Thank You.

The passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill through both Houses of Parliament has been everything from heartfelt to outrageous, sensible to downright absurd. It has raised fears of hoards of aggressive homosexuals and of the real and present danger of a lesbian queen. It has prompted suggestions from noble lords that they should be allowed to marry their sons and reasonable contributions from interested religious parties.

The contributions of Yvette Cooper and Sir Gerald Howarth this evening epitomised the contrast between how the debate has been constructed on both sides. This evening also saw the Bill clear its final parliamentary hurdle and make its way to Royal Assent and into law.

The most positive thing about the passage of the Bill is that it has enjoyed not only cross-party support in Parliament but broad support with the public as a whole. It is heartening to see so many people in this country supporting the rights of others to marry, to share that love and commitment with their friends and family and to enjoy equal treatment under the law.

The passing of this Bill has many practical implications. It means that heterosexual people and homosexual people have the same pension rights. It means that the protections enjoyed by heterosexual partners are no longer denied to someone on the basis of sexuality. It means that there will be a lot more fabulous weddings. And yes, it also means more money for the divorce lawyers in years to come.

For me, however, the passing into law of equal marriage is not about pension plans and entitlements, as important as they are, but it’s about something much more. It’s about acknowledgement and acceptance.

When I was born in 1990, the age of consent for homosexuals was twenty-one as opposed to sixteen for heterosexuals. Section 28 meant that telling gay teenagers that it was alright to be themselves was illegal in schools. Homophobia was rife. Progress came, slowly but surely. In 2001 the age of consent was equalised. In 2003, the year I became a teenager, Section 28 was abolished and gay kids could finally be told in the open that their sexuality was not something to be ashamed of. In 2005 we had the introduction of Civil Partnerships and today, in 2013, we have the legalisation of marriage for homosexual couples. In twenty three years the political and societal change has been enormous.

This new law won’t change the fact that some gay kids face bullying. What it will do, however, is give the gay teenagers suffering this kind of abuse the knowledge that the country does not treat them differently. That the law does not treat them differently. That, with the exception of blood donation, they are not prevented from doing anything on the grounds of their sexuality.

Homophobia, like all other kinds of prejudice, is a taught behaviour. No-one is born hating gay people or opposing their right to love and equality. This kind of attitude is taught. Nothing will change the fact that some parents will still indoctrinate their children with unfounded, vicious hatred but children growing up in a society where marriage can be between a man and a woman, a man and a man or a woman and a woman will be children who grow up accepting this as normal and as something to be celebrated. A wedding and a marriage will be a celebration of all kinds of love, not just one.

There will be a lot written about this Bill and its legal implications. There will be support, opposition and apathy. Much of it will be important and reasonable. For now, though, I have only one thing to say.

From today, I have a future where the law does not discriminate against me on the grounds of my sexuality. I have a future where any relationship I am in will have the same status as any which my straight friends form part of. I have a future where I can, at some future date with a person I may or may not have even met yet, stand and declare my love and commitment in the same way as anyone else. I have a future where I know I will not be denied marriage. I have a future as an equal citizen of my country. There are no words adequate enough to explain what that really means so these will have to do-

To everyone who has supported this Bill in Parliament, in private, in public and in society, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

‘One-nil to the Nancy Boys’ – Being gay on the terraces of the Football League

It seems that the issue of gay footballers, conspicuous by their statistically unlikely absence, comes up somewhere in the media at least once a month. Various related issues get discussed and then the conclusion comes that the football world is just “not ready” for gay players. They wouldn’t be accepted in the dressing rooms, we’re told. Or they’d lose lucrative sponsorship deals. The nail in the head comes when someone states with confidence that the relentless barrage of homophobic abuse from the terraces would be too much for the player to handle psychologically.

Firstly, although I’m not a professional footballer, I find the suggestion that they wouldn’t be accepted by their teammates quite bizarre. They already are accepted (probably) in their dressing rooms surely? Besides, what self-respecting metrosexual footballer wouldn’t appreciate a gay teammate’s trained eye being cast over his dubious fashion choices?  *cheap stereotype alert*

As for sponsorship and advertising, I can’t see past a player’s coming out having precisely the opposite effect on his worth as an aesthetic selling point for brands desperate to cash in on the so called ‘pink pound’ as well as those who are genuinely progressive. Business will always rush to associate itself with the story of the moment.

But then again I don’t have much (any) experience of the dressing room or of advertising. What I do have considerable experience of, however, is the terraces, or stands as they mainly are now, of the Football League and the chanting and ‘banter’ that goes with them. And I simply don’t buy the idea that fans would make playing unbearable for any gay player.

Obviously I wouldn’t belittle the psychological impact that homophobic abuse can have on someone, having experienced it first-hand myself, and having thousands of people chant abuse at you because of your sexuality when you had taken the decision to be a trailblazer in coming out in the first place would be horrendous, no doubt about it. The thing is, though, is that this attitude does no justice to the modern football fan. I am unequivocal in saying that modern football crowds are not intrinsically homophobic. That’s not to say there are not homophobes among them, of course there are, but as a group they, *we*, are not a gay-hating, abusive mob.

I’m quite certain that any gay player would be greeted with wolf whistles from opposition supporters, but so are players with long hair, players that re-enact Swan Lake on the pitch and players who appear in their pants on billboards. He would probably also face chants of ‘Does your boyfriend know you’re here?’ but only in the same way young players get asked if their mothers know their whereabouts or similar chants refer to the particularly strong willed girlfriends of media friendly players. This would not be homophobia and those who suggest it would be are merely adding to the problems we face when we encounter real, dangerous homophobic behaviour.

The point of football chants, the good ones at least, are that they’re funny, tongue in cheek and loud. They’re designed to catch the attention of the opposition fans, wind up opposing players and motivate our own. I can honestly say I have never been at a ground where one racist, sexist or homophobic idiot has started a chant that’s caught on and I have certainly never experienced hundreds or thousands of people coming together to abuse the race, gender or sexuality of any player, manager or official. That’s just not what football is about.

As a gay fan, and one who’s open about and unashamed of their sexuality, I have never felt anything other than welcomed by the family of Ipswich Town supporters with whom I endure terrible away grounds and worse away performances. Many of these stereotypical ‘lads’ would be undoubtedly judged as small-minded homophobes by those who don’t understand the culture that surrounds following a football team, particularly away from home. The thing which proves that ill-informed reactions and cheap stereotyping can lead to nothing good is that if they were judged like that then so would I be. Together we drink, we sing, we are a raucous crowd of blue and white that make our hosts see that Suffolk is well and truly on tour. We’re also friendly, considerate to the home fans, particularly children, and intolerant of behaviour which crosses the line, be it from an opposition fan or one of our own. I am confident that groups like ours in the colours of every club in the country would drown out homophobic chanting were it to occur from our terraces.

The reason I am so confident is because I have seen it happen. On a train back from the last game of the season in Burnley, we occupied a carriage and began treating the highly amused train guard to a ‘Greatest Hits’ of Ipswich Town songs. Guys and girls from 12 to 70 joined in and reminisced about players and triumphs past and looked forward to next season. Then one rather drunk man began a chant about Norwich City’s Justin Fashanu, Britain’s first and thus far only openly gay player. He barely got half way through the last line before he was shouted down and admonished. There was a brief awkward silence, the Fashanu chants from the 90s stand as our club’s biggest shame and no-one is more ashamed of that dark side to our fans’ history than those who currently wear the blue and white they feel so deeply for. Then we began a louder, more passionate chorus of ‘We are the Ipswich Town FC’ than we had before. The man who thought it wise to bring homophobia to the party looked sheepish. I’d never been more proud of the fans of my club.

The first gay player will have to take the full glare of the media and the wolf whistles from the terraces. But he knows that. The second and third may get a little bit of the shame treatment but the twenty-fifth and forty-second will find their sexuality is an irrelevance, it’s their performances that matter.

As a gay fan I have never felt uncomfortable on the terraces. I have never heard homophobic chanting and I’ve never heard my fellow fans, of any club, espouse homophobic and abusive views. I have never felt anything other than at home. We have learned our lessons from the shaming response to Justin Fashanu’s tragic tale and so, whatever your reasoning for gay players not coming out, don’t blame the fans. We’re more than ready.

The Young Ones – Eastleigh, Youth Activism and Looking Forward

The media, Twitter and the political blogosphere have been saturated with coverage of the Eastleigh by-election over the past couple of weeks. In fact the only thing more covered in political ‘insight’ over all colours and none than these outlets are the doorsteps of the besieged Hampshire town unlucky enough to have found itself the centre of quite so much attention for the dubious honour of having a criminal former MP.

With this piece I am, in my own small way, going add to the saturation of ‘insight’ into Eastleigh but from a slightly different direction. Whilst the media may be salivating over scandals, polls and which big guns have been rolled in to help their respective party causes, there is one group of people who are widely ignored but absolutely crucial to getting the electoral message out to voters. Particularly in by-elections, where the stakes are higher and the spotlight brighter, scores of young activists from the youth and student wings of all parties descend upon constituencies where they are depended upon as a vital message-distributing mechanism. But what is it like for them? How do they feel about things? How appreciative are constituency organisers and how do they see things going tomorrow? I invited a young activist from each of the four main parties as well as an independent young political blogger to give me their perspective on all things Eastleigh and beyond.

Here’s what Stephen Goodall for Labour, Andrew Knight for the Conservatives, Greg Foster for the Liberal Democrats and Harry Randle for UKIP along with Caspian Conran from the JWS Politics blog had to say.

So what exactly is the importance of young activists to political parties at election time and how are they welcomed at their respective HQs? Well Caspian Conran points out that ‘Young activists are crucially important to parties’ success in elections, especially by-elections which tend to be very labour-intensive. Whilst party membership is quite even across the age demographic those most active members are the young and the retired’. So there’s a danger that young activists can be seen simple as paper delivering machines? Andrew Knight concedes that is a risk. He says that Obviously, [the local party] were in need of many people to help campaign and having plenty of young people is a huge bonus as we can cover ground more quickly [that that] there was a risk of creating an atmosphere where young activists were seen as leaflet fodder for the campaign team, which is too often taken the case in the Conservative Party’. However, he goes on to tell me that being ‘thanked directly by email just 24 hours after we left Eastleigh does make it seem as if our efforts were appreciated’.

Greg Foster from Liberal Youth echoes Andrew’s point that local parties need, more than anything, bodies to mobilise. He says of LY’s volunteers, Every one of us is a few more leaflets delivered, doors knocked, envelopes stuffed. With the volume going out in this election they really so need every single body they can get’. Stephen Goodall from Labour Students, from whom Eastleigh is his home constituency, says the Labour Party have fully embraced the vibrancy of youth down on the south coast. ‘Young Labour activists and Labour students are having an enormous impact on the by-election campaign with coach loads of students arriving each and every day in Eastleigh, working in partnership with the dynamic force of Hampshire and Isle of Wight Young Labour’, he told me. He went on to say that ‘The impact of Young Labour and Labour students can be seen directly in the team running the campaign, with the average age being 24’.

Young activists and campaigners certainly seem to form the beating heart of the efforts at Eastleigh Constituency Labour Party but how do the offices of the other parties welcome their eager student volunteers? Andrew Knight says Conservative Future memberswere welcomed in by HQ and the team running the show in Eastleigh’ adding that ‘Once the CF battle bus had arrived, HQ had exploded with life, lots of people buzzing around and many people were raring to go, which is all you look for really’. Greg Foster says that Mike Thornton’s campaign have welcomed any and all young volunteers to the constituency and that when the Liberal Democrat message is delivered on the doorsteps by Liberal Youth members it goes down ‘Very well’ and that ‘people are generally receptive’. Responding to the idea that the changes to tuition fees are a constant albatross around the neck of young Lib Dem activists, Greg says that ‘Occasionally [we] get snide comments about fees that are easily dealt with by explaining the new system.’.

Is it not the case, though, that such political fervour is a rarity among the youth of today’s Britain who feel totally turned off by the whole system? Caspian Conran from JWS Politics doesn’t entirely agree. He says that ‘Young people are increasingly disillusioned with the political process, no one can deny that. However young people are some of the most interested in politics generally. From moral issues about gay marriage to foreign affairs, young people are the most outspoken and opinionated out of all age demographics’. He goes on to add that ‘Social media is allowing young people to access and express political opinions without the conventional political process. I believe that young people are very interested in politics however have unfortunately lost faith in the political class and political process we have in the U.K. and thus are turning instead to other political outlets such as Twitter’.

The representatives of both UKIP and Labour think that their policies are resonating well with young people nationally. Harry Randle, for UKIP, says that he thinks what young people see in his party is A new type of party that really offers something different. Prospects for a Britain outside of the EU means less competition for University places from foreign students. It also means more prospects for part time jobs for teenaged 16 and above. Eastern European citizens have devalued the proud jobs many lower paid citizens hold British citizens hold’.

Stephen Goodall thinks that it’s Labour whose policies are most appealing to young voters. He highlights the ‘many young people for instance benefiting from the introduction of the living wage in Labour run authorities’ and that young voters will be put off the Liberal Democrats because of the fee changes  ‘which have done much to damage social mobility and put a cap on aspiration for the many gifted and talented young people in Eastleigh’. He also highlights ‘Ed Miliband’s emphasis on vocational education with the proposed launch of the Tech Bacc’ as being particularly appealing to young voters.

So if the young are switched on and all four main parties are vying for their votes, what about extending the franchise. I put the question of votes at sixteen to Caspian Conran. He says that Any arbitrary cap on the franchise is wrong. Many politically aware fall below  the line whilst many above the arbitrary line have no political interest at all and are arguably not fully aware of the importance which voting entails’. He goes on to say I believe in no tax without representation. So whenever someone starts paying tax  and National Insurance, they should be given the vote. For our young apprentices this may be as young as 14 and indeed for our university graduates, who have never experienced the benefits of hard work and just reward, this may be as high as 21’.

The Coalition certainly means that all parties are now in uncharted waters when it comes to by-elections and inter-party politics. So what impact do our activists think this is having on voters? Greg Foster says it’s not making the Liberal Democrats shy away from talking about their national role as a party of government. He says of the campaign that ‘it isn’t just being fought on local issues, there’s lots of national message too. We’re using our local record of competence, but it’s not the only tool in our messaging arsenal’. He goes on add that ‘it’s weakening the Labour squeeze some, but the Tories seem to be suffering most because of the coalition’. So what does our man from Conservative Future think? I think it has made it a lot harder politically because both parties are fighting with a similar set of successful policies which they want to take credit for. It is especially difficult because neither party is particularly popular at the moment and it has already depressed voter engagement’, Andrew says. But what about the two Government parties tearing each other to pieces? Well Andrew says he hasn’t seen much of that, ‘Personally I think the issue has been dealt with as well as it could have been, especially as Labour were hoping that the coalition parties would tear each other apart, which hasn’t really happened despite a few small attack campaigns flying around from both sides’.

Labour and UKIP, however, find themselves perhaps unlikely bedfellows in suggesting that the tide is turning away from the Coalition parties. Stephen says that ‘The voters feel betrayed by both coalition parties in particular the Liberal Democrats who have broken major manifesto pledges, warning about the Conservative VAT bombshell and then voting to raise VAT, committing to abolish tuition fees and then trebling them to £9,000 and this is the same story with the Conservatives who pledged to recruit 3,000 more midwives which they reversed on and have failed on every single major policy test from reducing net migration to deficit reduction’.

Harry Randle rejects the idea that UKIP’s encouraging polling is just a reflection of them taking the Liberal Democrats’ former position of by-election protest vote. He says that that’s not the case ‘at all. The manifesto differences between the lib Dems and UKIPs are very different. I’ve always said what’s the point in voting for a lib Dems they are useless. They don’t offer anything different. If you look at UKIPs manifesto it’s clear they are serious when it comes to domestic and foreign affairs’.

Neither does he think that the party is being bolstered simply by votes from disillusioned Tories. He says that while UKIP ‘Obviously have disgruntled voters’  that they have also ‘attracted support from all over the political spectrum. From the Old Labour left and from many voters not in favour of the big two’s policies. I the Conservatives have let down millions of voters by not fulfilling policies they promised in their 2010 manifesto’.

Instead, Harry thinks UKIP are making serious inroads that will see them return a number of MPs in 2015. He says that this is a time ‘in British politics when people are waking up to the dangers affecting our society’ adding that people are turning to UKIP because they ‘don’t believe in the lib Dems or conservatives not to mention labour! People are starting to wake up and seeing the effect of voting for people that have an interest in Britain. Not just people that only have an interest in their careers’.

Caspian Conran, the independent voice in this debate, is less sure. He told me that ‘UKIP are riding on the back of simple bigoted messages: all our problems are the fault of the EU. This is of course ludicrous. However to those most easily influenced , our young voters, these simplistic messages are gaining traction.  However upon closer scrutiny UKIP’s messages fall apart, whether it be immigration or economics: one minute arguing for more cuts the next for less’.

Every young activist I have spoken to said the atmosphere at all of the party HQ is Eastleigh is good and that everyone on all sides is fired up for a win. So the million pound question is this- who is going to win Eastleigh?

Andrew Knight from Conservative Future said this – ‘Now, I want to say Maria Hutchings and the past week has proved that this election is definitely not over, however, I expect that the Lib Dems will probably scrape a win. It is looking likely that Labour will underperform (which is seriously damaging for the ‘One Nation’ message) and the UKIP threat hasn’t been neutralised despite a more socially conservative candidate. Unfortunately for Maria, that is the exact opposite to what was required for her to win in Eastleigh’ adding that ‘It is probably going to raise more questions of the leadership at CCHQ, maybe unfairly, if it does go the wrong way’.

Stephen Goodall, who knows the constituency better than most, thinks his party could still have a chance – ‘It is difficult to pin down who will win on Thursday, currently the largest camp in Eastleigh are the don’t knows and it’s Labour’s job to convince those who are disillusioned and undecided to put their faith in a One Nation Labour Party committed to the values of community and social justice which the people of Eastleigh share too’.

Liberal Youth’s Greg Foster doesn’t want to stick his neck out too far telling me that It really is too close to call. Based on my door knocking I’d say we have the edge, but it’s a game of turnout now’.

Harry Randle, however, thinks this may well truly turn into a three horse race. He says that the winner will be UKIP of course. What’s the point in believing in consensus. If I wasn’t at university and able to get down the Eastleigh I would be there knocking on doors and wearing my purple and yellow attire’.

Caspian, our independent blogger from JWS Politics, does make a prediction. He thinks that it will be Nick Clegg smiling on Friday because ‘The Lib Dems , against all the odds, will win Eastleigh in a closely fought battle’.

Whoever wins, the often unheralded contribution from the youth and student activists from all parties will have made an invaluable difference and, as they get a taste of election success or defeat, may well be forging our future law makers. Party bigwigs of all colours would do well to remember that.

Andrew Knight is a Conservative Party member and has been out campaigning for Maria Hutchings in Eastleigh. He tweets at @RooKnight.

Greg Foster is a Liberal Democrat and active member of Liberal Youth who has campaigned for Mike Thornton in Eastleigh. He tweets at @LibFozzy.

Stephen Goodall is Chair of Hampshire and Isle of Wight Young Labour and a member of Eastleigh Constituency Labour Party. He tweets at @sngoodall95.

Harry Randle is a member and activist of the United Kingdom Independence Party. He is from Southend-on-Sea and studies History and Politics at Loughborough University. He tweets at @Harry_Randle.

Caspian Conran is a young political blogger at JWS Politics. Their website can be found here http://jwspolitics.weebly.com/ and they tweet at @JWSPolitics.

The ‘Bedroom Tax’ narrative is damaging legitimate concerns

If there is one word likely to spark the indignation of voters across the political spectrum then it is tax. The Right tend to loathe it universally and the Left love it, but only when it’s used to punish the people they don’t like and loathe it when it’s applied, apparently unfairly, on the least well off. It is no great surprise then that the new under-occupation housing benefit reduction measures contained within the Welfare Reform Act (2012) and due to come in to force in April have been given the moniker ‘Bedroom Tax’. Granted, this is a lot more catchy and a guaranteed headline grabber and convenient hashtag and has been seized upon by Labour supporters, councillors and Members of Parliament with gusto. Unfortunately it is also misleading, and deliberately so.

A tax and a benefit cut are fundamentally different things. A tax is levied by the government on income or a product, for example. It is a new contribution to the coffers of the Exchequer. A benefit cut is a reduction in the amount of money that leaves the Exchequer’s coffers and makes its way to the pockets of citizens. Both are politically as well as economically motivated. Both are potentially contentious. Both are also very different things. The number of Labour MPs, people who wish to form the next Government, who do not know the difference between the two is startling. Either that or they are shamelessly and damagingly misleading the public for personal and political gain.

The facts, which are so infrequently reported, are as follows-

  • If a tenant has one more bedroom than they need, they will lose 14% of their housing benefit.
  • If a tenant has two more bedrooms than they need, they will lose 25% of their housing benefit.
  • This brings the public rental sector in line with the private rental sector.

In principle, I agree with the Coalition’s decision not to give housing benefit to council and housing association tenants where they are under occupying a house which is already state subsidised. It surely sends out the welcome long-term message that the state, whilst continuing to provide housing for those who need it, will no longer subsidise people’s luxuries because, yes, having a spare room is a luxury. It is something many people in the private sector could only dream of. Others may disagree. There may be those who believe that this is completely justified and that is, of course, their prerogative, providing they justify it using the facts.

Despite my broad support for the proposals, however, there are concerns. Firstly, there is the real and legitimate concern about how people are going to cope when their monthly incomings are reduced through this reduction, however ‘undeserving’ they may be deemed to be.

There are also problems with the fact that families who foster will be hit by this because foster children are not counted in the household for benefit purposes. This is surely a fundamental error in our benefits system and may potentially put people off giving this vital lifeline to vulnerable children. This is an integral issue with the system that is massively underpublicised and should be addressed by opponents and supporters of the changes alike.

There is, too, the broadly publicised and emotionally raw issue of the mother whose two sons are fighting for their country in Afghanistan and who will see her income suffer for keeping their bedrooms for when they return from active service. This is another legitimate area of concern in a bill which, whilst fundamentally necessary and fair, is flawed in certain areas.

Finally, there is the serious issue of a shortage of affordable and flexible housing and this, above all others, should be the main talking point to come out of this debate.

Instead of addressing these particular issues, however, the Opposition have branded it a ‘Tory tax on the poor’ and this is the line dominating the narrative surrounding it. It sets both sides in position in a toxic debate of which there can come no constructive good. Supporters of the bill argue that they’re curbing benefits for the undeserving, cleaning up Labour’s economic mess and attacking shirkers with a culture of entitlement. Opponents attack the immorality of the Conservative Party and wheel out hyperbolic arguments about Coalition hatred for the poor. Neither standpoint is constructive. Neither will solve the inherent issues.

Constructive opposition and effective scrutiny from opposing and Government benches is an integral part of a functioning democracy. Unfortunately, the way the Labour Party have gone about attacking this section of the Act is entirely the opposite. Labour MPs are tweeting with glee about door-knocking and raising the issue of the ‘Bedroom Tax’ with constituents. Frightening the public with a false narrative to score political points is something which all three parties have done in the past, some more than others. It is also entirely despicable and the Labour Party should be ashamed of themselves on this.

Labour has a strong and laudable tradition for standing up for the lower-paid, the public sector and those who need help. It is a tradition of which they should be justly proud having established things like the NHS and the Minimum Wage. What they are doing in the way they are approaching this issue, however, betrays that tradition and what they are supposed to stand for. Hyperbole does not hold anyone to account. It does not force ministers to justify their Bill or debate the finer points of it. It will not lead to changes or understanding but to fear and points scoring. It devalues the principles of the party and the democratic point of opposition. The way that Labour are approaching only proves this- that they have no credible alternatives, that they do not focus on addressing the issues that really matter and they cannot form a credible government should they be called upon to do so.

There are issues with welfare reform and these issues need to be addressed but labelling it a tax and ignoring the facts damages the cause of those who are legitimately concerned.

Gone but never forgotten- A Tribute to Sir Bobby Robson.

I was born into a country whose football supporting population were smarting from heartbreaking defeat to Germany in Rome with the sound of Nessun Dorma still ringing in their ears. The man who led England to what is still their most successful international finish since Wembley in 1966 was Bobby Robson. Sir Bobby shared many things with Sir Alf Ramsey, the mastermind of England’s one and only World Cup triumph, and one is the fact that immediately prior to accepting his country’s call he brought trophies to Portman Road as manager of Ipswich Town Football Club.

Despite the fact that I am far too young to remember Sir Bobby’s time in Suffolk, I grew up as a football fan with his legacy all around me. When my Dad used to take me to games when I was young he would point out to me the statue of Sir Bobby standing, finger in the air in touchline instruction, pointing to the stadium where he enjoyed unprecedented, and unrepeated, success. I would be regaled with stories of famous victories over Europe’s football elite, of a team which matched the best in England and of league near-misses and spectacular cup victories. Despite being born nearly ten years later, I can still reel off a good proportion of the names of the cup winning sides of ’78 and ’81 and ‘Osbourne, one-nil’ is burned into my mind as if I was there. At the centre of all this, of all the international superstars to wear the blue and white of Ipswich Town, is the influence of Bobby Robson. His style, his ethos are what won European trophies for a small provincial team and are what our club still strives to today.

The day after he passed away in the summer of 2009 he truly passed into legend. With my family at Portman Road the next day I walked around the car park behind Bobby’s imposing statue which was flooded with shirts and scarves and flags. Rivalry was cast aside for something bigger and the blue and white of Ipswich Town was joined by flags and tributes of all colours, from fellow East Anglians Norwich City to Barcelona to the black and white of Tyneside via the team over whom Ipswich triumphed in the UEFA Cup final in 1981, AZ Alkmaar. Every shirt, flag and scarf was a memory and a thank you to football’s truest gentleman.

With his unmatched work ethic, sense of humour and sense of humanity, groundedness and tenacity, he won success as a player and manager. He applied the same tenacious fight to beat cancer and set up a charitable foundation before, without taking an ounce of his dignity, the illness finally took a hero to so many.

The trophy cabinet and statue at Portman Road, the stands that bear his name in Ipswich and his native Tyneside and memories of jubilant successes and the most agonising failures mean that Sir Bobby Robson will always be remembered. True greats never really leave us. Today, on what would have been Sir Bobby’s eightieth birthday, the team with which he enjoyed so many years of success are languishing perilously close to the drop-zone of the second tier of English football. Perhaps the good times will return to Portman Road, perhaps they won’t, but thanks to Sir Bobby Robson my team will always have that glorious bit of history.

The success of London 2012 is not in selling Britain to the world but to itself

I am someone for whom the word ‘patriotism’ has always felt a little uncomfortable and conjured up images of either skinhead racism or imperial nostalgia. I am not the sort of person you would expect to now actively be searching for a large Union flag but I am doing just that. Walking down Oxford Street yesterday under huge flags of every competing nation interspersed with the Olympic rings, only the most unfeelingly hardened of cynics would refuse to acknowledge that there is just something in the air right now. From the goosebump-inducing and unashamedly British Opening Ceremony to shouting at the TV as the horribly tense equine version of the penalty shootout unfolded in Greenwich Park yesterday afternoon, I have felt something that, until now, was completely alien to me. I have felt a surge of pride for my country, its people and what it can achieve.

And I am pretty sure that I am not alone. The articles about the Olympic Games, both sporting and non-sporting, in my newspaper (The Times) are full of an unabashed praise and yes, that word again, pride for what our organising committee, our athletes and our country are in the process of achieving. Seventeen million people roared Jessica Ennis home in the heptathlon, urged Mo Farah to the finish line in the 1,500 metres and stood and watched in disbelief as Greg Rutherford became the best British long-jumper for half a century. At Eton Dorney, and on televisions and computer screens in workplaces up and down the country, people from every conceivable background rowed each stroke with the crews as British boats came home for medal after medal. Tonight, Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton will be urged across the line by the roars of millions as Team GB go for gold medals number six and seven in the velodrome. This Olympic Games, even with six days of competition still to come, has provided some remarkable and historic sporting achievements that will go down firmly in Olympic history.

What is just as remarkable as the achievements of Team GB in London’s sporting arenas and what will be just as significant is the impact that these Games have had on their host nation. In Beijing in 2008, China stepped up to present itself to a global audience, to sell itself to the world and announce its presence on the international stage. For Britain this year there is a different story. The country does not need selling to a global audience; the success of London 2012 is in selling Britain to itself.

We are a nation of cynics and of self-deprecation. We generally feel uneasy at brash and jingoistic national self-aggrandisement, something we disparagingly associate with the Americans. We don’t have the perceived French surety about our sense of collective identity or the sense of renewal and hope that comes out of decades of turmoil in nations such as South Africa. Too often it is perceived that what we have in this country is bad weather, bad food, a faltering economy, poor infrastructure, violence, gang culture, teenage pregnancy, racism and intolerance. In fact, if you read the Daily Mail even now, at the height of the mid-Games feel-good factor you would still believe that this is all that we have. But that newspaper is one of very few places where such attempts to degrade and downplay this country exists.

Amid scenes of sporting triumph we have seen the stories of this country. When the Mail said that the Opening Ceremony image of a white woman and a black man living happily together in modern Britain was unrealistic, they rubbished and insulted the family of the Queen of the Olympic Stadium, Jess Ennis. This incredible athlete, built with Sheffield steel and determination, is remarkable for her sporting achievements and not her family background. This is something for Britain to be proud of.

When Mo Farah came to London as an eight year old Somali war refugee he barely spoke English. This country adopted him and he adopted it. On Saturday night, the nation cheered a black, Muslim asylum seeker, and a proud Brit, to gold in the city that he calls home. All the scaremongering, the islamophobia, the racism, the intolerance in the tabloid press, for all the comments about mixed-race marriages not working or Muslims or asylum seekers never being truly British was made to look as small-minded as it really is. There are those who say ‘It would be lovely if these things worked but they just do not’. These Olympic Games have shown not only that they can work but that they do, right now, right here in Britain. The Jessica Ennises and Mo Farahs may be the front pages but theirs is a story reflected up and down this country. Proof that this country is, at its heart, tolerant and accepting. A truth we appear to be starting to believe.

For roughly the cost of half of Fernando Torres, Danny Boyle staged the most incredible show in the Olympic Stadium on the opening night of the Games. Quirky, funny, inclusive, almost entirely volunteer staffed and British to a tee, the Opening Ceremony captured the hectic, transient, noisy, vibrant, varied and chaotic nature of this country and its people. London was welcoming the world to a city in which the language of every competing athlete was already spoken by someone who calls it home. A city where food, culture and music from every corner of the globe mingle together. Where the transport system works, where the Olympic Park is full of meadows and wild flowers and where the greatest show on Earth is in full swing.

People attacked the cost, the ticketing, the legacy, the timing. They said the transport, the stadia, the infrastructure would all fail. Now, as a nation, we are looking in awe at just what we can do. At what we are. At what we can achieve. The sense of unity, of positivity may be short-lived but the seed has been planted. The seed of optimism that says Britain can do it, that from the old imperial power comes a new, rejuvenated, multi-cultural, tolerant society that welcomes people from around the world for a day or for a lifetime. The sense for us all that it’s OK to have pride in these mixed-up, mongrel islands and what’s more that there is so much up and down the country for us to be proud about. As always with the Brits, it’s the little things that matter.

That is the real impact of London 2012.

He could have gone further but Gove’s education message is a step in the right direction.

As a trainee teacher in the academic year 2012-13, I watched with interest the statement given to the House of Commons this morning by the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove.  He is absolutely right to say that the examination system in state secondary schools in this country is in need of overhaul. He is right to say that the most academic pupils are not pushed to achieve their potential and that their less academic peers are languishing with a false sense of achievement having been failed by an ‘everyone must pass everything’ culture which has led to the degradation of the respectability of our secondary qualifications.

He is absolutely right that something must be done. GCSEs are broadly seen by employers as too easy, often irrelevant and nowhere near rigorous enough to be a true measure of a pupil’s attainment. When the standard we place upon young people to enter further education, be that Sixth Form or vocational college, is often no more than five GCSEs at grade C or above and these can include such ‘subjects’ as Travel and Tourism and Health and Social Care, it is little wonder that GCSEs are belittled and seen as worthless by many. Failure to reform a system engineered to ensure the highest level of results and not the highest level of attainment would equate to failing the next generation of secondary school pupils. It fails those with strong academic potential in not recognising that which should be vigorously cultivated and it fails those who would be much better suited to well-funded, well-taught vocational qualifications by failing to offer precisely that.

There is nothing regressive or divisive about saying that a qualification in Maths, English or Geography should be taught differently to and separate from qualifications in Leisure and Tourism, Hospitality or Motor Vehicle and Road User Studies. Lumping such wildly differing qualifications together under the same umbrella benefits neither and fails both. The left-wing opposition to Mr Gove’s plans disgracefully assumes that vocational subjects are automatically of lesser value to academic ones. This is not what the Government is saying and it is typical of the kind of one-size-fits-all approach to education which has seen this country’s global standing slide dramatically over the last decade. What opponents of reform must understand is that differences are not automatically divisions, they are marks of diversity, something the education system in this country is sorely lacking.

Every child should reach sixteen with good levels of literacy and numeracy and a broad understanding of general scientific principles. That much must not, and will not, change. Beyond these core subjects, however, there is opportunity to push for higher levels of attainment across a vast range of subjects. The new ‘O Level’-style academic qualification can be taught more rigorously, across a broader curriculum to challenge those pupils electing to take it. These pupils will be those who are interested in pursuing the subject in more depth and they will no longer be held back by a teacher having to cater to the lowest common denominator. What it will also mean is that pupils who have no interest at all in an in-depth study of say Geography will not be forced into spending two-years wasting their own and everyone else’s time working, or not, towards an exam everyone realistically knows they are going to fail and which will do them no palpable good whatsoever. This is the reality in schools up and down the country and it fails everyone.

A new, more vocational qualification taught by excellent teachers with good, well-funded resources is a viable and necessary alternative to this production line of low-achievement and valueless qualifications. These courses would not be ‘second class’ as opponents of diversity, individuality and change would have us believe but would be taught to the same high standard and would expect the same level of hard work, motivation and attainment as their academic counterparts. Just as a top-quality History course in Years 10 and 11 will prepare pupils for A Level and undergraduate study, a top-quality Motor Vehicle course, coupled with ‘CSE’-style qualifications for breadth, would prepare the pupils taking it for college or apprenticeships, giving them a grounding that is sorely lacking under the current system. One size does not fit all and we should stop the pretence that it does. GCSEs have lost all their value as a result of this approach so a change is necessary.

It remains to be seen whether Mr Gove’s reforms will incorporate these elements and there are certainly legitimate concerns about having one exam board for each subject but the thinking is correct and it is a step in the right direction. If the Government wanted to truly drive up standards and improve the system then they would champion selective secondary education in the form of the reintroduction of grammar schools. Until then, however, this is a broadly positive move.