I never expected Britain to be at war when I prepared to sit my A levels in 1982. Let alone at war with Argentina over a group of islands 8,000 miles away.
Yet that was the reality as I woke on the morning of Friday 2 April 1982. Barely awake at the start of the last day of the school term, I heard on Radio 4’s Today programme some armchair general talking of nuking Buenos Aires. Later that day, we learned that Argentina had invaded the Falkland islands, one of the few remaining British overseas territories. Margaret Thatcher’s British government was stunned.
Contrary to popular belief, the invasion wasn’t a complete bolt from the blue. Two days earlier. I noted in my 1982 diary: ‘Falkland island crisis worsening: Guardian front page lead’. Yet the legend holds that many people in Britain were shocked, thinking the Falklands were off the coast of Scotland. Recovering them would have been a lot easier had that been true.
Going to war was a novel and shocking experience in 1982, almost 40 years after the end of the second world war. Yet it felt like an echo of the past. I described it in my 1982 diary as Britain’s last colonial war, a description that has stood the test of time. (Although there was no doubt that the islanders wanted to live under British rule.) Several of the warships involved in the Falklands took part in or were laid down during the second world war: the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano, sunk by the Royal Navy, survived Pearl Harbor as USS Phoenix. In 1982, it was not so lucky. HMS Hermes, the Royal Navy’s Falklands flagship was laid down in 1944. And the RAF Vulcan bombers that flew 8,000 miles to bomb Stanley airfield relied on an updated version of the wartime H2S navigation radar system to find their target.
I was too young to remember seeing steam engines on the mainline, but I had a childhood consolation. Just 10 miles from my Cardiff home, I could clamber over hundreds of steam locomotives without anyone telling me to stop. That playground was Barry scrapyard, steam’s graveyard.
At the end of steam in the 1960s, Dai Woodham bought hundreds of withdrawn steam engines from British railways for his scrap business at Barry Island. He intended to scrap them but delayed doing so while he focused on scrapping redundant railway wagons. As a result, railway preservation societies flocked to Barry to select locomotives to restore to operate their lines. Out of almost 300 engines sent to Barry, almost three quarters were rescued from the graveyard, and over half lived to steam again.
On my visits to Barry scrapyard, I was drawn to the ex GWR engines, especially the last monarch, King Edward II, which I saw miraculously reborn in 2011, and the engines that sustained the Welsh coal trade. But 40 years ago today I was enjoyed a spectacular sight. Twenty years of Welsh sea air had revealed the pre-nationalisation (1948) livery of a Southern Railway S15, with the SOUTHERN legend clearly visible. As you can see on the photo I took that day (above) there are actually three logos: the two British Railways lion symbols as well as the Southern lettering.
According to my 1982 diary, I had finished my A level mock exams the week before, so must have taken advantage of a lesson-free afternoon to get the train to Barry Island, before spending time in the sadly-missed Lears bookshop in Cardiff’s Royal Arcade. I bought a book about the Cambrian Railways, the Welsh line graced by some of the GWR Manor class engines I’d just seen at Dai Woodham’s scrapyard.
It was 40 years ago today that the snow came. It wasn’t unexpected: in my teenage years, winters featured regular heavy snowfalls. In 1978 rugby fans were stranded by a blizzard returning from an international in Cardiff. The winter of discontent, 1978/79 was characterised by blizzards as well as strikes. But 1981/82 was different: the snowiest winter since the great winter of 1962/63.
Little did I know, when I pleased myself by marking the date in snow on our greenhouse, that the winter of my A level year would be so special. My first diary noted that there had been a rail crash claiming four lives at Seer Green (Sear Green, as I spelt it) in Buckinghamshire. I had no idea that I’d commute from that village station for several years 20 years later.
We had further snow over the Christmas holidays. The photo below, taken on Boxing Day 1981, shows brother-in-law Julio, Siân, aged 14 months, sister Boo, Mum and me.
The serious snow arrived in the new year. It snowed continually for 36 hours. It’s hard now to imagine that kind of snowquake. Urban landscapes were transformed. The photo above of Heath Junction in Cardiff tells a story. No trains were running on the Coryton line, so you’d never know it was a junction were it not for the old GWR signal box and signals.
The photo above shows the snow at Heath Low Level station untouched by trains or people as British Railways didn’t attempt to run any services on the Coryton line while the snow persisted.
I eventually cleared a path to the garage and drive as seen below. The 1960s Hillman Imp was Mum’s car.
I eventually helped clear a path to the garage – as seen above and below.
The sheer weight of snow changed the landscape for ever. The old Sophia Gardens pavilion, which was a venue for the 1958 British Empire & Commonwealth Games, collapsed under its weight, as did the bowling club in Rhydypenau.
One day, I walked into town, past the scene near Cardiff Castle seen above. It was a great adventure.
Days later, we were due to go to London on a school trip for a series of history lectures, five months before our A levels. One of the star lecturers was GR Elton, who featured heavily in our A level Tudor history course, and was well known for his clash of theories about Henry VIII with rival historian JJ Scarisbrick. We were due to travel by train, but bizarrely the trains were blocked while the M4 to England was still open.
Dad, Bob Skinner, was working flat out during the blizzards of early 1982. As public relations officer for South Glamorgan county council, he was the spokesman for the Welsh capital’s council as it kept people informed about how its services were affected by the great freeze. By early January, he was desperate for a break, and planned a rare holiday in Palma, Majorca. He was picked up by a Land Rover to get him on a train to Birmingham to get a flight to Spain. Dad recalls the delight of sinking into his seat on the plane.
You can see in this shot how high the drifts reached – over the wall between our front garden and the pavement.
I was concerned that our eight year old cat, Spot, would be adrift. So I built paths (above) and a tunnel (below) for her. It’s fair to say she needed a bit of encouragement to use them!
Eventually, the snow melted and life got back to normal. We’ve never had a winter like 1981/82 in the intervening 40 years. Will the snow ever return in such a magical way?
The path seemed clear to A levels. But none of us could have know that Britain would be at war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands during those exams…
My father is amazing. After two wonderful years at his Sunrise, Cardiff, care home, he left today after buying a flat in Penarth, near Cardiff.
Everyone at Sunrise has been so kind to Dad since he moved in just over two years ago: former general manager Sara, new boss Virgil, Francesca, Diane and so many others. They guided him through the pandemic, and we will always be so grateful. His book, Pandemic: my Care Home Diary, is his tribute. His time at Sunrise rebuilt his health, and has let him spread his wings once again.
Dad is very happy with his own company (he enjoys blogging and writing) but also loves the companionship of others. As I carried more stuff up to his new flat, I came across a group of women enjoying a bottle or two of wine. I explained Dad’s Penarth heritage dating back to his joining the Penarth Times as a reporter in 1942 – an astonishing 79 years ago! – and said he’d be happy to join them, and the men, for a glass of wine or a coffee.
Karen and I are in a unique time of life. We have a very special 13 year old son who is finding his wings as a teenager. And we have a father/father-in-law who is also retrieving his own wings, setting up home once again, some 70 years after creating his first home with Mum in Caerphilly. It’s like keeping an eye over 13 year old and 95 year old teenagers! Long may they flourish. We love them both so much.
What a surprise. After countless promises to build a high speed rail line to Yorkshire, Boris Johnson confirmed that the Tory government was cancelling the eastern leg of the HS2 line to Leeds and Bradford.
It just shows you can never trust UK governments – especially Tory ones – to invest outside South East England.
If there had been any justice, construction of HS2 would have started in the north rather than London. The English capital gets a staggering £864 per person in transport spending compared with a pittance of £349 in the north of England. But when the government wanted to save money, it was the north that paid the sacrifice. Not the ever-spoilt money pit of the south east.
Yes, many in the south protested against HS2. But rather than cancelling the project, the Conservatives blew extra billions on a tunnel for HS2 under the Chilterns, including our village of Chalfont St Giles.
Leeds and Bradford are rightly outraged. (Bradford has the worst rail services of any major English city.) But spare a thought for Wales. Despite HS2 being billed as Britain’s railway, it will go nowhere near Wales, or Scotland. A cynical Tory move led to HS2 being treated as an ‘England and Wales’ project. So no extra money will flow to Wales under the Barnett formula.
There’s a sensible debate to be had about how to invest in green transport for the 21st century. HS2 may not be the right, or only, answer. But why is Britain, the country that invented railways, the nation with the fewest miles of high speed railways in western Europe? As I blogged when HS2 was first proposed, Britain’s Victorian rail network is hopelessly ill-suited to high speed trains. British Railways conceived the tilting Advanced Passenger Train in the 1970s to overcome the limitations of the West Coast Mainline, built in the 1830s and 1840s. By contrast BR chose Brunel’s Great Western mainline for its InterCity 125 high speed services because it was so level and straight, unlike its rivals.
The moral of the saga of HS2’s cancelled easter leg is that London politicians – especially one as cynical as Boris Johnson – will always favour the south east. Talk of levelling up is all bullshit. They simply don’t care about the north, Wales or Scotland. But as long as English voters keep reelecting London-biased governments, nothing will change. The case for Welsh and Scottish independence just grew stronger. Perhaps a Yorkshire National Party will follow…
PS: I reported on the HS2 works in Chalfont St Giles in August 2020 here.
It was a symbol of Welsh industrial might: a locomotive hauling a coal train that seemed to go on for ever. A century ago Welsh steam coal powered the world. Yet Wales has become one of the first countries to join a global coalition of nations aiming to phase out fossil fuels: the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance. It’s comes as criticism grows of the weak response of the COP26 climate conference to the climate crisis.
I grew up in Cardiff on tales of King Coal. As I lay in bed I could hear the growl of locomotives hauling coal trains along the old Rhymney Railway line from Caerphilly. And I loved visiting the mock coal mine at the National Museum of Wales – appropriately located in the basement. The museum is in Cardiff’s magnificent civic centre, part of the impressive architectural legacy of the immense wealth created by the coal boom, along with elegant ship and coal owners’ mansions such as Insole Court, Llandaff.
In March 2020, as coronavirus took hold in Britain, my father Bob Skinner started a blog to record his day to day experiences during the pandemic. We have now published the diary as a Kindle book.
Bob has a true reporter’s eye for the events of the year that changed our lives for ever, explaining how he recovered after three weeks in hospital with coronavirus. He also recalls his first reunion with his family, shown live on ITV’s Good Morning Britain. Moving and often amusing, Pandemic: My Care Home Diary gives a unique account of what life was like for Britain’s care home residents during the worst pandemic for over 100 years. It was a pleasure and a privilege to edit the blog and prepare it for publication. We think Bob’s book will be a lasting tribute to the carers who risked their own lives looking after their vulnerable residents.
Here are a few extracts from the book. You can buy it at the Kindle store here.
Sunday 22 March 2020
It’s Sunday. It’s chilly but the sun is shining, a rare, welcome sight after dark weeks of wind and rain. A normal Sunday in Cardiff? No, it is unique, historic. Looking out of my window in Cyncoed Road, the city is strangely quiet. Far fewer cars, no buses, just the occasional dog walker and young jogger. Not an elderly person in sight.
Last week it was busy, with nonstop traffic, people going to work, children off to school. Last Sunday, the bells were calling people to worship. Today they are silent, and the church doors are firmly shut. Members are no doubt fervently praying at home for normal life to return soon. How many centuries ago was it, I wonder, when people were banned from leaving their home?
Friday 3 April
No trouble finding something to write about today. I made the news myself.
Yesterday, I was having an after-dinner cup of tea in our bistro when Virgil, the deputy general manager, came over with a message from Sunrise headquarters. They had seen my coronavirus diary entries and asked if I would go on ITV to talk about our carers. I agreed.
So it was a new challenge. Was I too old, too rusty? I would see. Later in the evening came instructions on how the makeshift operation had to be done in lockdown. My living room became a studio. What a difference. No camera or sound equipment, just a laptop on my coffee table.
‘Are you ready, Bob?’ ‘Yes, fine,’ I replied. I was on air. It was all over in minutes. I remembered most of my key words, did not move, and think I made the tribute to carers that they deserve. A lot of phone calls and emails today. Fame at last – and it’s only taken 93 years.
Sunday 12 July Reunion with Robert
Yesterday was a special, memorable day. My first visitor after four months – my son Robert. He spent the day, five hours of driving, to have just an hour with me.
It was more than a happy reunion after those unreal months: proof that brighter days lie ahead. It was far from normal. We old people are being carefully looked after – guarded – and that made the difference. I had been looking forward for so long to today and was standing by the window watching for him to arrive, but I had to wait.
He first had to be ‘made safe’ by being kitted out with apron, gloves and face mask by a carer. Then he was taken to the gazebo set up in front of the building. Inside were two seats, the regulation two metres apart. I was taken out to join him. No hug or handshake allowed. After a wave and a laugh we lost no time in getting down to chat, making up for lost time.
The unusual visit ended with us being filmed and briefly interviewed as part of a planned ITV Good Morning Britain broadcast on Monday morning for which my grand-daughter Ria has been invited to Sunrise.
Sunday 16 August A forgotten army
The Welsh government’s advice to vulnerable people to shield to reduce the risk of coronavirus ends today. They can resume as normal a life as possible. Good news for them and their families after a debilitating five months of loneliness and worry.
But there is another, larger section of the community that is waiting for signs of release from lockdown – we care home residents. I am beginning to think that, like the men who fought in Burma, we are the forgotten army. Reacting, reasonably, but belatedly, the government clamped down on us. And we are still in a vice-like grip.
While the rest of the country starts to experience the pleasures of normal life, our freedom is still very limited, and, worse, there seems little prospect of change.
And who is thinking of us, speaking up for us?
Saturday 26 September
I have coronavirus
This is one diary entry I did not expect to make but the Sunrise luck has run out. I was at the art class this morning when a few of us were asked to return to our rooms. That sounded ominous, and it was.
I was told that five residents had been tested positive. I had expected to find that I was one of them as I have not been feeling too well for a few days; a bad cold and a cough. A few hours later I was told that I had indeed tested positive for coronavirus.
So it’s all change. We are all confined to our rooms with a carer looking after us.
Sunrise has almost shut down, the restaurant closed, activities suspended. What a shame. I feel sad after all the effort they have put in over the months, but there it is. We have to put up with it. I am feeling pretty good which I hope will continue and I will make the best of the temporary new life style.
Being alone most of the time does not worry me as I still have plenty to keep me occupied. And it is no use worrying. Everything has been so uncertain for so long that a little more uncertainty will do no harm.
Monday 26 October
Recovering in hospital
Seven months ago, coronavirus cast a cloud of uncertainty and fear over the world, affecting the lives of billions of people. Despite all the efforts the cloud still hangs over us.
My life changed again when I was one of eight Sunrise residents tested positive and I obviously wondered what form it would take.
For the first week or so, it wasn’t so serious. It was like having a bad cold. But then I started feeling much worse, with nausea, swings from being too cold and too hot, sleeplessness and even delusions. A fall in the bathroom early one morning proved disastrous. I was rescued by two carers who got me back into bed via a hoist. My condition worsened and I was taken to hospital with a broken ankle as well as coronavirus.
After three weeks in hospital and some very difficult days the nursing and treatment is now working. Progress was slow until a few days ago when I was given some new tablets to stop the pain and enable me to sleep. There was an immediate effect. I asked for an increase and there was a remarkable effect. The pain is less than for months, I can get out of bed and am starting to walk again and manage to look after myself. What a difference from being helpless and reliant upon others.
Thursday 12 November
Watch out Lewis Hamilton
After giving up driving a car after more than 70 years, I thought I would miss being behind the wheel. But I have found the answer – my shiny blue and silver electric scooter. With its headlights, direction indicators and even a horn, it is ready for the road, top speed 8mph, or 4mph on the pavement.
This week it became my lifeline. With my heavily strapped broken ankle making movement painful and difficult, the scooter came to the rescue. Now I am driving again all day, indoors. It’s my mini Monte Carlo circuit. Top speed indoors is about 1mph across the 30 foot living room with detours into my bathroom and bedroom – watch that chair!
Tired after a day ‘on the road’, it’s time for bed. My last journey. Into the dark bedroom, driving straight for the bed. Headlights blazing, I tumble in. Hard work driving, but exciting.
Watch out, Mr Hamilton.
Monday 21 December
The shortest, saddest day
Today is the shortest day of the year, the darkest of the winter. This day, 21 December, in 1942 was one of the saddest days of my life. It was wartime and we were facing a stark Christmas. The war news was grim, there was rationing and shortages. It was the day my father, Frank died.
At sixteen I had just started work as the Penarth Times reporter and was in Penarth police court when called home. My father was seriously ill. I knew before I got there that he had died. It was from a heart attack. He was 52.
Like this year, it was an unusual Christmas with families separated, celebrations muted. I remember very little of those few days, and have no recollection of Dad’s funeral. I did go out one evening, to join our church’s young people’s group carol singing. Mum thought it would do me good to get out of the house for an hour.
Looking back, the saddest part was that I had so little time to get to know Dad. Two days before war was declared our family separated, never to be all together again.
Christmas Day 2020
A Christmas like no other
Christmas Day. A day so different this year from any other. A strange day, with most of us missing the usual family gathering, and millions with no family, unable even to give their elderly parents a hug. A day to remember, and to forget.
My day started with Christmas greetings by Zoom from Robert, Karen and Owen (plus dog Rufus), all three resplendent in Christmas jumpers, Owen’s a spectacular Welsh one. Nadolig Llawen!
I was sporting my first ever Christmas bow tie. After trying to tie it for nearly an hour last night one of the carers managed it in a minute this morning. Then it was downstairs for the get together and to receive our gifts from Sunrise. I was patient, opening my presents under my Christmas tree mid-morning.
The festively dressed carers and Sunrise team were as cheerful as ever, making it another happy day although I would love to see those masks and visors removed.
But thank you, everyone, you made it a special day, again.
Friday 22 January 2021
It’s vaccination day at Sunrise. A day of relief, and celebration. Mass vaccination.
As usual, the care home got it right. Organised to the minute. Calm and relaxed, just right for us old people. And, a happy touch, flags and balloons to cheer us – a bright idea. Having a jab is never fun but today it was relished, welcomed with open arms.
The troops were on parade, with our sticks, walking aids, wheelchairs, ready and willing. The long wait was over. When the call came we went into the temporary surgery, rolled up our sleeves. It was over in a flash. I did not feel a thing. Then into a lounge for a rest and a glass of orange juice. To mark the historic day we had our pictures taken and then it was time for lunch, happy that a milestone in the long, arduous pandemic road pointed the pathway to safety.
Well done, Sunrise, and the NHS!
Wednesday 10 March
Freedom in sight
Sitting looking out of my window onto the sunlit street below, the world looks inviting. Normal. Not exciting. People driving cars and vans, riding bicycles, pushing prams, jogging, walking. Across the road a man is working in his garden. Beyond, I see the lighting towers of the university training ground.
A typical suburban scene on a typical afternoon, but it is deceptive. Almost a mirage. I cannot go out to join it. Like countless millions throughout the world, I am a prisoner in my own home. Trapped. For a year, because of the plague stalking our planet, creating a living horror story.
The world has seen many fanatical leaders, dictators and despots who have held their subjects in thrall, but this is Britain in the 21st century, beacon of democracy. Over 60 million of us can no longer call our lives our own. Leaders have changed the rules and laws. Unlike heroes of the past, we have not rebelled, risen up in anger to break the chains. We have agreed with our leaders, followed their dictats and changed our whole way of life – voluntarily.
But freedom is nigh. Human ingenuity, courage and patience are winning the battle. Apprehension and danger receding, we hope we face only a few more months of isolation before we will be free to resume normal lives.
And I will happily ride my scooter out onto Cyncoed Road and rejoin the real world out there.
It’s the same old story. The London media has always ignored and neglected Wales. The Times is a classic example. It has a Scottish edition but never pays Wales the same attention. So I was not surprised to see the Welsh Senedd elections barely reported – and then badly – in today’s iPad edition of the paper. The Saturday news summary above ignores the fascinating and unexpected Senedd election results.
The story The Times did run (above) repeatedly referred to the Welsh Assembly – an institution that no longer exists. The country’s legislature is the Senedd – the Welsh Parliament.
Yet in its obsession with Hartlepool and Holyrood, the London media (with the honourable exception of the BBC and The Guardian) were missing a really significant story. The incumbent parties in government in Cardiff Bay, Holyrood and Westminster did well. Labour’s Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford has won plaudits across these islands for his calm leadership during the pandemic. The Senedd results showed that voters rewarded Labour for its steady hand on the tiller. In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon looks to be close to an SNP majority. And, as the London media keep telling us, Boris Johnson has dealt a blow to Labour’s UK leader Keir Starmer by capturing another traditional Labour parliamentary seat in Hartlepool. But the story is rather more nuanced even in England.
On the eve of the Second World War, around 800,000 children were evacuated from big cities like London to the countryside to keep them safe from devastating bombing attacks. Many of the children had never been to the countryside.
This mass movement of the young has long been fertile ground for writers and dramatists. As a child growing up in Wales in the 1970s, I loved the BBC television adaptation of Carrie’s War, Nina Bawden’s novel about children evacuated to Wales. Years later, I watched it again with my then eight year old son, Owen. He was equally enthralled.
Lesley Parr has followed in Nina Bawden’s footsteps with a superb debut novel featuring two brothers sent to Wales in September 1939. Jimmy and Ronnie arrive at the village of Llanbryn after an endless train journey from London.
The author evokes the tension as the children wait in the miners’ institute hall to be allocated to local families. At first, Jimmy is worried about his brother, fearing that his sulky looks and tears will deter the locals from choosing them as their guests. (This reminded me of the petty humiliation of being the last to be chosen for a team in school games in Cardiff.) But we soon find that Ronnie is quicker to settle and develop a bond with their hosts, Mr and Mrs Thomas. Jimmy resents the way his brother calls Mrs Thomas ‘Aunty Gwen’ and wishes their host wouldn’t pretend that the house in Heol Mabon was the boys’ home. Only in time does Jimmy establish his own sense of belonging in Llanbryn.
Lesley was born in Wales, and has a nice way of showing how the boys from London struggle with Welsh names and words. (In many ways, the Wales of 1939 would have been much more of a culture shock to newcomers than today, as Netflix, social media as well as television have created a common culture across countries and continents.) On arriving, Jimmy is puzzled by the name Llanbryn on the station platform : “Funny word. Too many Ls.” Later, Ronnie thinks they are having cow soup for lunch, mishearing the word cawl, a type of Welsh stew.
The author also skilfully develops the character and back story of Mr and Mrs Thomas. At the meeting to pair the children with local hosts, the couple intended to take just one child, but change their minds and provided a home for the brothers. Had they done it for money? As time goes by, we see that they really care for the London boys. Lesley also shows that Mr and Mrs Thomas are set apart from others in the village, with the Anglican vicar in particular badmouthing the nonconformist Mr Thomas. (“Chapel is low, see. Up at St Michael’s we’re closer to God”, sneers the vicar.) Mr Thomas is a far more agreeable character than the cold Mr Evans in Carrie’s War.
The Valley of Lost Secrets also shows the ebb and flow of friendships amongst the young people. Jimmy was wary of Florence, another evacuee from back home whose reputation had been darkened because she was seen as coming from a bad family. But in time he appreciates her qualities and friendship. By contrast, he becomes alienated from his best friend from home, Duff, who joins a gang that intimidates Jimmy.
The heart of the book is Jimmy’s frightening discovery of a human skull in a tree – the lost secrets in the title. I won’t spoil the surprise here, but I didn’t expect the story to develop as it did! This is a comforting tale of warmth and friendship overcoming fear and prejudice.
My family is familiar with the disruption the outbreak of war caused. My father, Bob Skinner, was 12 when the war began. His school, Emanuel in Wandsworth, was evacuated to Hampshire, but Dad was sent to live with an aunt in Cardiff, and listened to Chamberlain’s famous, sombre ‘This country is at war with Germany’ broadcast in Cardiff on the morning of Sunday 3 September 1939. His sister moved with her school out of London, and his older brother joined the RAF. A few years later, their father died of a heart attack aged just 52. Life was never the same again.
PS: a historical curiosity. Lesley refers to Cardiff Central station in the opening chapter. I presume she wanted to avoid confusing modern day readers by using the 1930s name, Cardiff General. British Rail renamed it in 1973.
I wrote this article early in 1995. As the UK prepares for the possible disaster of a no-deal break up with the European Union, I reflect that I got it right 25 years ago.
Europe – a dangerous obsession
Rob Skinner, March 1995
British democracy is at crisis point. Not just because fifteen years without a change of government has left the nation restless for change. Not even as a result of former ministers making sleazy, easy money in a privatised quangocracy.
No, this crisis is a case of obsession. The subject of this obsessions is Europe, the perpetrators politicians and the media alike. This single topic dominates news bulletins, current affairs programmes and the leader columns of the national press. Yet it utterly fails to stimulate the nation.
The Euro-debate is almost entirely the preserve of the political professionals. Europe and its future currency is for most of the British people the non-issue of the decade. It rarely if ever puts in an appearance in public bars and at dinner party tables.
If the loudly debated referendum on the single currency took place tomorrow, Britain’s polling stations would almost certainly be lonely places as the electorate used their time to fulfil other, more pressing needs.
The media star a heavy responsibility for this sorry saga. Radio 4’s Today programme, in particular, has been dominated by Euro-obsessed talking heads for what seems an eternity, while the surfeit of Sunday political punditry on British television finds Europe a lazily easy choice for discussion.
Yet the obsession simply confirms what everyone outside Westminster’s cloistered circles has long suspected: that politicians are hopelessly out of touch with the real world, and incapable of tackling the issues that their constituents care and worry about.
Most people see Europe as a distraction. They long for a government and opposition that tackle the real issues of the day, such as unemployment, crime, rising taxes and the sense that Britain has become a less caring, more ugly society. For many, the great fear is not the loss of the UK’s economic sovereignty but the loss of something much nearer to home – their jobs.
None of these issues is being tackled. Instead, a sterile, futile debate dominates, which looks for all the world like an endless battle between two foolish lovers. The weakest, most enfeebled government in living memory seeks to impose the very thing it lacks – authority – on the country. A cynicism fired by years of misrule is now raging out of control, threatening Britain’s self confidence as a nation.
As a Welshman, I see Europe as an opportunity, not a threat. I believe in a Europe of many countries and cultures – not just a Europe of nation states. The doomed debate that has riven the Conservatives is very English rather than British. It speaks eloquently of a nation uncertain of itself, suspicious of outsiders and nervous of its smaller neighbours within the United Kingdom.
This is high irony. How could the dominant tribe in the British Isles, the English, have become so fearful, so lacking in vision of confidence that they have largely destroyed Britain’s standing on its own continent?
The crying shame is that Europe is important. There must be a proper debate about Britain’s future. We should be looking for ways to put right the failings of the democratic process in the European Union and within these islands. And we must be open and humble enough, for once, to recognise that the United Kingdom might profitably learn from democratic experiences beyond these shores.
John Major has sought sanctuary behind an ugly word – subsidiarity. Yet this strange and unfriendly term signals the way to make Europe and Britain more democratic. The principle is that decisions should be made as locally as possible. Yet in the UK, under John Major’s desperate leadership, the concept has been hijacked, and given a new, sinister meaning. That mother – the Mother of Parliaments – knows best. Yet who truly places trust in the traditional Westminster system in 1995?
Subsidiarity needs a new, more attractive name. The Welsh word agosrwydd means nearness, and has been suggested by David Morris MEP and Martin Caton as a far better epithet.*
If the English aren’t ready to accept a Welsh word for what might be the most important democratic principle of the dying years of the millennium, then nearness will serve just as well. It is a compelling sentiment, an idea whose time has come. The European Union is here to stay, and Britain’s future is inextricably linked to it. For non-state regions and countries like Wales, Scotland, Baden Würtemberg and Catalunya, being part of a wider family is a historic development that arguably makes the break up of nation states like the UK less likely. But it is only less likely if the nearness principle puts greater power in the hands of regional governments such as a Welsh Senedd.
John Major talks of a triple lock within the burgeoning Northern Ireland peace process. In a wider concept, three links also hold the key to unlocking the eternal dilemma that has dogged Britain for a quarter of a century: regional identity, our British identity and the European dimension. Only by creating harmony between all three, and recognising their legitimacy, will we ever escape this constitutional conundrum.
In this anniversary year , of all years, we must look back to 1945. Not only to commemorate the huge sacrifices made to secure our generation’s freedom and future. But just as nobly to recall how the European ideal was born, in the ruins of a continent that had allowed evil and hatred to carry all before it.
After Warsaw, Aschwitz and Dresden, reconciliation might have been expected to have taken decades to bear fruit. Yet amidst the tragedies of an unimaginable numbers of lives, the determination to forge a different Europe was born. Since those dawning days, the idea of Britain and Germany taking up arms against each other, or Belgium and France being overrun by a continental army, has become inconceivable.
Now the challenge for Britain’s politicians is to shake off their obsession and start treating Europe as something that is part of everyone’s lives. Votes can only be lost over this issue, not won, and it is time for Eurosceptic and Europhile alike to recognise the basic truth. The year of the last great second world war anniversaries would be an appropriate time for Britain belatedly to throw away the empty rhetoric and start to build a future for itself.
* A Europe of the Peoples – the European Union and a Welsh Parliament’ – ed John Osmond, Gomer Press 1994