One of the splendid things about London is the likelihood of spotting a Well Known Person. They frequent shops, pubs and takeaways, just like lesser mortals; it really is very charming to see. “Ah,” I hear you say, “Britain is far too London-centric. Celeb-spotting opportunities should be given to other worthy UK conurbations too, such as Birmingham and Scunthorpe”.
Anyway, there we were, walking toward the BBC headquarters at Portland Place – as you do – when we observed a cluster of individuals ahead, patiently waiting about 30 feet from one of the doors. Nearby was a helmeted quartet of coppers with their nice shiny, white, motorbikes, and a squeaky-clean police Range Rover (also known as a ‘jam sandwich’). Simultaneously, my eye was drawn to a scruffy, aggressive looking, herbert hanging about at the kerbside to our left, who stared at us in a challenging manner. Flexing the sinews in my finely-tuned limbs as we passed, just in case they were needed, we speculated on the identity of the megastar people were thronging to see. I clocked an elegant silver Jaguar XJ. As we got closer, a smart, grey, Range Rover pulled in front of the Jag. Nearby, like something from a movie, was a close-cropped-hair guy, wearing a rumpled mac and with a revealing coil of wire trailing from ear to underclothes. Then it dawned: 10 minutes earlier, we had been watching Prime Minister David Cameron on the Andrew Marr Show; could it be..?
Mildly excited, we mingled with the assembly. Some possessed obscenely outsized camera lenses, wielded with an irksome arrogance which, I confess, potentially brought out the worst in me. Others had neat little folding plastic stools, so that they could clamber up and get a clear shot without bothering anyone else overmuch. Fortunately, I had my trusty Instamatic and good elbows.
People came and went. They were used to mingling with personalities – no doubt some had moved from Birmingham and Scunthorpe for that very purpose. Close-cropped-hair guy had a friend, walkie-talkie-man; they never spoke, but you could tell they were associated in some way. Close-cropped-hair guy spoke into his lapel. The nearest door was lodged open. People still came and went. Then a compact, brisk, posse emerged, Mr Cameron at its centre, smiling and waving. Close-cropped-hair guy had several near relatives, each sporting a similar curly bit of wire and distinctive don’t mess with me visage. The PM got into the Jag, his cortège sped off in the direction of Westminster, the miniature mob dispersed and Mrs Britain and I walked up Regent Street in search of breakfast.
The day before, David Cameron had returned from Brussels heralding the momentous agreement he had made with the leaders of the other 27 members of the European Union. To many, it was as significant as the Munich Agreement; and about as meaningful. Some people obviously knew, or worked on the strong probability, that our Dave would be chatting to Andrew Marr the following day. It occurred to me both how frighteningly vulnerable our elected representatives can be and how lucky we are to live in the kind of society where anyone can witness little scenes like the one described above. I guess vulnerability is part of the price for the freedom we enjoy. We don’t have the equivalent of jack-booted bully-boys telling us we can’t walk down streets too often, and those that are meant to serve us take a huge personal risk that some evil nutcase will try to blow them away. God forbid it should ever happen to any of them – irrespective of whether we agree with their views. Tragedy aside, life would change; civilised society would take a step back. Close-cropped-hair guy and his mates have a tough job and, generally, manage to do it without too often alienating the public who, ultimately, pay their wages.
Unlike bumping into Madge at the lipstick counter, this celebrity encounter had a whiff of history about it. We will remember standing outside the BBC after the Prime Minister of The United Kingdom had been discussing one of the most important decisions facing this country in a generation. All things considered, Dave was looking remarkably fresh, I thought, despite the gruelling negotiations with all those tricky foreigners - to say nothing of spending most of his Saturday ensconced at No 10 with his just as tricky Cabinet colleagues – the first time that august body has met at the weekend since the Falklands War, we are told.
So, the UK will have its ‘in/out’ referendum on membership of the European Union on 23rd June 2016. Should we stay, or should we go? Views clash. Will it be ‘Brexit’ – the excruciating abbreviation being used for ‘British Exit’ – or ‘Brayin’ – Britain stays in (my own invention)? Everyone gets a vote, including, for some arcane reason, any citizens of Ireland, Malta and Cyprus who happen to be resident here. What our business has to do with them, I know not. On the bigger issue, despite believing myself to be reasonably intelligent and well-informed, I feel embarrassingly lacking in sufficient knowledge to decide which way to vote; and I suspect many of my fellow-Britons feel the same. What I do know is that the issues at stake go far beyond the agreement David Cameron negotiated over 18/19 February, and which a cynic might say was partly for the benefit of the Conservative Party.
I pray that the discussions go beyond the obviously important topic of immigration. This is but one issue amongst the many, not least economics, security and sovereignty.
Membership of a frequently irritating, often dysfunctional, over-bureaucratic, would-be super state brings a multitude of benefits. One of the biggest achievements of the European Project, possibly not always appreciated in Britain, is peace. Europe has torn itself apart within living memory and the scars of war are still with us. The likelihood of former enemies fighting each other now is so remote as to be laughable. That’s a pretty good argument for people coming together – and trade is the obvious enabler. I think that was why so many people in Britain supported membership of what was then called ‘the Common Market’ in 1973, when we joined our close neighbours and founding members: West Germany (as it then was); France; Italy; the Netherlands; Belgium; Luxembourg. Somewhere along the way, the ‘Common Market’ became the ‘European Economic Community’ and then, simply, ‘the European Union’. With 28 culturally diverse members, and more waiting in the wings, maybe we all have fewer things in common – though the advantages of coming together seems to be a constant.
I suspect part of the problem is that we don’t really have an accurate sense of Britain’s place in the world, and haven’t had since 1945.
One thing’s for sure, we’re going to be hearing a lot about ‘Europe’ over the next few months. Let us hope the debate stays courteous, reasoned and doesn’t degenerate into the kind of emotional and senseless ugliness beloved of mobs and trolls; it’s so un-British.