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

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Time to pay our respects and celebrate the Tommies’ victories

Poppies to symbolise the fallen.

Poppies to symbolise the fallen.

As someone who strongly advocates that we do more to teach younger generations about historical conflicts and the sacrifices of previous generations, I am following plans for the centenary commemorations of the Great War – both locally and nationally – with interest.
Next year, on August 4, it will be exactly 100 years since Britain entered the first truly global war which led to the loss of 16 million lives.
It was carnage on an unimaginable scale: A conflict which changed the face of warfare forever.
It ended after four years with harsh reparations for the defeated Germany which, many historians have argued, sowed the seeds for the country’s militarisation under Hitler just over a decade later and contributed directly to the outbreak Second World War.
In recent years we have watched as the last surviving veterans of the conflict, such as Harry Patch – dubbed ‘The Last Fighting Tommy’ – slipped quietly away.
There are very few people still with us who recall those momentous days of the early 20th Century and those who remain were but children at the time their brothers, fathers, grandfathers and uncles went to fight overseas.
Thus the emphasis really is now on us, the Great British public, to determine how we mark the centenary of the First World War – its major battles and milestones.
In Whitehall, a committee under the umbrella of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is overseeing the planning of our centenary events.
The word is that the powers-that-be are split over how to strike the right tone for these commemorations.
In one camp, as it were, are those who believe we mustn’t upset the Germans by being too triumphalistic and say we should avoid a ‘VE-Day-like’ celebration.
There are even those who argue that Britain and its allies did not, in fact, win the war at all as an armistice was signed and therefore we have nothing to celebrate.
I am very clear in my own mind that Great War commemorations in the coming years must not be simply Remembrance Day will bells on.
I believe the centenary provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to highlight this country’s role in the conflict – both the good and the bad.
No amount of spin can persuade me that Britain and its allies didn’t ‘win’ the First World War and to my mind that fact, and the major battles of the conflict, must be properly commemorated.
You see, I had it drummed in to me by the most excellent Geoff Ball, head of history at Holden Lane High School, that Germany was forced to disarm, give up vast swathes of territory and pay heavy reparations precisely because it lost the war and the allies were able to dictate the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.
Remarkably, I can still recall that the region of Alsace-Lorraine was ceded by Germany to France and that Northern Schleswig was returned to Denmark after a plebiscite – along with other stuff about the size of Germany’s army being limited and the Kaiser being a very naughty man.
I’m hoping that the teaching of GCSE history hasn’t changed too much in the last 25 years.
I’d like to think that, like me, pupils in UK classrooms still learn about the Treaty of Versailles and leave school having come to the conclusion that Britain was indeed among the victors.
Equally importantly, I hope they leave school with something of a grasp of the incredible period in our history which their great, great (great) grandparents lived through.
I hope they appreciate how young lads of a similar age to today’s school-leavers had to go ‘over the top’ and face almost certain death at the hands of merciless machine guns.
Irrespective of the reasons for the Great War and irrespective of political failings or the failings of military commanders during the conflict, the courage and sacrifice of the combatants must celebrated along with their victories.
The sense of liberation and the outpouring of joy at the end of ‘The War To End All Wars’ was certainly equal to that felt by those living in this country and across the continent at the cessation of hostilities in Europe in 1945.
The centenary of the battles of Gallipoli, the Somme, Jutland and Passchendaele should be marked properly and the remarkable achievements of British soldiers, sailors and airmen should be honoured above any concerns over how our modern-day EU partners may feel.
‘Bugger that’, as any of the millions of Tommies might have said as they stood knee-deep in the freezing mud of the trenches.
We should, of course, never forget the role of our forefathers from this neck of the woods throughout the Great War.
We should remember that in September 1918 it was the men of the North and South Staffords – together with their brothers in arms from Leicestershire and Derbyshire – who changed the course of the war.
On that day the 46th Division smashed a hole in the Hindenberg Line and captured 4,200 prisoners and around 70 guns – undoubtedly shortening the conflict and saving countless lives.
I, for one, think that is a victory worth celebrating as part of centenary commemorations for a war this country should not be ashamed of having won.
This isn’t about triumphalism.
It is about recognising that a British generation not so far removed from ourselves went through indescribable horrors and came out victorious.
It is about showing that generation some respect.

Staffords’ proud record echoes through the ages

The Sentinel’s campaign to save the name of the Staffords is going from strength to strength and it has prompted me to delve into the archives.

I was proud to discover that this newspaper’s association with the Staffordshire Regiment goes back a long, long way.

In actual fact, Sentinel writers were reporting on the exploits of soldiers from our neck of the woods as far back as the Zulu War of 1879.

At the time it was known as the 80th Regiment of Foot (the Staffordshire Volunteers).

Our lads formed the front of the British square at the decisive Battle of Ulundi – with two of its soldiers, Private S. Wassall and Colour Sergeant A. Booth winning Victoria Crosses during the campaign.

Fast forward 100 years because I was particularly interested in what the Staffords were up to during the Eighties.

At the decade came to a close the 1st Battalion, The Staffordshire Regiment, as it was, was described ‘as a standard infantry unit of 650 men’.

Within the British Army in Germany it was known as an Armoured Infantry Battalion as every soldier was part of the crew of an Armoured Fighting Vehicle.

They completed two tours of Northern during the 1980s.

Indeed, that is how the decade began for the boys with the Staffordshire knot on their cap badges.

In September 1979 the First Battalion moved to Londonderry for sixteen months, accompanied by their families.

It was during this tour, on January 20, 1981, that Private Christopher Shenton was killed by an IRA sniper in the Bogside area of Londonderry.

In July of that year the Battalion and its families moved to Gibraltar for a two year tour which had to be reduced to 20 months because the Falklands Crisis and the Spanish elections limited the training opportunities.

The highlight of the tour to The Rock was the role played by the Battalion in the evacuation of British nationals from The Gambia.

After receiving new colours from the Lord Lieutenant of Staffordshire in 1983, the Battalion went on a training exercise to Canada to make up for training lost in Gibraltar.

The Battalion then returned to Northern Ireland in February 1984 and was deployed in South Armagh until June and during that time suffered another tragic loss.

On May 29, 1984, Lance Corporal Stephen Anderson was killed by an IRA landmine in Crossmaglen.

It was then off to Germany for our boys in the autumn for Exercise Lionheart – the biggest post-war exercise undertaken by the British Army.

The following year saw the Battalion deploy to Seattle in the U.S. for training and, on its return, it received the new Saxon Wheeled Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC).

The autumn of that year was dominated by exercises; Exercise Brave Defender saw the Battalion deployed to northern Scotland and this was followed by Exercise Purple Warrior when the Battalion played enemy to 5 Airborne Brigade at Otterburn in Northumberland.

In January 1987, the Battalion deployed to Fallingbostel, West Germany as part of 7 Armoured Brigade. During the first three years of its tour, it repeatedly trained at BATUS (British Army Training Unit Suffield) in Alberta, Canada.

By late 1988 the Staffords had been re-equipped as an Armoured Infantry Battalion using the new Warrior Armoured Fighting Vehicle.

In April 1988, the 3rd (Volunteer) Battalion of the Staffordshire Regiment was formed from the 1 Mercian Volunteers who were disbanded.

They were the direct descendant of the old 5 South and 5 North Territorial Army battalions who were disbanded in the 1960s to form the Mercian Volunteers.

1988 was also the year that the 1st Battalion were named the Army’s Grade 3 boxing champions.

In April of 1989, Her Majesty The Queen appointed her second son, His Royal Highness The Duke of York, as Colonel in Chief of the Regiment.

He visited the Battalion in Fallingbostel in Germany in July of that year.

Whatever decade I researched the stories were the same – reflecting gallantry and unstinting service which echoed the Staffords’ motto of ‘Stand Firm, Strike Hard’.

I would suggest the lads currently serving with 3 Mercian and the thousands who went before them, many of whom gave their lives for this country, deserve better than to be wiped from history at the stroke of a civil servant’s pen.

*If you agree with Martin you can sign our petition to save the name of the Staffords by logging on to: http://www.saveourstaffords.com

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

Can Roy Hodgson’s England erase 46 years of hurt?

We’re doing it again, aren’t we? Building our hopes up. Having those ‘what if?’ conversations in living rooms, workplaces and pubs.

What if we can get past the group stage? What if Andy Carroll comes good? What if Roy Hodgson’s appointment is actually a stroke of genius? What if Rooney doesn’t get sent off?

Despite years of crushing disappointment and the failure of the ‘Golden Generation’ to shine, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and roll out the Three Lions song from Euro ’96.

It’s no longer 30 years of hurt. Or even 40. It’s, er… 46 years since the England football team actually won anything.

Since then we’ve had odd flashes of brilliance, the occasional dalliance with a semi-final and plenty of penalty shoot-out misery. But, for my entire life, it’s been soul-crushing, gut-wrenching, toe-curling disappointment and endless frustration. It’s been a montage of tears, tantrums, bizarre dismissals and the obligatory elimination courtesy of Teutonic spot kick efficiency.

OK. So we may not have had the most technically-gifted footballers in the world.

But we humble England fans would just like someone to explain to us why talented individuals who play out of their skins for their clubs in what is billed as the best league in the world become useless donkeys when they pull on an England shirt. Why does a lion of Istanbul become a lamb in Bloemfontein? Why does the top of the bill at the Theatre of Dreams suddenly get stage fright?

Is it because there’s no money at stake? Is it because their club contracts are so much more important? Is it because our many and varied managers have been deficient?

Or are we just, well, rubbish? Do we delude ourselves that we have ‘world class’ players when, in actual fact, they can’t do it on the biggest stages?

If we are being honest, it’s probably all of the above which explains the love/hate relationship England fans have with their team. Combine that with some pretty tepid or downright dire performances and we could be forgiven for chucking our St. George foam hats and red novelty wigs in the bin with our dog-eared copies of Hoddle and Waddle’s Diamond Lights.

In spite of all this, we can’t help ourselves but be reinvigorated with renewed optimism every time a major tournament comes around. It’s tribal, so I’ve been told.

We simply can’t prevent the hope of the glory.

We all have our favourite moments but some bond us together in the way that only sport can.

Moments such as captain marvel Bryan Robson scoring the fastest-ever World Cup goal against France at Spain in ’82.

Or never-booked Gary Lineker scoring a hat-trick against Poland at the ’86 World Cup in Mexico.

We get all choked up remembering Gazza’s tears at Italia ’90 and eulogise about THAT goal he scored against Scotland at Euro ’96.

We talk about Shearer and Sheringham dismantling Holland on that memorable night when we put four past the pass masters.

We recall David Platt’s sublime volley to end Belgium’s World Cup challenge.

We remember lion-hearted Stuart Pearce having the bottle to take a spot kick against Spain after messing up in a previous tournament shoot-out.

We savour shaven-headed Becks’ astonishing free kick against Greece and his fearless penalty against the Argies which exorcised the demons of his youthful indiscretion against Diego Simeone.
We enjoy replays of the 5 – 1 demolition of Germany in Munich when even Emile Heskey managed to score.

You see, England may have won nowt in the last four decades but we now have a rich history of glorious failure.

It is a heritage which marks us out as the nearly men of European and world football.

Roy Hodgson may be as dull as a dissertation on the Yellow Pages but that’s maybe no bad thing as, for once, expectation levels have not gone beyond the borders of reality.

Not just yet, anyway…

For now, at least, he’s our Roy and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is this year’s Theo Walcott.

As always, hope springs eternal in the birthplace of the beautiful game.

It’s back to two banks of four, men behind the ball and a big bloke up front.

All is well with the world.

Come on Engerland…

This is why the Second World War generation was so special…

I’m always moved by the death of an old soldier such as Dunkirk veteran William Brindley whose funeral was reported in weekend editions of The Sentinel.

It goes without saying that the passing of Bill represents a great loss to his family and friends.

Sadly his death also further erodes our links with a tumultuous period in this country’s history.

With the passing of each such individual then the risk of us losing perspective on what happened 70-odd years ago increases just a little.

You see, warfare has changed beyond all recognition in the last 40 years – both from the point of view of the combatants themselves and the public left mithering over them back at home.
I would argue it actually changed for us here in the UK back in 1982.

In a week or so we will be in reflective mood as we mark the 30th anniversary of the start of the Falklands Conflict.

It was all over in 74 days but the ‘war’ had a profound effect on the psyche of our nation.

For the first time, we didn’t have to just rely on national newspapers for updates on how ‘Our Boys’ (and girls) were doing.

Nightly television news bulletins beamed pictures into our living rooms and we viewed the horrors of war in full colour – albeit a heavily-edited version of the actual events.

We learned about the heroics of 2 Para and Lieutenant Colonel H. Jones’ at Goose Green.

We discussed the fall of St. Georgia, the battle for Mount Tumbledown and the strategic importance of the airfield at Port Stanley.

We marvelled at the Harrier Jump jet’s vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) ability and gave due respect to Prince Andrew for flying the Royal Navy’s Sea King helicopters into the danger zone.

We came to know that ‘the Argies’ had Skyhawk jets and French-made Exocet missiles. We watched the Sir Galahad burn. We watched HMS Sheffield sink.

The Falklands may have been almost 8,000 miles away and we may never have heard of them before April 1982 but for a couple of months that year we all lived and breathed the battle for those islands.

These days, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, any conflict anywhere in the world seems immediate, close and personal and we now take for granted up-to-the-minute television news updates.

Take, for instance, the reporting on the life or death clashes in Iraq or Afghanistan – which has been made so much easier thanks to the internet and satellite communications.

Wars and conflicts these days – while no less bloody or tragic – are better scrutinised, better explained and better understood.

What’s more, the advent of ‘smart bombs’ (or precision-guided munitions to give them their correct term), aerial drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) and more and more powerful and clinical weapons means that the art of warfare itself has changed radically. It’s simply no longer a case of who has the most troops, tanks and heavy artillery.

This certainly isn’t warfare as Bill Brindley and his mates in the North Staffordshire Regiment would recognise it.

Of the 1,000 men in the regiment who went to France with Bill only half of them returned. Let us stop for a second and just think about that: 500 men from just one regiment.

That’s more than the total number of deaths suffered by the UK thus far during operations in Afghanistan.

Our Bill lied about his age to get into the Army and signed up when he was just 17.

During the British Expeditionary Force’s evacuation from Dunkirk wounded Bill’s hospital ship was hit by a torpedo and sunk.

He was fished out of the water by a civilian in one of the many small boats which took part in the operation to rescue allied troops from Hitler’s encircling armies.

He then returned to the fray with the 8th Army – serving in North Africa, Italy, France and finally Germany.

This is Boy’s Own stuff – it really is. But the truth is, Bill’s story was fairly commonplace back then because it was a time of ordinary men and women doing extraordinary things.

These days the media analyses the minutiae of every tiny skirmish to the nth degree.

Just imagine what Sky News would have made of the Dunkirk evacuation – an event so momentous and powerful that we still refer to it to this day when referencing a never-say-die spirit.

Bill’s generation is special because they fought in a global war which threatened the sovereignty of our nation and shaped the very history of the world.

I dare say that never again will we see conflict on such a scale and with so much at stake for so many.

Bill and his comrades sailed and flew overseas not as global policemen but as genuine freedom fighters knowing that defeat meant their loved ones would suffer.

They were our last line of defence and their relatives and friends back in Blighty had absolutely no idea how the war would pan out or what fate would befall their husbands, sons, fathers and brothers.

Without the Bill Brindleys of this world who knows what Britain in 2012 would look like.

The Second World War generation may be dying off but we will remember them because we should remember them.

What’s more, it’s up to us left behind to instil in future generations the importance of the sacrifices they made and the debt we owe them.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel