Is a European Referendum really a Myth?

Broken European FlagWith the May European Elections fast approaching, all the main traditional political parties have finally been forced to nail their colours to the mast and declare where they stand on the question of the UK’s future in Europe. Most would have preferred to remain silent on the issue but an up-swell in public feeling and a new kid on the block in the form of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) have made continued indifference and silence impossible.

The choices on offer can be analysed as falling into three groups.

An outright NO referendum;

A maybe but only if referendum

A straight forward Yes/No or In/Out Referendum.

The Labour Leader has now clearly associated himself with the No referendum choice irrelevant what his own party members may think. He did attempt moderate this stark non-choice, some might say mask by adding there would only be a referendum if there was a transfer of more powers from London to Brussels but believed this was unlikely.

The “maybe” choice is either based on the outcome of a renegotiated terms of EU membership which is unlikely to happen in any depth if at all, by the Conservative Party or a “significant” transfer of power from London to Brussels stance by the Lib/Dem Party.

An immediate In/Out referendum following the next general election with the decision to remain in the EU being decided by the People rather than politicians.

The No referendum stance is quite clear. It is the same as assuming the majority of the people had voted Yes to stay in the EU had there been one. As there has never been a public decision on whether the UK should be part of anything other that an economic trading group in Europe in 1975, it cannot be seen as anything else other than enforced European Union by political diktat alone. This is essentially what happened in 1992 when significant UK powers were devolved to Europe under the Maastricht Treaty. Politicians fearful of a public backlash from a referendum which a treaty made more likely bent over backwards in an attempt to find ways at preventing a damaging referendum and finally found a loop-hole in calling the treaty more of an accord than anything else. A No referendum is the same as politicians alone deciding that the public cannot be trusted to vote the right way.

The maybe choice is really something of a political lawyers paradise in deciding what is a significant transfer of powers or whether a few possible concessions are enough to determine a referendum should or should not be held. Under these conditions the likelihood of a referendum when coloured by political smoke and mirrors arguments is dubious.

The In/Out referendum offered by UKIP is the only clear-cut choice being offered to the public by politicians for the first time.

All of the choices have even then to be tempered by which political party or coalition forms the next Government and at the moment there is no real discernable groundswell one way or the other in favour of one particular party or another.

Considering the EU has now grown to the size of an empire, not created by civil unrest or military conquest or even public decision but by political manipulation, one cannot help but wonder what the future holds. We have already seen direct involvement by the EU on sovereign countries in terms of laws and even budgets to a degree. Although not mentioned on anyone’s agenda at the moment, I can eventually fear the creation of an EU army, a EU Health Service and education system and so on. On a day to day basis real power is wielded by a system of unelected commissioners and a unelected president.

Monolithic empires created from so many countries with a multitude of diversity amongst their peoples with their own internal customs and beliefs inevitably become susceptible to growing internal discontent as one rule fits all policies are imposed on them. The spectacularly rapid breakup of the U.S.S.R. is the most recent historical evidence of that. It is not difficult to foresee  that happening to a future EU.

March 2014

Burrowbridge 01

Burrowbridge 1960’s

With daffodils and snowdrops erupting into a carpet of flower everywhere, It is as if a distant  trumpet call is arousing nature from its winter slumber in preparation for the forthcoming Spring. It’s a trumpet call with refrains of joy and promise of the great outdoors beginning to stir once more like a giant shrugging off the effects of a deep sleep. This distant clarion call has but one verse repeated over and over again like a mantra, “March has arrived, Spring is coming”.

March the month that is fabled in the UK for coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb. March the transitional month that day by day leaves behind the clinging tendrils of winter and beckons the ever warming embraces of the forthcoming Spring with its lengthening evenings.

As winters go in the UK, apart from a few nights of frost the winter has been exceptionally mild. Unfortunately it has also been the wettest winter on record accompanied by a continuous barrage of storms from the Atlantic causing serious damage and flooding issues across the country. The first of the real heavy rain started on Christmas Eve and many residents, particularly in Somerset, forced to leave their homes are only just starting to regain access to their property as flood levels slowly recede . Alas regaining access to property does not mean being able to live there due to extensive damage caused by floodwaters. Floors have to scrapped and replaced as well as furnishings. Walls have to be dried and stripped back to bare brick for treatment. It is estimate that the repair process to individual homes will take an average 7-9 months.

Burrowbridge 02

Burrowbridge 2013

The big question is could this damage been avoided? The Somerset Levels flooding in winter is not in itself news, it frequently happens usually without significant damage to property or farmers crops. But the depth and duration of the flood not only during the last winter but also the one before has given vent to the anger of residents who have been saying for years this was going to happen unless preventative measures were taken. Alas there are no ears more deaf at times that the ones sheltered behind the impermeable walls of Whitehall. More concerned about saving derisory amounts of money on internal budgets than having the foresight to see the vast costs incurred by flood damage, repairs and loss of business.

It is only after the proverbial floodgates have opened are politicians to be prised from their cosseted surroundings into action. Give his due, but then it is his job, the Prime Minister did visit the Somerset Levels. This was however only after what were perceived as disastrous PR visits by the Environment Secretary Owen (I have forgotten my wellies) Patterson and a separate visit by the Chairman of the Environment Agency Chris Smith upon whom vexed residents unleashed their wrath.

Whether driven by a politicians sense of self-preservation or not, the Prime Minister made it clear that money was not an object in resolving the crisis. A battery of huge pumps from Holland have since been brought in to help lower the water levels and a 20 year plan has been devised to help alleviate the problem of a more permanent basis. Part of the relief plan is to start dredging the rivers this month as soon as the river banks become firm enough to allow heavy equipment to be safely used. Some estimates have placed to cost of the 20 year plan as high as £100 million and it will remain to be seen if the enthusiasm for money not being an object statement, drains away with time like the floodwaters itself.

In the days following the Prime Minister’s visit, leaders of other political parties not wanting to be left out, or seen to be left out of the picture descended on the area like a flood of their own. Each one making most of the sudden photo-opportunity. Many families at the time struggling like King Canute to hold back the ever rising flood waters from their own homes found this procession of opportunistic politicians somewhat nauseating.Perhaps for some this might also be their first and last visit.

Burrowbridge 03

Burrowbridge during 2014 floods

Although not entirely the cause of the problem, the lack of dredging over the years due to what some would say were penny-pinching savings, were clearly a major contributory factor in the levels of flood water rising as high as they did. As regular dredging stopped, so the rivers became narrower and shallower as silt built upon silt.

A series of startling photographs have emerged in the public domain which clearly show the effect of the lack of dredging. The first picture taken in the 1960’s at Burrowbridge in Somerset show the River Parrett to be wide and deep flowing. The second picture taken at the same spot last year shows by stark contrast the river has become narrow and shallow. In final picture showing the effects of the flooding, it is hardly surprising the arches of the bridge have completely disappeared under flood water as the now significantly reduced capacity of the river struggles to contain the watery deluge placed upon it.

Politics being what it is, primarily the art of survival, it is unlikely that any proverbial heads will roll. More likely a blame game will ensue with each political party blaming their rivals of neglect during their terms of office. The best that can be expected would be the appropriate Minister standing up in Parliament and simply saying “Sorry” on behalf of the Government before sitting down again.

Town or Country living? You decide

Country VillageThere can be few people who at one time or another have not entertained the thought of what country living would be like. The yearning for a rural idyll like a hidden Shangri-La.   For some who are committed urban dwellers the notion will probably not stay in their minds long. Others will hold the thought a bit longer before it fades into the obscurity of practicability. A much smaller minority will continue to nurture the thought weighing the pro’s and cons in their minds until some are suddenly motivated by thoughts of “Why not? Let’s do it”.

After a lifetime of urban living, that is the decision my wife and I made well over twenty years ago when we moved from East London to rural Somerset. It was a move I have never regretted but it did take an initial short period of adjustment. In our case it was the pro’s that far outweighed the cons and I suspect many others may have some lingering doubts about what are the realities of country life. The vistas from our new home were one change we could readily accept. We exchanged a view of houses on the opposite side of the street coupled with the view of backs of house in the adjoining street for one of open rolling countryside. Cadbury Castle, Glastonbury Tor and the Mendip Hills can all be easily seen from our new location. Apart from the new vista, opportunities to explore an area of the country steeped in myth and legend also abound.

Certainly to myself, living in a village was a case of moving back to a meaningful community life. A sense of community which once abounded in East London but sadly started to fade into a form of isolationism as the nature of the populace changed, be it new people with different outlooks moving into the area or younger generations growing-up but possibly not with the same degree of neighbourliness that their parents may have once fostered. Whatever the causes the saying about the loneliest place in London is the middle of Piccadilly Circus certainly began to arouse feelings of truthfulness in our particular quarter.

For young parents and their families, country living is something of a bonus. Not only because of the fresh air and lack of urban pollution but because similar families in the same village always seem to gravitate towards forming their own interest groups and blossoming friendships. Gardens tend to be much bigger as well.

That is one positive aspect on one side of a many faceted coin, the opposite side of the coin while not being negative does present differences that require some adjustment. My own village has neither a public house or shops so transport is an essential requirement. In most villages a school bus service obviates the need for the dreaded “school-run”, but travel to shops and stores usually in a not too distant market towns usually requires personal transport. In urban areas despite complaints, public transport is usually available even if sometimes delayed. In rural areas it can sometimes be either scarce or even non-existent. In my own village for example, a few buses run in the mornings on two days of the week only. No street lighting exists in my village either but it does make for magnificent star gazing of a nigh time due to zero light pollution. Silence is something else we have in abundant quantity of a night time, a point which guests always remark on when they awake fully refreshed the next morning. Because the mind tends to filter out noise pollution, it’s sometimes hard to appreciate just how insidious and constant it is.

The bonus is how far and quickly it is possible to travel in a car from ones home. Traffic is usually very light when compared with urban areas and most country roads still have a 60 mph speed limit which is safely achievable. Using the one mile-per-minute rule of thumb, it does mean it is possible travel anywhere within a 40 miles circle from my home in about 20-30 minutes. A 40 mile circle roughly equates to the size of Greater London. Apart from a variety of easily reachable and good shopping venues, it also means we have a greater choice of entertainment and sporting venues of all descriptions than we did within my London locality and at a fraction of the time. Numerous public houses with good restaurants usually modestly priced also abound within an area like this.

Country Village 02Rural rail services tend to be something of a spiders web, At the centre of the web, rail lines and services tend to become concentrated while the further out from the web one travels, the lines become further apart. Before I retired I used to commute to London by rail which meant an early start and a twenty five mile drive to the station to board a reasonably rapid train for the next 95 miles. While the journey to the station could normally be safely and legally completed in 30 minutes or less, (an impossibility in London), account had to be taken of weather conditions. Heavy fog or mist in the Autumn and ice during the Winter. Heavy rain with surface water can create additional problems. I always found it somewhat galling having struggled to work through appalling weather conditions to sometimes find others where I worked  in London and living only a few miles away, not reporting for work due to adverse weather conditions.

Service utilities like gas taken so much for granted in most urban areas are frequently non-existent in rural areas with the likelihood they will never be supplied. Heating is normally by oil-fired boilers and is very effective. Unlike gas available at the turn of a tap, oil has to by purchased i advance and in bulk which can be expensive. It is also subject to day by day price change dependent on the vagaries on the international oil market.  Onsite oil storage is another requirement. One of the adjustments to life is ensuring oil tanks are full before the onset of winter and maintaining an adequate reserve as it is consumed. If you run out of oil there is no gas tap to turn on, you simply go cold and delivery of new supplies may take several weeks.

Extra-fast broadband may be a factor individuals need to consider, especially if they intend working from home. Somerset was an area scheduled by the Government several years ago to have extra-fast broadband in rural areas. However from my own lay-persons point of view, information on what is happening appears to be almost non-existent and once again I suspect that except for villages on the peripheries of urban areas, it simply will not be installed no matter what the Government promises. I did check on anticipated broadband speeds should a guardian angel ever decide to bestow it on us and it appears the so called speed rapidly drops away with the distance of the home from the street telephone junction box. As our telephone junction box is situated about a mile outside the village, anticipated speeds will be little different to what we already have. It does make one wonder how vast countries like India already have broadband speeds everywhere that are much faster that what this country is hoping to achieve in the future?

Most market towns have a full range of shops and supermarkets found in their larger urban counterparts with most of the supermarkets providing ample free parking due to their reliance on customers needing to use their own transport. Car parking charges where they exist tend to be modest in comparison with larger cities.

All important employment opportunities do tend to be lower but clearly do exist. Many rural dwellers know they have to be prepared to commute longer distances to work often using their own transport. As a form of compensation, the urban traffic jam does not tend to exist.

Market towns frequently provide a pleasant medium between city and rural life with the added bonus that the countryside is literally on the doorstep. One striking aspect I have noticed in both urban and countryside housing developments is the newer larger housing schemes tend to feature deserted streets while areas which have developed more naturally positively abound with street life.

I suppose in the end it really is a matter of personal choice governed by individual circumstances that dictate which lifestyle we wish to lead. But as they say, where there is a will, there is also a way and anyone wishing for a more rural lifestyle should not feel they are forever trapped by the clutches of urban shackles. Provided there is a willingness to adapt, then anything is possible.

The one common feature I have noticed amongst of people like myself who made the move from town to country is the overwhelming desire never to go back.

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