The polls closed at 10 pm on Thursday. I’ve been wearing my yellow Lib Dem rosette and people have been waving enthusiastically. Must be a good sign. This has been a complicated mix of elections. Being in Surrey, just outside of London then the mayoral elections didn’t have an impact. The only vote I had was for the election of a police and crime commissioner. However, we had campaigned in a by-election for the Staines South and Ashford West Division of Surrey County Council.
Although an increasing number of people vote by post there is nothing quite like turning up and putting a mark on a ballot paper. This being a by-election the turn-out of voters was not expected to be high. That’s a euphemism for saying; large numbers of people don’t vote in local elections. In my mind, not voting is an act of submission. There’s no rebellion in sitting on ones hands.
I spent the evening meeting local people as they went to vote at Buckland School. Yes, school buildings are often used as polling stations in the UK. There was a steady flow of people returning home from work and then popping out to vote. It’s a very civilised affair. Even the local Party banter is generally civilised. At least it was on that sunny spring evening. There was only myself, as a Liberal Democrat and a Conservative activist standing outside the school collecting polling numbers.
An evening with the voters can provide some interesting moments. There are those who shun any kind of contact as if a conversation might invalidate the secret ballot. There are others who keenly want to chat about a local problem or bring up a subject like the coming referendum.
Talking to one guy we found we were on different sides of the argument about continued European Union membership. What we did both agree is that the best result for the UK would be a clear decisive result. If in June this year, the final outcome of the referendum is say; 51% to 49% either way, no one is going to be happy. A decisive vote to REMAIN would be good for stability. It would mean that we will get back to acting on the issues that matter to people like; education, health and the environment rather than endlessly talking about institutions, regulations and structures.
As it got dark so it got chilly standing outside the polling station in Staines. That’s how it will be if people who support Europe don’t come out to vote in June. A chill wind will blow over our country. So, step up and don’t let a noisy bunch of merchants of doom dictate our future.

Back to the past

Sun shining whilst clearing out my wife’s parents house yesterday. One dusty red book from the year I was born; 1960 caught my eye. It’s a selection of “Vicky” cartoons from the Evening Standard. Political satire of its day. The characters on the scene at that time have long since left the stage but I recognised the names of the prominent ones. What’s fascinating is the subjects.
Tory PM “Supermac” was being ridiculed. Russia was boasting of economic growth. British unemployment reaches a new peak in 1958. British humble pie was being eaten over Suez. There was rioting in Notting Hill. The Labour Party was fighting itself over nuclear disarmament. Nothing new on that one. City scandals were hitting the headlines. How times have changed! December 1959 the Home Secretary was answering questions on “telephone tapping”. Now that’s original. May 1960: with an eye on the US presidential election, Mr Nixon says he knows how to talk to the Russians. Gosh that sounds just like Mr Trump.
One lovely cartoon showed two shopkeepers eyeing each other up whilst standing in their doorways saying: “and a prosperous New Year to you, too!”. One was called “Free Trade Stores” and the other called the “Common Market Shop”. Thus, as it ever was, the arguments that were raging in late 1958 are similar argument to those we are having over this year’s referendum.
This was the world before Britain joined the Common Market. Britain’s place in the world was being challenged on all fronts. It was slowly getting accustomed to the post-war world order. The British economy was performing poorly. The “Free Trade Stores” were breaking-up. To reinvigorate British military-industrial efforts there was even a space programme, with the Blue Streak rocket but it got too costly and was dropped. In this era, it became clear that European collaboration as the only way forward. What proved too expensive for one to do alone became possible as Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands worked together.
It took a decade for Britain to join the “Common Market Shop”. There was no realistic way back to the imperial pre-war era. I do not want to see a Britain who has made a success of European Union membership then abandoned it for an uncertain future. As if there was a way back to the past.

EU cuts waste

How can I not talk about recycling? This morning my green bin has been emptied by the Council. It was almost full of newspapers, cardboard, bottles and plastic. That’s just for one small household.
Having been a local Councillor 20 years ago, I know the UK came to this subject with great reluctance. Resistance amongst conservative views, that’s with a big C and a small c, was strong. A decade ago, and more, a wide assortment of bazaar and strange arguments were made to try and halt the introduction of separate waste collections. From people falling into bins, which has happened, to wildlife eating the plastic or setting up home in the bins.
A low starting point ensured that UK recycling rates grew faster in the first decade of the millennium than in any other country in Europe. Pressure from the EU has helped immensely to progress waste recycling. Regulations haven’t been too oppressive either. Just looking at the diversity of approaches by different UK Councils shows that a much has been left to local decision-making. Some might even say too much inconsistency has even created difficulties getting the economies of scale needed to keep costs down and recycling rates up.
There are European countries, such as Germany who already recycle more than 50% of their waste. We need the European Environment Agency to keep an eye on these performance statistics. I’m not calling for new regulations but rather the peer pressure that come from comparing the results achieved in different EU Member States. Public awareness campaigns can do a lot to shape attitudes and what we do with our waste.

Don’t bore

I’ve been wanting to say: “it’s a little known fact” for a while. A phrase that reminds me of a sketch with the great Peter Cook. It was a show called the Secret Policeman’s Ball with a sketch called “Interesting Facts”. Cook sits on a park bench and talks to a well-dressed John Cleese as he is trying to read a tabloid newspaper. A succession of nonsense is streamed at the disinterested Cleese. Most of the comedy comes from the slow build-up of Cleese’s annoyance.
The parallel I have in mind is the mimicry that LEAVE campaigners are perfecting. Persistently revealing quirky and just plain wrong information to a general public who they think is interested. Having the effect of uniting the park bench bores but annoying the pants off of the rest of us.
The down side of this behaviour is that it could have the impact of turning people off. For those of us who are campaigning, the UK vote in June will be the most important vote for a generation. However, getting back to the normal life where a sizable proportion of people don’t vote at all, this annoyance factor presents a real problem.
Fortunately, the STAY (in the EU) side of the argument has a more positive message. Facts revealed need to be true and relevant to everyday life. The challenge remains to encourage as many people to vote as possible and not to annoy the pants off of the electorate.

Heritage matters

Wandering around sunny Harrow on Sunday lunchtime I was struck by the way suburban high streets look much the same. Generations of planners have allowed the erection of carbon copy shopping centres and trashed the remains of local heritage. Small specialist shops and traditional pubs struggle to maintain a foothold. This is one phenomenon that can’t be blamed on Europe. It’s what short-sighted English councils have done. Market forces have played their part but lack of imagination has played a bigger part.
This week, two high street names are under threat, namely British Home Stores and Austin Reed. Except for concern for those employed and the poor behaviour of their owners I can’t say that I will miss either one. In my opinion, BHS is C&A with electric light fittings and Reed’s shirts are fine but too expensive.
If I am to bring Continental Europe into this article, then it’s on the basis that a modest attempt to protect a town’s heritage does make business sense. It’s not just for places where tourists go but more broadly to improve the everyday experiences of working towns. A cleaner, safer and less homogenised environment would be good for us all. On-line shopping will kill the British high street if it’s not an attractive place to be. It would do no harm to look at Continental Europe and copy good ways of keeping traditional retailers and eateries afloat. There’s positive case for specific tax breaks and protections to keep local heritage and prosperity alive.

It’s good to talk

This morning, sitting in a local coffee shop using the Wi-Fi, I caught a glance of the iPad of the guy in front of me. It triggered a thought about migration. Strange that an image of a screen can set such thoughts in motion. I was thinking; what an interconnected world. How did we manage before talking to people half way across the world was just as easy as talking to someone across the street? Now there’s a multitude life styles possible because communication is so easy.
Anyway I apologise for catching a glimpse of that iPad. A video conversation was on going and it was night where the other person was staying. It reminded me of the conversations I’ve had with people whilst travelling across the globe. It’s always better to keep in touch with loved ones.
Migration is the biggest issue for some people when it comes to the EU referendum vote. It struck me that a key enabler to migration was not just transport but the INTERNET. The ability to connect with family and friends whilst hundreds of miles away is so important and so liberating.
Those who want to keep people away from migrating to the UK will have to shut down the INTERNET as well as building walls and pilling on layers of bureaucracy. All the arguments that can be made for a threat from the movement of people can be made for global communications too. A vision of the UK as a huge gated community with ridged government controls on movement and communication is scary. It’s what communist countries did and still do. It looks like the LEAVE campaigners want to go down that same road. Its clear, the lives of ordinary Britons will not be pleasant if they win the vote.

Long term thinking

I remember one summer visiting Cleveland, Ohio on the shores of Lake Erie. This is a city with more than its fair share of problems as heavy industry hit the skids in the US. Wondering around there was reminders of a mighty prosperous society forged from steel and railways. Today, there are attractions like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a some turn of the century buildings open to the public. When I was there the centre of the city was taken over by the US Marines on a recruiting drive. The central square looked like a film set for a super hero movie.
Getting to the point, one of the buildings I visited was the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. A glorious fortified building of style and elegance from 1923. Closing my eyes, I could imagine gangsters with violin cases standing just across the street. Today, in the building are museum exhibits that take visitors through the history of the US Federal Reserve. Until that point I had no idea that attempts to unify the currency in the US had failed and been restarted so many times. The birth of the US currency was a roller-coaster ride of mammoth proportions. In fact, the US currency area was plagued with financial crises until the New Deal came along.
Why am I telling you this story? Its because I’m fed-up with the constant assertion coming from doomsday merchants of fear saying that the Euro is a failure. British media rarely if ever challenge this bland assertion. Sure there has been immense challenges and almost disastrous moments. True that some smaller Euro countries had to be rescued when a world recession hit but that’s the role of a central bank.
Now, having read the history of the US experience I’d say we are well on the road to success in Europe – in the long term. Europeans did not copy the US. European learned from what has gone before. Building for the long-term does secure the best future.

Stronger togther

With four decades of working on projects that have been European in nature, I can say that my enthusiasm for Europe is practical, pragmatic and realistic. No way am I looking at the European Union through rose tinted glasses. Being 12 years old in 1972 the fact that we joined the Common Market really didn’t register with me. I expect the adults around me were discussing what this would mean for farming but I was more interested in NASA’s Apollo space flights.
From the 1980s, I’ve had the pleasure of working on numerous major aerospace projects. From this vantage point I can see the great strength of collaborative working in Europe. It’s not an accident that European nations have come together to work together. It’s been a determined effort maintained over a long time with the agreement those involved.
There’s a mix of inter-governmental organisations and the European Union. Certainly Europe is complex. This aspect frightens some people but the reality is that complex arrangements work. The benefits of having a harmonised system of rules for aviation are enormous. There’s a reduction in costs. There’s a level playing field. There’s a common level of safety.
The idea that the UK should move forward for four decades and then step backwards into who knows where is beyond my comprehension. In June, nevertheless without a vote to stay in the EU so much will be thrown away needlessly. Let’s not let that happen.

Growing businesses

Priti Patel Conservative MP for the Witham in Essex did such a poor job for the LEAVE campaign this morning on Radio 4 that we should hear more from her. Thank you BBC for asking the real questions like: what Regulations do you mean? The MP waffled on repeating campaign slogans devoid of facts. Sweeping unsubstantiated statements flowed like a landslide. This was a real car crash of an interview. She obviously though just saying “boo!” to the EU on the morning radio would be enough.
For a Government Minister to call for an audit of regulations AFTER the UK left the EU is unbelievable. If this was the main issue for small businesses an audit of regulation should have been done years ago! I suppose if a post-Brexit audit found there wasn’t a problem then the UK would reapply to join the EU. Also, crazy was how when referring to ‘working time’ she said; Europe has done nothing for worker’s rights. However, it was the European Working Time Directive to which the Minister referred.
In the EU, the concept of a “level playing field” is good for business both large and small. It means that if a British mom and pop business has to do something (e.g. packaging, hygiene, waste disposal) then a Dutch, French, Italian, Polish or Germany business has to do the same. Access the single market means a small business can grow to become a large business. If you want proof just look at businesses like LUSH or the Body Shop. Started as small businesses now having 100s of shops around Europe.

United Europe

It’s with such ease that we forget the dramatic changes that have taken place over recent decades. Post-war the dividing lines were drawn across Europe. That separation of East and West almost brought us to the point of mutually assured destruction. I remember a conversation with a Belgium colleague who had done national service. The cold practicality of their predicament was haunting. He told me: we knew that if anything happened our job was to stand guard but that within about 5 minutes it would all be over.
Let’s be thankful that a strong desire for democracy and prosperity led to the fall of communist regimes across Europe. The European Union played its part in that transformation. By presenting an example of democratic cooperation it gave the former communist countries hope for the future. The EU provided much needed assistance in rebuilding infrastructure across Europe. Effectively connecting East and West so that we can live and work together.