Afore ye go… what about the rest of the United Kingdom?

Are our flags about to change?

Are our flags about to change?

This time next week we could be living in a very different country.

Maps may have to be redrawn to remove the words ‘United Kingdom’. Certain flags may become obsolete and sporting unions would have to be changed dramatically ahead of, say, the next Olympics in Rio. Currencies would have to be re-thought.

I would suggest the loss of MPs north of the border would also make it far more difficult for Labour to win a General Election when relying on an electorate in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Yes, the list of repercussions of a ‘Yes’ vote in next week’s Scottish referendum on independence from the Union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland goes on and on. And on.

Why anyone would want to carve up our tiny island further is beyond me – particularly as the inevitable consequence will be that each part will have its influence on the world stage diminished as a result.

Having covered General Elections as a journalist since 1992 I’ve developed a healthy disregard for opinion polls.

But it seems that the result of next week’s vote is genuinely too close to call.

To my mind, both sides of the debate are guilty of scaremongering and crass hypocrisy.

I think the truth is neither side fully understands or can predict all the ramifications of Scotland going it alone.

Sadly, the main parties in Westminster give the impression they have only just woken up to the possibility of the ‘Yes’ campaign winning.

The sight of the Prime Minister, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg scurrying north of the border to bolster the ‘No’ campaign smacked of desperation to me and I can’t believe it will have any substantial effect on voters.

Meanwhile, Alex Salmond and the nationalists can’t shake off the simple fact that independence is a huge gamble – not just for Scotland, but for the UK as a whole.

Not that the SNP give much of a monkey’s about the rest of us.

A lot of the ‘Yes’ campaign’s rhetoric seems to be based on perceived historical injustices and the fact that the south east of England gets all the money and attention from the powers-that-be at Westminster.

Of course, on that basis, anywhere north of the Watford Gap has a gripe.

Indeed, I eagerly await Stoke-on-Trent’s bid for independence from London and the ‘sarf’ east.

I will, personally, be extremely sad to see a majority of the people in Scotland vote for independence. I love the place. I holiday there most years and I think it has the best landscape in Britain and, perhaps wrongly, I consider it part of ‘my country’.

I’ll be sad because we’ll be saying goodbye to hundreds of years of tradition and ties – involving, for example, the military and the Royal Family.

The Union that survived two world wars will have been undone by the drip, drip effect of devolution.

Even if it’s a ‘No’ vote this is a ‘win-win’ for Mr Salmond and the nationalists because more powers will be ceded north of the border by the main Westminster parties as an incentive to keep the fragile Union together a while longer.

I dare say there are plenty of people here in England who will say, without hesitation: ‘Let them go and have their independence!’.

They will be angry that the constituents of Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown continue to enjoy free prescriptions and free university tuition paid for, arguably, by taxpayers in the rest of the UK.

Meanwhile, here in England prescriptions cost £8.05 each and a university education is cost-prohibitive for many because it equates to a second mortgage.

I’m not jealous of the Scots. Good on ’em, I say.

In fact, here in England I would suggest we could learn a few lessons from them with regard to their relentless pursuit of equality and fairness for all.

I joked earlier about the Potteries and the north seeking independence from London and the south east. But I believe there is a genuine argument for the rest of the country outside London no longer being treated like second class citizens on account of the capital being ‘the City’ and our ‘financial powerhouse’ – as Boris Johnson and the like constantly to refer to it.

From an English perspective, the Scottish referendum on independence is sort of like watching your brother rail against his parents and threaten to leave home.

What’s worse is that you’re not allowed to have a say in his decision – even though your brother’s departure will have a huge impact on the family as a whole.

Whatever happens, I wish the people of Scotland all the best for the future because I consider them my friends and neighbours – even if they do take the high road.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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Jack Ashley: A truly great Parliamentarian who continues to inspire us all

I don’t have much time for politicians, if truth be told. I can’t be doing with the double-speak served up by so many of them and their simple inability to answer a direct question.

Indeed, I blame much of the public apathy towards politics in general on the mistrust so many feel towards those who seek public office.

The days of rotten boroughs may be long gone, but politics remains an inherently grimy business ruled by self-interest.

In recent years the ‘cash-for-questions’, ‘cash for honours’ and MPs’ expenses scandals have done little to enhance the reputation of political parties in the UK or those elected to serve.

That said, very occasionally individuals come along who seem to transcend party politics and go some way towards restoring one’s faith in the system.

Jack Ashley, or Lord Ashley of Stoke as he became, was just such a man.

Two years ago I had the privilege of welcoming Lord Ashley on to the stage at the King’s Hall as part of Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s Citizen Of The Century celebrations.

Jack, who died on Saturday, was 87 at the time, frail and in a wheelchair but determined to be part of an historic occasion where we marked the centenary of the federation of the Six Towns.

Unfortunately, fate conspired against us that night and the great charity champion and campaigner for the rights of the disabled was left stranded in the clunky old lift for a couple of minutes.

It ground to a halt as we attempted to bring Jack on stage to receive his civic honour.

It could have been a disaster. However, such was the calibre of the man that he laughed off the gremlins and received his award with sublime grace.

What’s more, it was at that moment that I realised just how the people of the Potteries had taken this bloke from Widnes to their hearts.

There was no way anyone was going to let a technical hitch spoil the moment.

Indeed, such was the warmth felt towards one of the great Parliamentarians from the 400-plus audience, that it took just a few additional rounds of applause and Jack was on stage with me.

The word ‘inspirational’ is greatly over-used these days but it is certainly appropriate in the case of Jack Ashley.

His life in public service is remarkable – not because of its longevity but because of what he accomplished during his time as an MP and in the House of Lords.

When an elder statesman such as Lord Ashley passes on we have come to expect tributes for their peers.

However, when David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Ed Milliband and Gordon Brown – to name but a few – spoke of the admiration for our Jack there is no doubt they meant it.

Lord Ashley of Stoke was a pioneer, you see. A man who, quite literally opened doors for millions of people.

Having won the Stoke-on-Trent South Parliamentary seat in 1966 he could quite easily have thrown in the towel two years later when he lost his hearing.

However, as this country’s first deaf MP, he learned to lip-read and was held in such high regard – even by political foes such as Prime Minister Ted Heath – that they turned towards him during Commons debates so he could get a clear view of their mouths.

Because of Jack Ashley, many people realised that a disability didn’t have to be a barrier.

Because of his sheer force of will others, like former Home Secretary David Blunkett, forged a career in politics in spite of a disability.

Jack Ashley was arguably the greatest champion disabled people in the UK have ever had.

He was a man driven not by self-interest but by the needs of others and someone who placed fairness at the heart of his own personal agenda.

During 26 years as a member of Parliament he campaigned tirelessly for society’s second class citizens – the under-represented and the victims of everything from thalidomide to the arthritis drug Opren.

Jack Ashley was someone who changed attitudes for the better and we should be grateful that a man elected first and foremost to serve the people of Stoke-on-Trent did that and so much more.

Forget statues to the man in charge of the Titanic. How about a permanent memorial to a man whose legacy is supremely positive for us all?

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Good luck with that in-tray, Prime Minister…

Dear Dave and Nick, When the deals have been done and the dust finally settles on a truly fascinating General Election, it’s fair to say your new Government will have its work cut out.

I’m assuming here that the bonkers vision of a Labour-led, mathematically-inadequate ‘rainbow coalition’ doesn’t come to pass.

Let’s be frank, despite what some cloud-hugging liberals may think, political marriages of convenience do no-one any favours.

An outright winner would have been far better for the country at this most trying of times but, given the outcome, a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition is perhaps the lesser of several evils.

At least with a reasonable majority your partnership has a chance of steering the Good Ship UK in one direction – rather than having us going round in circles like some demented duck at Westport Lake. (That’s a local reference, my honourable friends).

Despite the fact that, unlike many people, I don’t believe Vince Cable to be some kind of all-knowing, economic Yoda figure, given that the Tory front bench is inexperienced and unproven I’d like to see you using the coalition talent pool to best effect – with a few senior Lib Dems taking ministerial posts.

For me, stability of leadership is key right now.

What we definitely don’t want is another General Election in six months’ time creating a political merry-go-round where nowt gets done while our economy stagnates and the money markets go into freefall.

Now that we have prised Gordon Brown’s fingernails out of the leather sofa and dragged the sore loser kicking and screaming out of Number 10, the real work can begin in earnest.

There’s no getting away from the fact that we’ve all got to tighten out belts.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news to my colleagues in the public sector but they are facing a pay freeze. (Many of us in the private sector have had one in place for two years already so hopefully they won’t react with too much melodrama).

Up until now those working in the private sector have borne the brunt of job losses during the current economic downturn.

However, to give us a fighting chance of tackling our national debt crisis, there will also doubtless have to be significant job cuts in the public sector – given the huge burden it places on all of us.

I don’t see this as an option – it’s a necessity – because we’ve all seen, heard and read about the waste, the quangos, the non-jobs and the army of bureaucrats currently leeching away at the taxpayer.

The unions won’t like any of this and there’s a distinct possibility of industrial unrest on a scale not seen for decades – against which your new Government must stand firm.

This, I suppose, will be the acid test for the ‘new kind of politics’ we’ve heard so much about in recent weeks – where all parties have pledged to do what’s best for the country.

Labour will have a key role to play here, of course. The party of the unions can either work with your Government by instituting important checks and balances on policies – or it can revert to the kind of peevish point-scoring we normally see from the opposition front benches in the House of Commons.

(You’re all as bad as one another for that, I’m afraid).

Whatever happens with the economy, your Government must not lose sight of the fact that as we gnash our teeth and fall out over domestic policies UK service personnel are still fighting and dying overseas.

Having been in Wootton Bassett on Friday to witness the repatriation of Lance Corporal Barry Buxton, from our neck of the woods, I feel more strongly than ever that we need to do more, as a nation, to support our servicemen and women.

Let’s pay them a decent wage, equip them properly, look after them when they return home and give them the respect they are due for doing a job most of us can barely comprehend.

By the same token, while I don’t believe we should pull the troops out of Afghanistan tomorrow, I’d like to think that sooner rather than later your Government had formulated an exit strategy to bring our boys and girls home.

Good luck with all that, gents. Something tells me you’re going to need it.

Stand up and be counted by making your vote your own

Here we go then. It’s decision time. Have you made your mind up which way you’re going to vote yet?
I have. In truth I’d decided before I sat down to watch the historic leaders’ debates on television.
I’d made my mind up long before Nick ‘man of the people’ Clegg turned in his first nauseating performance on ITV.
I had come to my decision way before David Cameron’s impersonation of a frightened rabbit in the headlights.
I’d chosen the party for me weeks before we discovered what Gordon Brown really thinks of your average voter away from the forced smiles and platitudes.
I must say I have enjoyed this election campaign enormously.
I’ve loved the wall-to-wall media coverage, the endless spin of biased national newspapers, the big-name gaffes and the, at times, surreal leaders’ debates.
I suppose we should be grateful to television because having Brown, Cameron and Clegg verbally sparring in front of millions of potential voters truly energised what could have been a very dull three weeks.
I have to confess that I watched the leaders’ debates with almost the same enthusiasm I’ll have for the World Cup. Almost.
How marvellous it was to see these three men, out of the kindergarten comfort zone that is the House of Commons, having to answer to Joe Public.
How wonderful to see them pleading with millions of TV viewers at a time when the stock of politicians is lower than that of car park attendants.
I only hope that those who did watch the debates, perhaps for the first time engaging with politics, haven’t been hoodwinked by the cult of personality.
Interesting as it was to be able to gauge the relative oratorical skills of the leaders of the three main political parties, we should remember that this isn’t a beauty contest.
This isn’t The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent. It isn’t about the best performance.
This is about deciding on a statesman who you think can lead the UK through the most challenging of economic times.
It is about appointing a Prime Minister who won’t be a poodle for America or in the thrall of Europe.
This is about looking beyond the spin, the posturing and the point scoring and trying to decide which man leads the party best equipped to deal with whatever matters to you.
Growing up on your average estate in Stoke-on-Trent means I should, technically, drag myself down to the polling station and put my X in a Labour candidate’s box.
However, the truth is, politics has never been so cut and dried for me.
Surely the other parties are allowed to have good ideas too.
Surely parties transform, policies evolve, personnel changes and Governments run out of steam.
How then can I commit to being a life-long supporter of any one political party?
Whoever wins on Thursday I’m hoping for a clear majority to avoid some kind of awful, soggy coalition, which doesn’t have the power to take the kind of radical decisions which will be so necessary for the UK over the next few years.
As Thursday approaches I would urge you to vote for the party which doesn’t think any topic that is important to the electorate is taboo.
I would ask you to not just vote for a particular party because you voted for them at the last election – or because you always vote that way or because that’s how your parents voted before you.
Be yourself. Make an informed decision based on the state of the nation and the current political landscape rather than reverting to type.
Don’t be a doormat for convention or be led by the nose to the voting booth.
By the same token, don’t be seduced by personality. Focus instead on policies which appeal to you.
Crucially, don’t be swayed by the tsunami of polls predicting who will win what. Your vote does matter.
Whatever you do, don’t take this wonderful, hard-won freedom for granted. Get out there and vote.