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Monday Memories – The Work of a Councillor, Pt. 2

Stop press: I have updated my Publications page with a cover reveal and blurb for my forthcoming book.

As well as visiting schools, we were expected to make occasional visits to our local Police Station, and to council run childrens’ homes and old people’s homes around the county. And there were, inevitably, the things the general public regarded as “Jollies”, the national and international conferences and fact finding/lobbying trips undertaken at council expense.

There were two annual conferences for education authority members, the Northern conference in January and the National conference in July. There was a conference for European Regional Airports and Airlines (only one such during my term). This took place in Eindhoven. The Dutch international airline, KLM, took the opportunity to launch a regional subsidiary during the conference.

Attendees were taken by coach to the venue, where we were treated to a canapes and wine reception and each of the men were given a tie in the airline colours, emblazoned with its crest. I remember being affronted when we returned to the coach and a group of Labour members of a northern airport authority discovered a box of the ties on the back seat which they proceeded to share among themselves.

Businesses setting up, or increasing their investment, in the county, invited members of the authority to receptions, launches and factory tours. I have on my mantelpiece an example of Norwegian glass sculpture presented to me – and the other delegates who accompanied me – on a visit to the Norsk Hydro fertiliser factory.

A visit to a chicken hatchery and processing plant near Scunthorpe included the laboratory where we were informed that salmonella is endemic in chickens and were shown the steps taken to ensure it did not reach the food chain. I don’t know if one of my colleagues passed that information to Edwina Curry – she may have got it from an entirely different source – but it was only a few weeks later that she repeated the fact in Parliament thereby creating a brief cause celebre.

The council funded a number of community and voluntary organisations, among them Councils for Voluntary Service, Citizens’ Advice Bureaux and an organisation called Humberside Co-Operative Development Association. Council members were allocated seats on the boards of these organisations in order to ensure that they were properly managed and the funding used for its intended purpose.

Thus I found myself on the boards of the CVS and CAB serving Grimsby and Cleethorpes and also on the Hull based CDA. My contribution to the latter was appreciated to the extent that I was invited to remain on the board after I ceased to be a councillor. Its role was to assist social enterprises and worker owned small businesses with training and the accessing of grants, as well as offering advice on legal and financial matters affecting their business.

Whenever the full council met, four times a year, as well as debating again the more controversial of the issues already dealt with by the service committees, there was an opportunity for individual councillors to bring forward motions with the objective of changing some aspect of the council’s central policy.

Hebden Bridge – image from Wikipedia

As Liberal councillors, we were members of the Association of Liberal Councillors. The ALC was headquartered in a small office in the village of Hebden Bridge, close to the border between Yorkshire and Lancashire. For our small subscription we were able to receive artwork we could use in our newsletters and other literature that we distributed around the districts we represented. They also provided suggestions for motions to present to councils which, even if unsuccessful in influencing policy decisions, nevertheless gained publicity for the causes close to the hearts of Liberals.

One of these causes, one that had attracted me to the Liberals in the first place, was environmentalism. So when the ALDC suggested that Liberal councillors should attempt to persuade the councils of which they were members to incorporate in their purchasing policies an intention to purchase timber products only from sustainable forests, I welcomed the opportunity

On the morning of the day of the meeting we were informed that the motion was inadmissible because we were not permitted to discuss issues that were not directly relevant to the county. We were a long way from the rainforests, so protecting them was deemed irrelevant.

I vaguely knew that one of the problems arising from the destruction of rainforests was rising sea levels. Humberside was a coastal county, one, moreover, in which parts of the coast were already eroding, clay cliffs regularly falling into the sea. Spurn Point, an important nature reserve, was especially vunerable. Could we not at least have a debate around  the question of the subject’s relevance? The Chief Executive reluctantly agreed.

It was all very well having a vague idea about the connection between rainforests and sea levels, but if I was to present a convincing argument I needed some detailed background. Fortunately the debate was scheduled to take place after all the committee minutes had been debated, which meant late afternoon or early evening.

Beverley Library – image copyright Bernard Sharp / Beverley Road, Kingston upon Hull

I spent the lunch break in Beverley library where I found a book that explained the connection. In  brief, there is a great deal of water permanently bound up with the forests. Destroy the forest and that water has to go somewhere. Where it goes, eventually, is the ocean, causing the sea level to rise. A neat theory, but the oceans cover a vast area. How much forest do you have to destroy to add more than an inch or two to their level?

My argument was greeted with scorn from both sides, one member in particular muttering “Stuff and nonsense”. Some years later that particular member’s daughter would marry a certain David Cameron. In Autumn 2013, and again in Februry 2017, the spit of land connecting Spurn Head to the mainland was breached, turning Spurn Point into a tidal island.

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Saturday Sound-off: Who Stole my Country?

A couple of newspaper articles caught my attention yesterday. The first was in the Irish Times: a review of a book about prisoners of war in England during WWII and the way they were treated.

You might expect that, as soldiers, sailors and airmen fighting for Britain’s enemies at the time, they would be shunned, spat at, feared. The reality was rather different. In fact, as the review’s author points out, “it wasn’t uncommon for friendships to be struck up and for POWs to be invited into civilians’ homes for Christmas lunch.”

german-prisoners-of-war-006

Prisoner of war camps in the UK: German PoWs somewhere in England bring in the harvest. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Many were permitted to leave the camps in order to work on farms and in forestry projects alongside English (mainly female) workers. It reminded me of my own experience growing up in rural Herefordshire in the 1940s and ’50s. There was a camp in the village which, at different times, held POWs and Polish refugees. One German and one Pole each married local girls and set up homes next door to each other in tied cottages on the farm where both worked.

Their children attended the local school. As a schoolboy I often worked on the same farm and got to know both men.The young woman who married the German POW had a younger brother the same age as me who became my best man at my 1963 wedding.

Values

And then I discovered the other article, in The Guardian, about European citizens, skilled workers resident in Britain for decades, who are returning to the continent, some with their British spouses and all saddened by last year’ Brexit vote and its aftermath in which so many of them were made to feel unwelcome. It made me wonder what has become of the country of which I used to be proud, the country of whose values my father fought and died for.

From being a place that welcomed all comers and extended the hand of friendship to enemy POWs, it has become a place in which many want to shut themselves off from the rest of Europe and embrace the same nationalistic fervour that destroyed Europe in the 1930s and ’40s and which the parents of my generation sacrificed so much to overthrow.

Have the people who voted ‘leave’ not studied history? Do they not realise that, right across Europe, we share more than a thousand years of common history? Admittedly, it was a relationship often characterised by the struggle for domination between the members of the land owning aristocracy. But it seemed for a while, in the 1950s and ’60s, that, having emerged from two terrible world wars, we understood that co-operation was better than conflict. Social liberalism trumped nationalism and the majority of us understood that it was better to share the product of our labours with people like ourselves wherever they were born.

Doomed

What happened? How did so many ordinary British voters come to believe that the EU, and those of its citizens who chose to make their homes in Britain, were responsible for every symptom of their country’s economic failure? Why did Cameron and the other leaders of the Remain campaign embark on a doomed quest to scare people into voting to remain in the EU? Why did the media not give much greater attention to the words of men like Lord Ashdown who made the arguments that mattered with such passion?

I wrote several posts ahead of the vote pointing out the folly of what was being proposed. Now the case for leaving is beginning to unravel as the real implications of extricating ourselves from 40 years of working together in mutually beneficial endeavours, from aviation safety to radioactive isotopes for medical use, become apparent. If only more attention had been paid to these things in May and June last year perhaps the vote would have been different. They certainly strengthen the case for a second vote once the details of the deal are published.

Desperate to Escape

One of the many radio programmes I remember from my childhood began with the announcement ‘Once again we stop the mighty roar of London’s traffic to bring you the stories of people who are IN TOWN TONIGHT.’ I used that memory in my recently completed novel. I imagined a young woman hearing those words in the stifling surroundings of an English provincial town in the freezing early months of 1947 and making up her mind to escape to the capital. London in 1947

 

I imagined, too, how a quarter of a century later she would be able to empathise with another young woman caught in the trap of pregnancy in the same provincial town; how she would help her to escape and find a new life in 1970s London.

Scars of war

The London of the twenty-first century, with its glass and steel towers, would be unrecognisable to my character arriving in a city still pock-marked by the scars of second world war bombing raids. Its lure, however, is as great, if not greater. Its attractions, broadcast 70 years ago, by radio, the length and breadth of the UK, now transmitted via television and the internet to the furthest reaches of the planet.

The world’s population has increased almost five-fold since the end of world war two, despite the numerous wars, revolutions, genocides, famines and natural disasters that have destroyed millions of lives throughout those years. Who among us could fail to empathise with those wishing to escape the ravages of civil wars and famines, of over-crowded slums and poverty?

Long trek

My character had only too endure a three-hour train journey to reach her destination of her dreams. The migrants encamped in their thousands in Calais have journeyed for many days, on foot or in the backs of assorted vehicles, to reach the north coast of Africa before embarking on some un-seaworthy vessel to cross the Mediterranean before undertaking another long trek over land to reach the French port.

Another memory that comes to me, this time from 1970, is of crossing the Irish Sea in an over-crowded ferry. All flights into Dublin were cancelled because of fog. The regular ferry had been temporarily taken out of service. Hollyhead was inaccessible because of the activities of Welsh Nationalists. The only available route was via Heysham on an ancient mail boat.

Some passengers were issued with bed-rolls and invited to sleep in the cargo hold. I remember the stevedores loading the mail downed tools for two hours whilst the stewards marshaled the passengers to keep them clear of the hatches. I spent the night roaming the decks, stumbling over the feet of people sprawled in the corridors and on stairways, listening to the cries of children as Irish families returned home from holidays with relatives in England.

Perhaps that experience makes it a little easier for me than for someone reading this to understand what it might be like to be crammed with dozens of others into the stinking hold of a no-longer sea-worthy fishing vessel. Listening to the stories of members of what David Cameron referred to as ‘a swarm’, it is impossible not to feel empathy. But it is equally impossible to imagine a practical solution to a problem that is the result of the combination of inexorably rising world population and those continuing wars, famines and disasters.

Cameron appears to be pinning his hopes on something I campaigned for 30 years ago and which successive British governments refused to do until recently, namely meeting the UN’s target for foreign aid which has been 0.7% of GDP since 1970. Britain is one of only a handful of nations to do so. Other British politicians are happy to condemn his language whilst offering little in the way of a practical solution.

For 25 years the Berlin wall and the heavily guarded frontier between the old Soviet Union and the rest of Europe was maintained by the Soviet government to keep its people in. Another 25 years have passed and a former Soviet republic, now part of Europe, is erecting a barrier to keep foreigners out.

Welfare cuts

The concerns of ordinary Europeans – housing crises, austerity, cuts in welfare – pale into insignificance when viewed against the terrors and travails that are the daily experience of a multitude of African and Middle-Eastern citizens. To the extent that the conditions of their existence are influenced by the decisions our politicians and business leaders take on our behalf, we are responsible for what becomes of them. Exactly what we can do about it is a question for which I do not have the answer. Who does, I wonder?

It seems to me that it is a tide that is bound to swamp us. The conditions the migrants are fleeing from will not be improved any time soon by so inadequate an aid effort. We are no more able to prevent the inevitable than was Cnut a thousand years ago.