Businesses make good case for staying in Europe
The clock is now ticking on the most important vote our country will hold in our generation, young or old.
In barely four weeks, on June 23, the United Kingdom goes to the polls to decide if these islands of ours are to sever four decades of ties with the European Union.
Whether we 'take back control', as the 'Brexiteers' would have it, or whether we 'turn our backs on history' in the words of U.S President Barack Obama on his farewell visit to Britain last month.
The air is certainly as thick with doom-mongering right now, warning of the mortal dangers of 'Brexit', as the Potteries was with smoke from the bottle kilns of old.
Daily, it seems, defence top brass, spymasters and police chiefs join the world's elder statesmen and our Prime Minister in rattling the chains of what Leavers call 'Project Fear' and Remainers, 'Project Reality'.
In between, the former Mayor of London, with his eye on the headlines – and the keys of Downing Street – injects his own trademark levity.
But no, David Cameron, the apocalypse will not descend if Britain wakes up six Fridays hence, having narrowly voted to leave.
And no, Boris, Brussels will not be banning kids from blowing up balloons – or devouring bendy bananas, prawn cocktail flavour crisps or custard creams – if we opt to stay.
Out with the myths, what the country needs now is some serious, sober debate. Otherwise, like as not, too many may simply opt out of the poll. Turned off, they might just not turn out.
To do my bit, like several other MPs, one thing I have done this spring is to survey all my local employers, more than 1,000 in all, large and small, to listen to what they – the traders, the job-creators, the investors – actually think.
And the results I'm releasing in this column today.
In Newcastle, four out of five businesses believe, on balance, we should 'Remain' as a member of the European Union.
Some unconditionally, many citing much-needed reforms, but a resounding 80 per cent nonetheless do not want us to cast off from the world's biggest Single Market, with more than 500 million customers, accounting for half our £230 billion annual exports.
Those are hard facts, and hard opinions. And they back up what the bigger guns – the multi-nationals, the Confederation of British Industry, Staffordshire's Chamber of Commerce, our local ceramics industry – have been saying in the press, including The Sentinel, day after day.
And the responses I've had bust another few myths, as well. That business, for example, is wrapped up in 'EU red tape'.
The majority of our laws, in fact, are not made in Brussels. Barely 10 per cent of legislation passing through my workplace, the House of Commons, indeed, touches on Europe at all.
Most European rules – those dreaded 'directives' – are to do to with making the Single Market work, getting rid of protectionist trade tariffs, laying down product and safety standards, barring unfair competition, levelling the playing field for all.
And – with the odd moan, of course – exporters are glad to have one just one EU manual to contend with, not 28 different sets to drive them mad, one for each member state.
Our top private sector employer, bet365 – with more than 3,000 staff – is not on my Newcastle patch, and so was not part of the survey.
Doing business across Europe and the world, it has just opened its brand new, multi-million pound headquarters at Festival Park, and the owners, the Coates family, will speak for themselves.
They can, however, only dream of having one rulebook to follow. It's not only the different countries that jealously guard betting and gaming, keeping them out of the Single Market, but often different regions – like Germany's 16 Länder – on top of that, too.
Strangely enough, as a Labour MP, I don't often agree with David Cameron. But over Europe, he is right. Britain leads the way in services and e-commerce on our continent, and extending the Single Market is good for our country and good for North Staffordshire.
But we can't do that, we can't lead the way in reform if, in four short weeks' time, we roll the dice, throw the future in the air, and just stomp, bad-tempered, out of the club.
Originally published in The Sentinel, 27/05/16