A Liberal Democrat future (speech given July 2016)

It has been an astonishing few weeks: shock waves from the Brexit vote have been echoing round the world, our two largest political parties in turmoil and a string of resignations. The spotlight has been shone on wealth inequalities, racism and xenophobia in British society. As a party, we’re right to be getting things in order in case there is a snap election.

Mark Argent
Mark Argent

I campaigned for a Remain vote — both as a Liberal Democrat and in Cambridge for Europe. Remaining in the EU is profoundly important for all of us. I very much agree with Tim Farron’s comment made soon after the referendum, that we should campaign to reverse Brexit in the next election, though quite what that means will depend on whether the formal process of leaving under article 50 of the Lisbon treaty has been triggered by then.

Between the start of the year and the referendum I knocked on just over 2100 doors. Each time I have asked the Europe question. What strikes me is how many of those who said they’d vote Leave who were doing this for reasons which had nothing to do with the EU — reasons that were to do with frustrations with life or politicians. When the EU was mentioned, people knew chillingly little about it.

Some years back I sat the exams to work for the European Commission and for the Parliament. The reading for that radically altered my understanding of the EU, but many people haven’t had the prod to do that.

My sense is that the stability the EU has brought meant people could vote Leave without being really aware of the consequences. The harsh reality is that the demographic that voted Leave is also the one that stands to lose out. There are retired people who face the prospect of their pensions not going as far, and slightly-younger people who need immigrants to fill gaps in the workforce if they are to retire. There are now stories of business thinking again about being in the UK and of others putting off recruitment. Places like Ebw Vale or Cornwall voted Leave because life couldn’t get any worse, and now realise both that it can, and that it’s optimistic to think a Tory government would chose to replace lost EU funding.

As a party I think we need to do all we can to reverse Brexit. But we also need to engage with those who voted Leave. Some will rightly be angry that they were lied to. People have real concerns, but these are not to do with the EU. In fact it would be brutal to turn round and say “you voted for it, put up with it”.

My article on Liberal Democrat Voice yesterday (17 July 2016) was about engaging with people in these places — that’s about building the case for following the referendum result, but it’s also about engaging with the real problems now in focus.

But there’s a bigger picture, that includes support for Donald Trump in the USA, or whatever is going on with an apparently-engineered coup to justify a crackdown in Turkey. My previous piece on Liberal Democrat Voice drew a parallel with the 1930s. That’s not to accuse people of being Nazis, but it is to suggest that the malaise that led the Germans to elect the Nazis might be back. In its DNA the EU is hard-wired to prevent that and chilling that people in this country voted to step out of that restrained, and so quickly leap into xenophobia.

Nick Clegg’s resignation speech was spot on about the need for Liberal values. They are even more needed now. We need the sense that we are better together and enriched by diversity — which is what we lose in xenophobia. We need the sense that there are ways out of being enslaved by poverty that are not about the politics of envy. We need to talk about devolution, so that decisions are made as close as possible to the people affected by them — particularly if we are going to make a difference to wealth inequality. It’s great to have a Liberal Democrat as elected mayor in Bedford, but the Tory approach to devolution seems calculated to not make a difference. We need to talk about the NHS in ways that recognise that we are living longer — which is great, but brings costs and problems that are better addressed together.

There is talk now of a possible new progressive alliance in British politics, not least in Tim Farron’s piece in The Independent on 17 July. It’s worth keeping in mind these words from the preamble to our constitution: “The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”. This is about the fundamental values in which we are rooted, which we take into whatever discussions are to come. Only the tree that is deeply rooted can flex without being blown over.

The EU is key to delivering the stability that lets the UK be vibrant and prosperous. The vision has to be of working together. Personally I hope that we don’t just reverse Brexit, but can take that open and engaged way of being into our shared life. I’d like to think we can go from carping on the sidelines about “renegotiation” to joining with Liberal and Democrat friends like Guy Verhofstadt and Sophie in’t Veld, and organisations like Another Europe is Possible, to improve EU democracy.

Originally a speech given to a local Liberal Democrat Association in July 2016

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