THE BLOG

Whipping Up Interest in Wet Wellingborough: My Day Filming With 'The One Show' and What It Taught Me About Europe and Middle England

03/06/2014 11:54 BST | Updated 02/08/2014 10:59 BST

While the PM was busy pressing for his vision of European reform at a tasteful and elegant dinner in Brussels, someone had to pound the streets of Middle England to sell the idea that staying in Europe is the only sane and patriotic course of action to a fed up, disgruntled, and frankly wet electorate. Last week that someone was me.

It all started with a phone call from the BBC's The One Show. Would I join their team in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, for a highly choreographed bit of soap-boxery? Would I, not to put too fine a point on it, be prepared to climb on an actual soap box, in the middle of the High Street, and address the public on the joys of 'staying in' while the local MP, Peter Bone, would tell them about the need for Britain to get out?

Mr Bone has organised a local In/Out referendum by postal vote to prove that his opinion has traction with the people of Britain, and the results of the experiment are due to be announced soon.

I understood why the BBC was keen on the soap box stunt. I also appreciated that my chances of delivering something statesmanlike and dignified in those circumstances would be slim. But I believe it is an urgent and vital task to engage with people about Europe at every level, in every place they might be or might be listening, now more than ever.

As Director of British Influence I have been haranguing politicians from all the mainstream parties to do exactly that. The day had come for me to stand up and be counted and possibly make a bit of a fool of myself in the name of the cause. I was fully prepared and cognisant of the pros and the cons, as I say.

And then it started to rain- and it never really stopped.

The BBC team had erected a little make-shift set with the box, the programme's banner, the various mics but the wind was forever threatening to upset the banner and a fixer had to dash in, in between crashes, and put it back up again. The box was slippery, the mics looked like they'd been stored inside an aquarium.

Bravely (foolishly?) the other Peter and I got on and off that box, oh, several thousand times, to allow the two cameramen to get enough points of views and bridging shots and so on, in the windswept afternoon while a few mothers and their toddlers and a few elderly couples looked on bewildered and amused.

In fact a lesser chap would have given up altogether but I soldiered on, my soggy notes in one hand, my Union Jack umbrella in the other. The speech in my head was rousing; it is quite possible it might have come out as slightly ranty, or at the very least not as Churchillian as I would have hoped.

When Peter and I chatted to some of the punters afterwards it became even clearer to me that, stunts aside, the need to have an honest debate about Europe and our place in or outside it is really not a joke. Younger people wanted to talk about jobs and a lack of opportunities. Older people were concerned about immigration. Time and time again we heard people say: "I love Britain, I don't want to see it diminished" or "I love this country but things are really bad for me right now."

People's fear and unease might be expressed - if heavily coached - in terms of Europe, but the solution to most of their problems lies in the now improving economy and a tighter and fairer application of the existing rules, so that, for instance, unscrupulous employers are not allowed to exploit people (including migrants) as cheap labour.

We also need to have an honest discussion about making Europe more accessible, simplifying a complex bureaucracy and getting rid of excessive regulation.

As for the patriotic argument, about our country's "regaining" independence and stature and 'being allowed to be Great again,' getting out of the EU is a beguilingly simple solution to a problem we do not have. It is the magic, one sentence headline conveying a dishonest narrative about our supposed lack of influence in a Europe which we have instead helped construct and shape.

From Winston Churchill's vision of a Europe of allied nations, to Margaret Thatcher's Single Market, to John Major's enlargement to the former dictatorships of the Eastern Bloc, to Tony Blair's defence and foreign policy cooperation, all the way to David Cameron's push for a fully functional Single Market in services and soon, very crucially, in energy, successive British government have driven the European agenda.

What gets reported and what people get told about is another story. Newspapers love the small picture, endlessly griping about the minor bits that supposedly did not go our way: the legendary bans on bent bananas and other assorted wonky fruit and vegetables, actual or metaphorical. But here is the big picture: every step of the way, after fighting its way into the Club, Britain has been a leading member of it. Europe is all the better for it, and so, I passionately believe, are we.

And here is the even bigger picture: if we left tomorrow the EU would not obligingly dissolve and die, taking us back to some sort of glowing post-war status quo. A less disciplined, less Anglo-Saxon Europe would carry on without us, on our own doorstep, making rules we'd be obliged to obey if we want to access its market of - without us- 440 million people.

And this is something worth shouting about - even in the pouring rain, on top of a slippery soapbox, in the middle of a Middle England High Street - even though the, er, finer points are somewhat harder to convey when you are constantly asked to "please jump off and then jump back on again".

The One Show programme featuring Peter Wilding will be broadcast on June 3 at 7pm on BBC 1