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

It’ll be all white. It’s only a bit of snow…

Heavy snow in the Moorlands in January 1987.

Heavy snow in the Moorlands in January 1987.

We are notoriously bad at coping with snow in the UK. Here in North Staffordshire is no different. A mere dusting of the white stuff and roads grind to a halt and schools close. Curtains twitch and people begin checking their stockpiles of Fray Bentos steak and kidney pies.

I’m not sure why we can’t seem to handle proper winter weather.

Perhaps it is because we get so little of it and it is so infrequent.

The truth is snow is a genuine novelty round these parts which is why most of us don’t bother fitting winter tyres to our cars.

When it does snow, my perception is that the majority of people over the age of 60 refuse to leave the house until the great thaw sets in.

This isn’t what happens overseas, I can assure you.

Our attitude is mad, really. Even after nine months of fairly incessant rain which made for a washout of a summer, many people fail to appreciate the beauty of the season of frost, snow and ice.

Thank goodness for children and their love of snowmen and sledges is all I can say.

In early December I flew to France for a festive weekend away with my mates Will and Rob.

It was a new alternative to the annual pub crawl around Newcastle – the idea being that we would sit in front of a log fire drinking vino, watching telly and playing games.

We landed at Geneva airport to be confronted by a white blanket covering the countryside.

The lady handing over the keys to our hire car – a very modest Vauxhall Meriva – asked Will if he wanted snow chains fitting to the tyres. She genuinely couldn’t advise whether we’d need them or not.

“Nah,” he responded after a few seconds’ thought. “I think we’ll be owrate.”

Two hours later it was squeaky bum time as the ill-equipped people carrier quite literally inched its way up Le Crêt de la Neige – the highest peak in the Jura mountains – in the worst blizzard I’ve ever seen.

To his eternal credit, Will fought with the steering wheel and gear stick for all he was worth to coax every ounce of life from the engine and find some traction in the deepening snow as darkness fell.

It was quite simply an epic journey and it was the snow that made it so.

Had it been simply overcast or raining the four hour journey to Will’s place in France would have been eminently forgettable.

As it was, that journey and the sight of the beautiful, snow-covered mountains and fir trees made the holiday so memorable.

You’ll have guessed by now that I’m a big fan of the white stuff.

Sadly, for me, we get precious little of it round these parts and, when we do, it never lasts for very long.

Indeed, properly disruptive snowstorms in the UK as a whole during the last decade or so can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the case when I was growing up in Sneyd Green during the 1980s. Back then heavy snowfalls appeared with far more regularity and I think we coped a little bit better with them.

Football certainly carried on thanks to that genius invention, the high-vis orange ball. Remember them?

Trawling through The Sentinel’s archives I unearthed some wonderfully evocative pictures – highlighting the particularly snowy winters of 1981/2, 1987 and 1989.

The Christmas of 1981, for example, was a white one for the people of the Potteries and I was able to build a snowman with my brother on Christmas Eve.

Earlier that month, on December 13, snow blitzed the south of the country and even the Queen became stranded for several hours in a Cotswold pub.

Two ships foundered in the English Channel and some homes in Somerset were without electricity for five days.

Three weeks later, in the January of 1982, it was particularly cold.

On January 8 and 9 heavy snow and gale force winds saw severe blizzards across the Midlands, Wales, Ireland and southern England. Transport services were thrown into chaos and millions of commuters failed to get to work in London for two days running.

Sadly, in 30 years, we seem to have become worse at coping with the snow when it does arrive.

Perhaps the next time we get an inch or two in our neck of the woods we should try to appreciate the fleeting beauty of it and realise that it isn’t the end of the world. Honest.

Anyway, I’d better be off now. I think it’s starting to snow and I wouldn’t want to get stuck at work.

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

No parent has all the answers so this scheme must be a good idea

Every parent remembers the moment only too well. Dark circles ringing their eyes, they blink in the daylight as they stagger out into the fresh air to a waiting car or taxi.

The precious bundle swaddled in blankets and strapped safely in, they leave the grounds of the hospital and head for home, good wishes ringing in their ears.

That’s when it hits you. You’ve got a baby and life will never, ever be the same again.

This is because that little bundle relies on you completely during every waking moment and even when he or she is sleeping. Your life is simply no longer your own.

For those who have never had children I may as well be speaking Vulcan. They just won’t understand a word of this.

Being a mum or dad is the most rewarding job in the world – and also the toughest, most unrelenting role you will ever have.

It boils down to total responsibility for shaping the life of another who is entirely dependant upon you.

What’s more, children don’t come with a manual. There is no handbook which will calm you at 3am when little ’un is screaming blue murder for no apparent reason.

No matter what anyone says, you can’t help but keep nipping into the box room to make sure he or she is still breathing when you can’t hear nowt on the baby monitor.

Sleep-deprived, irritable zombies, we learn through our mistakes.

We suss the nappy-changing, the milk requirements, the sleeping patterns, growth spurts and teething through bitter experience – spurred on by occasional magical moments.

‘He grabbed my hand…’ ‘She lifted her head…’ ‘He smiled…’ ‘She said her first word…’ ‘He laughed…’ ‘She took her first steps…’

And so it goes on.

No-one sets out to be a bad parent but sometimes circumstances overtake the best intentions.

Some people are better at coping than others because they are built that way. Some people have help from their partner, family or friends.

But many parents don’t have access to a support network. Even some of those who do still struggle to cope with the punishing daily routine and the simple lack of time for themselves – time to recharge their batteries or just talk to other grown-ups.

Worse still, some mums and dads are barely literate, anti-social morons who never give a thought to anyone else – let alone their own offspring.

Most of us can figure out that sticking junior in front of the telly isn’t going to assist his or her development as much as stimulating play will.

By the same token, we know that using sweets and crisps to buy 10 minutes of peace and quiet is actually a bad idea.

But some dilemmas aren’t quite so straightforward.

How long should you leave a baby to cry? What do you do if little ’un won’t take his or her bottle? How do you take a baby’s temperature? How should you discipline and unruly child?

You could take the view that it’s remarkable that people need to be 16 to buy cigarettes, 18 to buy alcohol or fireworks and need to pass a test to drive a car but they are allowed to leave hospital carrying a tiny human being having had no training whatsoever.

Personally, I’m all for anything which helps to better prepare new mums and dads for this most challenging period in their lives which is why I welcome the Government’s pilot scheme for free parenting classes.

Slammed by some as interference by the ‘nanny state’, the initiative offers vouchers for £100-worth of parenting classes from high street chemist Boots and health professionals to parents of children aged up to five in three trial areas.

There will also be a new targeted NHS email and text service aimed at those expecting a baby or in the first month of parenthood.

It is designed to provide “regular, relevant and tailored” advice such as videos of baby bathing and other techniques, plus advice from other parents.

If successful, these schemes may be extended across England and Wales and I sincerely hope they are.

Some will undoubtedly criticise these moves and argue that what the country needs right now is more nurses, health visitors and social workers.

That may be true, but it strikes me that there are thousands of parents-to-be who would genuinely benefit from some help, advice and myth-busting before the poo actually hits the nappy.

I know I would have welcomed such an initiative and I’m pretty sure in this age of single-parents and non-nuclear families that those mums and dads without a traditional support network would too.

Thirty years ago, new parents would have perhaps turned to their parents or grandparents for help and advice on everything from breast-feeding to preparing healthy, nutritious meals for toddlers that don’t come out of a jar.

To an extent this still happens but I believe that the state can certainly play an important role in helping people become better, more responsible and caring mums and dads.

No-one has all the answers when it comes to bringing up children and anyone who says they wouldn’t benefit from a bit of advice is kidding themselves and doing their children a huge disservice.

Every child deserves the best possible start in life but many are hampered by both the environment in which they are raised and the capabilities of those looking after them.

It is by no means a silver bullet but I think the parenting classes initiative is a step in the right direction – one which will help to prevent neglect, health problems, accidents and ultimately broken homes.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday