Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Dump the EU bureaucracy, but no need to stop the good stuff

The entrance to Harwich Port's Parkestone Quay.

The entrance to Harwich Port's Parkestone Quay. - Credit: Andrew Partridge

Less than an hour before I began this piece, our prime minister announced that an EU referendum will be held on June 23, writes Martin Newell.

Woe betide us all. From here onwards expect a tidal wave of analysis, gales of hot air and a hail of speculation.

What do I think will happen? No idea. But then there are so many things that I don’t know. I wasn’t brought up in a political family. Nobody in our family was ever wholly left or right, any more than the answers to pertinent questions were ever black or white. My father, for instance, a Telegraph-reading soldier, was strongly anti-hanging. As a junior officer in India he’d had to be present at one or two hangings, a thing apparently, which puts you off capital punishment. That he was also anti-war seemed another curious anomaly but then you won’t find many people more anti-war than those soldiers who’ve heard the sound of recently-.orphaned children crying.

My father disliked Heath and Wilson equa

lly and, oddly enough, had even been known, occasionally, to vote Liberal. My mother, a Mirror reader, liked ‘that nice Mr Wilson’. She was one of the kindest humans I’ve ever known and yet, when it came to certain sorts of crime, was something of a hanger and flogger. And “yes” was her answer to my incredulous dad, when he asked whether she herself would ever be prepared to pull the lever.

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As for the Common Market, The Six, as we then called the EU, neither ever discussed the matter. Nor did they much discuss Mr Heath, who eventually barged us into it. My grandfather, a bus driver and Daily Express reader, was a free-beer-for-the-workers type, who, apart from Mr Churchill, didn’t think much of any politicians. He did once comment that our proposed union with Europe was “a ruddy great con”. He was straightforward like that. I have little idea what anyone else in the family thought about salient political topics of the day, because the maxim was “never talk politics or religion outside of the family”. A funny thing, that, because the subjects rarely cropped up inside the family either.

What I have since learned about politics is that the discussion of the subject can make some people very angry, a thing which, perversely, they seem to relish. The old right-left template of political thought, however, when superimposed upon a vastly-changed modern map, now seems both anachronistic and inadequate. The right often appear harsh, greedy, arrogant and uncaring, whereas the left seem controlling, sour, puritanical and humourless.

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What’s interesting about the in-out referendum is that both right and left will now be subjected to the sort of internal political torsion which usually only occurs if we’re on the brink of a major war. This referendum is going to make for some strange bedfellows. That, at least, may bring us all a bit of relief from the tedium of the ensuing polemic and propagandising which we expect between now and June. The EU referendum is going to seriously ruck the bedclothes up for everybody and yet, like boys in a schoolyard who’ve heard the cry “bundle!” we may enjoy it.

Now, let’s take a quick glance at the long relationship between Essex and Europe. For it was Essex, the port of Harwich in particular, which was for many centuries England’s main gateway to northern Europe. When Pepys, Johnson, Lennon, and many other great Englishmen (myself included) left this country to do something vaguely important abroad, it was usually from Harwich.

It was Harwich and Dovercourt, which in 1939 welcomed the refugees of Nicholas Winton’s Kindertransport. Without Harwich, we couldn’t have successfully held four naval wars with the Dutch. It was also Harwich which played conduit to successive waves of Flemish weavers during the 16th and 17th Centuries, thereby reviving Colchester’s ailing cloth trade. Essex and Europe go back a long way. We’ve been fighting them, trading with them, marrying each other and generally behaving badly together long before Mr Heath tangled us all up in red tape back in 1973. Did any of us actually vote to go into the Common Market? I seem to remember not, although there was an eventual referendum in 1975, as to whether or not we wished to stay. Most of us didn’t bother voting.

What’s the view from north-east Essex? Well here’s what I’ve observed, after which I promise to shut up about it until at least June 24.

The EU is a bureaucracy, a massive one. Once a month, the whole shebang uproots and commutes between Brussels and Strasbourg - sometimes, Luxembourg. It costs a phenomenal amount of money. It might be okay if they only met twice a year for a working lunch in a big canteen in Brussels,and then all paid their own way. But they don’t pay, we pay. The bigger a bureacracy becomes, the more self-serving, unwieldy and ruinously expensive it is. Will our leaving the EU affect trade? Only if we and our European neighbours allow it to.

What about defence and general security? Well, call me naive but it all seemed to work quite well before 1973, didn’t it? I think that many of us have been looking down the wrong end of the telescope. We don’t have to stop the trading, the security-sharing, or the friendship - because they are our friends, aren’t they?

We need to dump the bureaucracy, that’s all. And we need to do it as soon as possible.

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