Fiery debate on EU Referendum at St Albans Cathedral
- Credit: Helena O’Sullivan/St Albans Cathedral
Interjectors tried their best to upset a debate on being in or out of the European Union last week, as panellists arguing to stay in the association struggled to have their voices heard.
A packed St Albans Cathedral hosted the fiery debate last Wednesday (15), with those members of the audience backing the UK’s exit from the EU booing and making others noises of disparagement whenever remain supporters spoke.
But their vociferous, sometimes aggressive cat-calling, did not deter two local teenagers from seeking information as they questioned St Albans MP Anne Main and Harpenden MP Peter Lilley, who want to leave the union, and Graham Colley and Gerald Corbett, arguing for the UK to stay.
Many readers sent this newspaper questions for the panellists to respond to ahead of today’s (23) referendum.
Among them was Charlotte Hepper, 13, who told those at the debate that while her 85-year-old grandfather said the result would not affect his life much, “it will affect mine. He has asked me to decide how he should vote. If you were to vote for your children or grandchildren, would you vote differently?”
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Peter Lilley spoke about his wish for the UK to have the freedom to negotiate directly with some of the fastest-growing countries in the world as, at present, it takes longer to organise trade deals because all 28 countries have to agree to them first.
He said: “It can take five to seven years.”
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Peter said that providing opportunities for young people would be boosted by the UK’s ability to trade directly with countries such as China: “if we are free from the shackles of the EU we can open up opportunities for the younger generations”.
Graham Colley, a solicitor based in Rochester and chair of the Liberal Democrat Lawyers Association, said that Charlotte’s grandfather would be benefiting from the UK’s membership of the EU.
He said that her relative would remember when Britain was a “basket economy” before joining the EU, as he recalled life in the UK before its last referendum, in 1975, a decade marked by strikes and industrial disputes.
But, he admitted, while her grandfather’s generation are “sitting on pots of gold” thanks to their pensions, “the baby-boomer generation are more likely to vote out, but if they do that, what will they be leaving for future generations?”
The impact of immigration was raised by Anne Main who asked whether, if the UK voted to remain, “will there be any Green Belt land for [future generations] to enjoy?”
Anne said it would be difficult housing extra people moving to this country, particularly as, “people tell me they oppose building on the Green Belt”.
She said it came down to people’s quality of life and the ability of future generations to ‘get on the housing ladder’ given the number of additional number of those migrating – “the world has changed since 1975”.
Anne went on: “What we do know is that people are coming in large numbers and they have expectations of being well-housed, along with school places; at the moment we can’t keep up with the pace of change.”
Gerald Corbett, of Redbourn, a former High Sheriff of Herts who has been the director of 13 public companies and was chief executive of the former Railtrack, said: “Our influence will be greater if we are in the EU, than out of it.”
He recommended her grandfather voted to remain, because of the “huge cost” to the country and to individuals as, he warned, “pension pots will be reduced and the availability of jobs minimised.”
Those in the audience were given a chance to also ask questions. Undeterred by the booing of those wishing to leave the EU, Harpenden teenager Edward Vickery, who turns 15 this weekend, said: “There is too much speculation. As the son of a chartered surveyor, I know that 82 per cent of the British Isles are unbuilt upon.”
He later explained to this paper that although he was too young to vote, he supported the bid to remain because “I believe in the philosophy of the EU as a cooperation, and being part of it is the best way to maintain peace”.
Another member of the audience asked what a Brexit would mean for her daughter, should she choose to study or travel around Europe.
After a mix of boos and applause, Peter replied that students would not be prevented from attending universities in Europe.
Gwynfor Tyley, of St Albans, who sought answers on immigration and the future of the single market, was told by Peter that it “isn’t an advantage” to stay in the EU, and that “it is much more important to have control over our borders, money and laws.”
But, Gerald commented, “immigrants come here and pay taxes and work hard”, while Graham pointed out the number of jobs taken on by immigrants traditionally spurned by English people, including cleaning and looking after older people.
Gwynfor told the panellists that uncertainty was damaging the economy.
One member of the audience added: “I don’t think the immigration issue is going to be sorted out by the referendum.”
The man, who explained that his partner was French and his father Polish, said he was concerned about people “going to the far right … we are already seeing ugly things in this debate”.
Anne replied that the UK had been unable to control the pace of change, and that the number of people moving here from Poland was far greater than originally estimated. She said that the growth in population had affected the number of available school places, while infrastructure had also failed to keep pace.
Christopher Ford asked about the UK’s global influence should it quit the union.
Gerald replied: “Businesses will stop investing on June 24.”
He said that he had had personal experience of boardrooms preparing contingency plans for a potential Brexit, with companies “wanting to conserve cash. This would cause a recession”.
Peter disputed that, saying that the UK would remain global influence as “we are a country with links throughout the world, including the Commonwealth. Our influence is restricted when we are part of the EU and Britain will not have an independent voice in world matters.”
At one stage during the debate adjudicator Bishop Stephen Venner, in an effort to calm down sections of the audience, told those repeatedly calling out that with the “temperature rising, interjections are making this more difficult”.
One resident voiced his concern about the impact on the economy, as “many jobs are predicted to move to Europe”, particularly as a number of locals work in the financial sector and commute to London.
Gerald agreed, saying that job prospects would be lost and profits would fall, adding, “in St Albans, where lots of you go to the city, it will not be great”.
But Peter pooh-poohed that, saying that Remain campaigners using such “scare tactics exist to give astrology a good name”.
At the end of the debate, the Bishop thanked the participants and attendees, saying “you have been a lively audience this evening”.