Two years ago I stood in the market place at Boston, Lincolnshire and I felt positive about the world. The sun was shining, the coalition was still in power and I thought that the chances of a referendum on the Britain’s membership of the European Union was unlikely as I didn’t think that the Conservative would have enough votes to win the next election. Oh how wrong I was.
Yesterday I stood in the old market square at King’s Lynn and things seemed so different. The Conservative’s won the general election and so a rather surprised David Cameron had to deliver on his pledge of referendum and it is far from certain that he will win.
These two towns also are vital in understanding the complexities of Britain’s relationship with Europe. Actually that should really be England’s relationship with Europe as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’s views are, I suspect, somewhat different to those of England. Both of these towns grew very rich on the trade with Europe but they also had to surrender sovereignty to a proto European Union of its day the Hanseatic League (Hansa). Their streets would have been teaming with Poles, Lithuanians and Germans and Low German would have been spoken by many of the people in and around the ports. A German became mayor of Boston and the Hansa connections form an integral part of the life of Lynn’s most famous daughter Margery Kempe. Back then there no doubt was grumbling and about the Hansa in the ports and there was resentment at the highest levels but the trade was so important that for centuries the Kings of England put up with this relationship.
Today, whilst the players are different the underlying issues remain in both towns. Over the past 15 years there have been sharpe influx of eastern european migrants who have been attracted to the area for work. Yesterday as I walked around the Lynn centre you were just as likely to hear a Polish or Lithuanian voice as a Norfolk voice. The difference of course is that both towns are no longer rich ports but rather more mundane places where many of the trade advantages of being a member of the European Union have passed them by. In the past it was possible to point at glories of Minster or the guildhall at Lynn as a counter weight to the brooding presence of the Hansa warehouse just the other side of the square. Today the advantages of the EU are nothing like as visible in both towns.
That, in a nutshell, seems to sum up this whole referendum. Is the value of the restraints on political practices worth the value we get back from membership of the EU? To the young and ambitious who probably aren’t threatened by the costs associated with EU membership then the answer is yes. To the old who see the country changing before their eyes and those who’s jobs might be undercut by the influx of migrants the answer would probably be no.
For what it is worth I feel the value we as a country get outweighs the costs, both monetary and social, of being a member of the European Union. For a lot of my career I spent my time explaining to many people that change is coming, whether we like it or not, and the best approach is that we have to adapt. The message sometimes fell on deaf ears but mostly people shrugged their shoulders, grumbled and adapted to the new circumstances. It wasn’t easy and I suspect I paid a higher cost than I thought I would but change came in all the same and life went on. The world is changing and changing at a rate that many of my fellow citizens really don’t like. Britain no longer rules the waves and the second world war was a long, long time ago and doesn’t really have too much a resonance with most young people today. The EU has many many faults but one thing is true – if we are going to trade with the EU then we will do it on their terms and it is better that we have a say in shaping those terms. It was the same same 600 years ago with the Hansa, only we didn’t get a voice in how the trade was conducted.
Whatever your views on the referendum please go out and vote, this one is really really important and will shape the way the country works for many more years than general elections.