Please note this article was published in Summer 2018
Brexit is the biggest political issue of our time – and it is about time the Labour Party came to a clear position through its democratic structures. Like the overwhelming majority of members I backed remain, but what matters now is that the people should decide whether the Government’s approach is the way forward or we should stay in the EU – either through a people’s vote or a general election where the people are given a clear choice.
One of my earliest political memories is of the 1975 referendum and my Dad coming home from work and complaining about all the youngsters thinking Europe sounded like a good thing and ignoring their union (the ETU, now part of Unite) advice to vote no. But since I was old enough to think about it for myself I can’t remember being anything other than pro-Europe. I like to think that if my parents had still been around in 2016 they’d have voted to stay in too. Not least because I know their grandkids, my kids (and particularly the two who weren’t old enough to vote themselves) would have begged them to vote for their futures in Europe.
So, why was I so unequivocally pro staying in? I suppose growing up under Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister helped. All the good things in terms of employment rights seemed to come from being part of the EU. But that’s not really a good enough answer: if we chose to we could elect a UK Government that did those things too. But we can’t elect a UK government that gives us the freedom to travel and work in Europe: only international co-operation can do that. It seemed to me the pro-Brexit campaign was based on a number of myths, but the underlying argument was that by leaving the EU the world would be less complicated. It is a fact that the world is much more connected and complicated than it was in the 1970s. Improved communications have radically changed all sorts of processes and enabled global conglomerates to dominate – too big for any single nation to regulate. The question is whether we accept this as inevitable and attempt to work with other nations to tackle their excesses or try to shut ourselves off from it. Many of those in Labour who opposed us joining in the 1970s did so because they wanted us to work primarily through the Commonwealth, but those countries are making their own way in the world now, and that is no longer a realistic option. Geographically it makes sense for us to work with our closest trading partners and much of our economy is now built on this with just-in-time production and a virtual shopfloor with frictionless exchange of parts at companies such as Airbus. It’s also a group of like-minded nations to the extent that we are all committed to liberal democracy, albeit with governments of different political hues in different times at different places. The EU is not perfect, but ripping it up, and starting again to recreate the international agreements in place never seemed like the best option to me.
Prior to the referendum I stood for the regional list during the Welsh Assembly elections and did a number of hustings with UKIP on the platform. It was obvious that theirs was an overly simplistic view of the world. Every problem or difficulty that was raised in any area of life, could be solved, according to them, if we were no longer in the EU. Interesting to see just how that nirvana is working out… I was therefore an enthusiastic campaginer in the referendum:
I have to say though I felt it was the most horrible campaign I’ve ever been involved in. Many people clearly felt empowered to voice their xenophobia – and to direct it at us. But some of it was a signal of people’s despair too: they couldn’t see how the economy could get any worse. At the count I remember seeing a ballot box from one of our most deprived areas where only around one if four of the votes was to remain. And that is indicative of what happened in disadvantaged communities across England and Wales. That’s why I felt immediately afterwards, that while I hadn’t changed my view, we had to respect the referendum result and wrote of the need to address the concerns raised. But the vote to Leave was a vote to step into the unknown – and once the path ahead had been mapped it was always going to be appropriate for the people to decide whether to proceed. In anticipation of that I was also involved in setting up North Wales for Europe which held it’s first event in early 2017 and has gone from strength to strength.
I watched with growing concern as our Tory Government seemed determined to execute a hard Brexit but with no realistic plan about how to do so. The Prime Minister has danced on the head of a pin to try to keep her hard-line Brexiteers happy sometimes knowing full well that proposals were unworkable and / or unacceptable to the EU. Meanwhile the world has become a more dangerous place with Donald Trump elected US President and liberal democracy under threat even within the EU borders. Never has it seemed less sensible than to contemplate going alone. In early 2017 it began to be clear that as I set out here the Government was turning its back on keeping our country open for business and prosperity. Although the outcome of the General Election in June 2017 was unclear, it was unquestionably a rejection of Theresa May’s hard Brexit – but she carried on anyway. The only real negotiations to date have been within the Cabinet – the rest of the EU has been waiting to find out what they want. The majority have now concluded what was obvious from the start: that if we are to limit the damage to our economy, we will need to remain in the customs union and single market. This is unacceptable to many Tory backbenchers so they have spent months formulating new descriptions but the reality is clear. This should always have been the starting point for negotiations: having rejected EU membership by a narrow margin the national consensus was bound to be around a very close trading relationship – the “common market” we joined in the 70s but reflecting the modern economy. However, the Government is still more concerned about its lunatic fringe than building a national consensus. I wrote here https://labourlist.org/2018/06/passing-up-the-chance-to-beat-the-tories-on-brexit-makes-no-sense/ about Labour’s strategy in Parliament.
This autumn the final deal will be presented to the UK Parliament. It is already clear that the Brexiteers have no plan and never did have. Indeed their approach is at hear to reject the idea of having a plan. Of course David Cameron’s referendum was designed to paper over cracks in the Tory party and then rely on a broad consensus to tell the Brexiteers to shut up, not to give a clear prospectus for Brexit which the people could endorse or reject. And of course we’ve had the revelations about Leave.EU breaking electoral law during the referendum campaign.
I haven’t changed my view that Brexit is wrong for the country and nor have most Labour members. I don’t think it does us any favours long term to pretend otherwise and it certainly won’t help when it goes belly up to say “we knew it was a bad idea, but we didn’t think you’d listen, so went along with it …” . I therefore think Parliament needs to put Theresa May’s deal, or lack of it, before the people, with an option to remain. That could either be in a people’s vote or a General Election where Labour has a clear policy that we can all get behind and campaign on. We need a debate at this year’s conference to set that policy and that’s why I’ve supported the #laboursay campaign www.laboursay.eu
Is a referendum a good method of deciding a complex decision? Probably not. But just as the 1975 decision to stay could only be reversed with a second referendum, it is only the people who can overturn the decision in 2016 that we should leave. It may not be a good option, but I can’t see a better one.