Let’s have a proper debate about the UK’s membership of Europe

The European Parliament in Brussels.

The European Parliament in Brussels.

Amid the bizarre weather, the complaints about the gritting lorries, the flooding and the general January malaise, many people may have missed the debate on Britain’s membership of the EU.

But the issue which may not seem very important to us on a cold winter’s day in 2013 is sure to become THE political hot potato as the months tick by.

Indeed, there is a good chance that Europe – or rather the UK’s involvement with it – could be the topic which defines the next General Election.

David Cameron’s stated ambition to give the British people a referendum on the country’s membership of the EU was not entirely unexpected.

In response growing public discontent about the power of Brussels, the Prime Minister said it was ‘time for the British people to have their say”. (Well, if he’s still in power after the country goes to the polls, that is).

Mr Cameron has pledged an in/out referendum because he says the democratic consent for our membership of the EU is currently ‘wafer thin’.

Some Conservatives and Euro-sceptics branded the speech ‘statesmanlike’, saying it was long-overdue from a British Prime Minister.

Other political commentators felt it was ill-judged grand-standing which was bound to upset our continental neighbours and give businesses the jitters.

I think the truth lies somewhere in between these two extreme views.

Sentinel Letter writer Ivan Latham is unequivocal in his opposition to the referendum and the idea of this country leaving the EU.

He wrote: ‘The day the UK exits the EU is the day I will book the tickets for a one-way trip for our family back to Berlin.’

Mr Latham believes the country needs a Pro-European voice to ‘counter the whining of Little Englanders who comprise UKIP and Euro-sceptics.’

While I can’t agree that only those two camps are concerned about our membership of the EU – and, more importantly, all it entails – Mr Latham is right about one thing.

He questioned: ‘Just how educated is your average Brit to make an informed decision?’

The truth is we don’t tend to have enlightened debate about Europe in this country.

Discussions are always hi-jacked by those who would have us ditch what they see as a blood-sucking, federalist nightmare and those who would have us building even closer ties with Brussels.

Mr Cameron seems to have bet his party’s (and possibly the UK’s) medium-term future on 17 red, as it were, and is preparing to spin the wheel if re-elected.

The problem, as I see it, is precisely one of education because the British public, as it stands now, is in no position to cast a vote.

We simply don’t understand the arguments for and against membership of the EU and we don’t really know what’s at stake.

For example, the EU is, unquestionably, Britain’s key trading partner and one can understand UK businesses feeling nervous about severing the umbilical cord to the continent.

But the truth is no-one really knows what the effect would be on UK trade and jobs of us ‘opting out’.

It’s not as if being in the EU is the only option. Other countries within Europe trade with the EU while retaining far greater independence.

My fear is that there is a very real danger the facts will be lost amid the rhetoric and the mud-slinging.

One thing that I am sure the Pro-EU campaigners would not contest is that, in recent years, very real and genuine concerns have built up in British households about the growing influence of Europe in our daily lives.

There is a feeling among many (and I’m not just talking here about the far right, UKIP or fully paid-up Euro-sceptics) that the British Government and, indeed, our judicial system is slowly losing power to the behemoth that is the EU.

These issues are understandably wrapped up with concerns over immigration, over EU nationals ‘milking’ the British welfare system and moves towards constructs such as a European Army which many feel are undermining this country’s independence.

There is no getting away from the fact that the reason no British Government in recent years has held a referendum on Britain adopting the Euro over the Pound is because the powers-that-be know damn well it would have been a resounding ‘no’.

On this Sceptered Isle there’s never been much of an appetite for the EU project which countries like France and Germany have embraced so warmly in the light of wars which ravaged the continent.

In the light of the PM’s speech, now is the time for an honest and open on the pros and cons, the benefits and disadvantages of our membership of the EU.

How much does it cost the British taxpayer? How much do we, as country, receive in return? What are the genuine benefits of membership to your average Briton? How does the UK fare compared to countries such as France and Germany? Will opting out of the EU give this country greater controls over its borders and improve job prospects for British workers?

Ignore the hysteria. As my late Sentinel colleague John Abberley argued many times, asking such questions doesn’t mean you are anti-European, a racist or a troublemaker.

It simply means that you are asking the right questions – as you are perfectly entitled to do.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

How TV and pop music changed our attitudes…

When people speak of major events of the Eighties, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War often spring to mind.

But I would argue that one of the most significant steps forward during my formative years was actually a radical change in attitudes.

It may seem incredible these days, but being gay in the early to mid-1980s opened people up to ridicule and much worse.

Mercifully, by the end of the decade, outdated stereotypes and overt homophobia were finally on their way out.

Here in the UK we had a couple of people to thank for this seismic shift in the way in which gay people were viewed.

One of the leading lights in this social revolution was the man who was to go on to become one of the people representing us Stokies in Brussels.

Michael Cashman is now the Labour MEP for the West Midlands but rose to prominence as an actor on BBC TV’s misery-fest Eastenders.

You have to remember that during the mid-80s gay-orientated content was still relatively rare on prime-time television.

However, Michael Cashman changed all that with his portrayal of yuppie graphic designer Colin Russell.

There was outrage when in 1987 the BBC screened the first ever gay kiss in a British soap opera between the character of Colin and his boyfriend Barry.

To be fair, it was only a peck on the forehead, but some national newspapers reacted furiously – dubbing the soap ‘EastBenders’ and branding the content ‘filth’.

Questions were even asked in Parliament about the appropriateness of having openly-gay men in a prime-time TV show as fears over AIDs grew.

At the time, huge misconceptions over the origins of AIDs, the way in which it could be contracted, and its association with gay men had caused widespread fear and confusion as our ill-advised health services struggled to come to terms with this ‘new’ illness.

It wasn’t until 1989 that the first mouth-to-mouth kiss between Colin and his partner Guido was screened and again it caused controversy.

Around 20 million people saw the show and some right-wing newspapers condemned the brief scene at a time when Margaret Thatcher’s government was championing a return to ‘traditional family values’.

Thankfully, however, attitudes had already changed.

Over time, the viewing public – including yours truly – had grown rather fond of nice-guy Colin whose character had helped to highlight issues such as homophobia and so-called ‘gay-bashing’.

Cashman quit the soap in 1989 and went on to found the lesbian, gay and bisexual rights charity and lobbying organisation Stonewall before entering into politics. Another person who was responsible for altering the way the public felt towards the gay community was George Alan O’Dowd – AKA Boy George.

I recall delivering the Sunday papers over a period of months (I’d have been about 14 at the time) and reading numerous stories about Culture Club’s ‘gender-bender’.

Despite suffering some horrendous abuse courtesy of the tabloid press for his androgynous appearance, Boy George was a superb showman – who also happened to produce some killer pop tunes.

I was bought the album Colour By Numbers – containing the singles Church Of The Poison Mind and Karma Chameleon for Christmas in 1983 and genuinely thought it was the bees knees.

Despite the criticism, the constant scrutiny, a media vendetta, and a battle with his own personal demons, Boy George went on to become one of the UK’s most successful recording artists of the decade.

At the same time, his simple live-and-let-live philosophy helped to win many hearts and minds and persuade the nation that being different wasn’t necessarily bad or wrong.

By the end of the decade, I like to think that the tide had genuinely turned.

It wasn’t being gay that was no longer acceptable – it was being openly hostile towards those who were.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia