listens to’, our Dave actually went and stood up for us.

The Prime Minister gave what I thought was a rather charming, indignant, Love Actually-esque defence of our Sceptered Isle.

He threw in Shakespeare, the abolition of slavery, great inventions. Oh and The Beatles.

I have to admit I almost cheered to hear it – so used am I to our glorious leaders being pathetically wet and insipid when it comes to international affairs.

Who can forget, for instance, the way in which that towering intellect George W Bush treated our then PM Tony Blair.

We may be a poodle on the world stage when compared to the U.S. and Russia but it is nice, just occasionally, to not be portrayed as some other country’s lap dog.
Of course, most people’s reactions to the Prime Minister’s defence of Britain was coloured by their political affiliations – with those on the left steadfastly refusing to give any credit.

‘A nice bit of myopic jingoism’ was how one of my Twitter followers described it – which I thought was a tad harsh.

I like to think, naively perhaps, that David Cameron stuck up for Britain, its traditions and values, because he believes in them.

It’s the kind of thing I’d expect any Prime Minister worth his or her salt to do but the sad truth is that, in recent years at leas, there has been nothing in the way of Statesmanship from the those living at Number 10.

It may just have been window dressing against the background of a summit at which precious little was actually achieved, but I was heartened – nonetheless – by the PM’s language and the sentiment.

The Britain of 2013 is a far cry from the global superpower it once was but it is clearly still important enough for the Americans to view us as a key ally – at least in terms of public perception, if not militarily.

I’d like to think that, going forward, any Prime Minister – from whichever party – understands that the British electorate deserves to be represented proudly in international affairs. If that means being unpopular, then so be it.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Idea of Scottish independence frightens and saddens me in equal measure

I know when it happened. I had just climbed up the steps to the top of the Glenfinnan Monument, squeezed myself on to the viewing platform and was looking out across the sun-kissed shores of Loch Shiel.

That’s when I fell in love with Scotland.

I’ve visited Skye several times and even Orkney, Mull and Iona as well as braving the elements for a boat trip to the stunning Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Staffa.

In my opinion, there is simply nowhere in Britain to rival the rugged beauty and sheer majesty of the Highlands.

Like my nan and grandad before me, who enjoyed many coach trips north of the border, I love Scotland.

I holiday there every year and I’ve never viewed taking the high road as going abroad. To my mind it is more akin to popping next door.

We are all part of the same island, after all, and so it’s no different for me to driving from Staffordshire into Cheshire – albeit a tad further.

Thus I find it hard to accept the concept of Scottish independence and the much talked-about referendum leaves me cold.

Rarely do I venture off-patch in my columns but the planned vote which could see our northern neighbours secede the United Kingdom frightens and saddens me in equal measure.

On the one hand, the political and economic arguments just don’t stack up for me. Surely, as our city’s motto says, United Strength Is Stronger.

It stands to reason that Britain has far more clout than any of its constituent parts would have if they were to go it alone.

At present, our tiny nation punches above its weight on the international stage.

Why therefore, at this time of global financial crisis, would anyone think it a good idea to break up the union?

Surely the Scots don’t buy Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Alex Salmond’s vision of a Gaelic utopia fuelled by endless supplies of North Sea oil (and none of our nation’s debt).

While the SNP chases the Braveheart vision of freedom, it strikes me that unravelling the Union would actually be complex in the extreme.

The problems it throws up range from the sublime to the ridiculous.

What would Scottish independence mean for our Armed Forces? Would the Scots keep the Pound, adopt the Euro, or make up their own currency? How would shared border controls be handled? What would it mean in terms of tuition fees for English students studying at Scottish universities? What would happen to the BBC and Team GB?

To my mind, while far from perfect, the Union has far more advantages than disadvantages.

What’s more, time and again it is the echoes of our shared heritage which convince me that a break-up after 300 years would be deeply unpalatable.

The peoples of the United Kingdom share common values which I believe should not be lightly cast aside in a jingoistic fervor surrounding the 700th anniversary of a medieval battle.

Let the facts be presented: The legalities of who calls a referendum plus the costs, the ramifications, the benefits and the disadvantages of such a momentous splitting of cultures must be laid bare to bring some clarity to the debate.

Ultimately, the decision must rest with the Scottish people but the discussion is one in which we should surely all be allowed to take part.

I spoke to a friend of mine about it all – a Scot who has made his living and home here in Stoke-on-Trent – and asked for his views on Scottish independence.

He wasn’t even sure he would get a vote on the matter but if he did, he said he would be against the split on gut instinct alone.

He said: “I think about all those boys in the Army who fought together in the wars and it just doesn’t seem right splitting us up.”

Amen to that, brother.

Ready my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Middle-age approaches – and I’m taking it seriously… sort of

2012 is a very important year. Well, it is for me, anyway.
This has nothing to do with the London Olympics or even the fact that I have tickets to see The Stone Roses in concert.
No, 2012 is the year I officially become middle-aged.
Some would argue, of course, that this begins when you hit 30.
However, we all know that the big Four-O is the age everyone really dreads and I’m just 68 days away. (Hard to believe, I know).
Yes, I was born in 1972 – a year of momentous events such as Britain finally joining the E.E.C… and the airing of the first episode of Emmerdale Farm.
It’s hard to work out which has since proved the more entertaining soap opera, isn’t it?
One thing’s for sure – there’s nothing like a looming milestone to make you reflect on what has gone before.
In the last decade I have experienced endless sleeplessness and the indescribable pleasure of watching my daughters be born and grow into brilliant little people with whom I can now have proper conversations.
In the last 10 years I have also done things I never thought I’d do – such as visit relatives in New Zealand, try my hand at public speaking, start an internet blog, appear in a pantomime, beat cancer (touch wood) and, crucially, meet Bon Jovi’s guitarist Richie Sambora and The Fonz.
Through my job I’ve also crossed paths with some amazing people in the last decade – people like the Treetops Hospice kids and cancer drug campaigner Dot Griffiths.
My thirties have been very painful for me, at times – not least because the fortunes of my beloved Port Vale have taken such an awful nose-dive.
During the last 10 years, many of the people I looked up to and actually helped to shape who I am have also passed on – leaving genuine voids.
Remarkable people like my old Boys’ Brigade captain Roy Harrison, my Sentinel colleague John Abberley and my nan Ethel.
Suddenly I’m the one people are looking to for words of wisdom or leaning on and, frankly, it’s a sobering thought. As most people are fighting the urge to break two-day old New Year’s resolutions I am trying to crystal ball-gaze into my next 10 years.
Oh yes, I’m taking 40 seriously, alright. Even so, as of March 12 don’t expect me to suddenly start acting my age.
I may wear slippers and I may be on the cusp of middle-age but I’ve still got all my own teeth and (most of) my hair to let down.
There’s certainly no danger of me suddenly liking gardening or starting to watch BBC period dramas.
I won’t be getting a tattoo or anything because I did that when I hit 30. (Chinese symbols – right upper arm, in case you wondered).
However, I will be marking my 40th year with my first trip to the States and having a party with everyone I’ve ever met. More or less.
If you don’t get an invite, don’t worry – just assume yours got lost in the post.
Mine’s a bottle of Newcastle Brown. Cheers.

Signs of recovery? Not when it’s every man for himself

I don’t pay any attention to the seemingly endless roll-call of financial experts and economists dredged up by political parties and the media to gaze into their crystal balls and offer pearls of wisdom about the recession.

My view is that if they didn’t see the mother of all financial storms coming then they can’t be relied upon to predict how bad it will be or how long it will last.

The FTSE may have risen a few points recently but does anyone in the real world outside the City or Westminster honestly believe we are seeing any ‘green shoots of recovery’?

I only use that lazy cliché because I’m so sick of hearing the phrase bandied around by people shielded from the harsh economic realities of Britain in July 2009.

People with protected pension funds or on huge bonuses or commenting from the comfort of a BBC studio in London.

Recovery? Do me a favour. The UK is going to hell in a hand-cart and I can see precious little being done to minimise the casualties.

Take, for example, my brother Matthew. He’s 32, single, and a window fitter. He works hard and he’s very good at what he does.

And right now he’s the dictionary definition of how the recession has kicked the you-know-what out of the working man.

At the start of the year Matt was working in London building a new school for a company based in Cannock.

If truth be told, he’d rather not be working away from home but needs must when the Devil vomits on your oatcakes.

Inevitably, a bloke from the Potteries working in The Smoke incurs diesel costs, lodgings and tube fares –all of which, crucially, can’t be deferred.

Matt became increasingly concerned that he hadn’t been paid as promised but was told time and time again that there was nothing to worry about.

After 12 weeks, numerous telephone calls and no less than three visits to the firm’s headquarters, the boss finally strolled out of his office to tell him the company was going into liquidation and he wouldn’t be getting a penny of the £2,000 he was owed.

This left my brother with no work and two months’ worth of bills to pay.

To add insult to injury the same bloke who had strung him along for three months was trading again the following week, from the same building, through a sister company with a slightly different name to the firm that went bump.

Matt being Matt, he kept his worries to himself and begged, borrowed and scraped together the money he owed.

He then began sub-contracting for another firm, based in Cheshire, working on a variety of building projects in London and Leicestershire.

Three weeks ago he quit. Up until now he has been paid £1,100 of the £3,000 he is owed for work he completed months ago.

To date, excuses for non-payment have included the boss being on holiday and a woman in the firm’s accounts department being off with swine flu.

All the while Matt has a mortgage to pay, repayments for his van to keep up, and all the other household bills we know and love so well – not to mention the stress of wondering where his next pay packet is coming from.

After a few weeks in limbo, he has just started work up at the University Hospital of North Staffordshire and has been promised he will be paid fortnightly.

Fingers crossed, then.

There are people a lot worse off than my brother – something which Matt often reminds me.

People with families and young children who have been made redundant or treated just as shabbily by bean-counters only interested in the short-term and self-preservation.

The sad thing is that at a time when our glorious Prime Minister is telling us we should all be pulling together, it’s actually every man for himself.

If there was any justice then the bloke who owes my brother two grand would have the Mercedes he drives impounded until he had paid off all his creditors and he would be barred from running a business ever again.

The reality is there is very little protection for the most vulnerable members of the UK’s workforce and the kinds of sharp practices that have always been used by businesses are even more prevalent now the credit bubble has burst.