I have a single memory of the last time we were asked for our opinion on Europe. It was in Hull, where I was training as a reporter with the city’s evening paper and one morning I was assigned to interview a then largely unknown MP by the name of John Prescott.
John picked me up at the office. He may have been driving his trademark Jaguar, and if he was, I’m sure that 40 years ago he had to make do with just one. Anyway, our destination was the ferry terminal at Hull Docks, where we rendezvoused with a photographer. While the lensman fiddled with his flash John went to the boot of his car and produced two supermarket baskets containing identical items. One had been filled at Jackson’s Supermarket on Holderness Road, smack in the middle of his East Hull constituency, and the other had been brought back from a shopping trip to Rotterdam.
John’s contention was that the cost of groceries on the continent was higher than in the UK, which he thought was a good enough reason for us to give the thumbs down to the Common Market in the 1975 referendum. He posed for photographs with the ferry behind him, holding up his purchases in either hand, but this was long before he rose to the dizzy heights of deputy prime minister and became a target for sarcasm so no one thought of calling him “Two Baskets Prescott”.
These days, I can’t help seeing the leading Brexit campaigner in the new referendum on Europe, Boris Johnson, as a similarly comic politician. Like Prescott, Johnson has a genius when it comes to self promotion and I have begun to wonder what stunts Boris will lay on for the TV networks to alleviate the tedium of what will be an excruciatingly long campaign.
While Prescott eventually became a kind of Les Dawson figure, which didn’t do his career much harm by the way, Boris strikes me as more of a Monty Python creation. If the Pythons were still together I suspect they’d do a “Life of Boris” sketch in which he would ask ad nauseam, “What have the Europeans ever done for us?”
The danger is, a figure of fun like Boris might well detract from what is a pretty serious moment in UK history. I’m all for introducing levity into the staid world of politics but there is too much at stake, since in my view the answer to the Pythonesque question about the Europeans is, actually, “a lot.”
It was European money that helped to regenerate the South Yorkshire coalfield after it was laid waste by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. It was European bureaucrats who stood up to the powerful oil and motor industries and forced the UK to remove poisonous lead from our air by introducing lead-free petrol. And it was a string of EEC directives which ended Britain’s reputation as the dirty old man of Europe by cleaning up grossly polluted rivers like
the Don, the Aire and the Mersey, bringing salmon and otters back to them for the first time in 200 years.
I don’t expect Boris to acknowledge any of these things. He will be busy doing what he does best, which is playing politics for laughs.
Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe