Does the EU represent a summit of human achievement, or just another step down the long road of European history? Time will tell, but I’m not convinced that the EU as it is currently organised has a future. This is bad news for all of us, and I hope it can reform itself. The biggest challenge Brussels faces is fixing the Eurozone, an ill-conceived project that has harmed the lives of millions of southern Europeans. It’s a problem that makes Brexit look pedestrian. By leaving the EU we are stepping out of the Eurozone’s way, and making it more likely that the EU27 can find their own way out of the crisis.
Having campaigned against an EU exit (and UKIP) for years, it took a lot of heart-ache to own up to the idea that I was a leaver. Several months out from last year’s referendum, two questions helped me cross the line: was permanent membership of the European Union the logical resting place for Britain as a democratic nation? And was EU membership the best way of building a society that was prosperous, fair, secure and a valuable partner to the rest of the international community? After some soul-searching I answered both with a negative. The referendum result showed that most of those who cared enough to vote on that day felt the same way and as a result walking away from the EU has become government policy. Viewed from Sunderland, Barking and Swindon, Brussels’ attempt to create trusted institutions and a reassuring narrative for the twentieth century has failed.
But what are we walking towards? This is the question of our time and we now need the widest possible number of people to engage with what the political economist and Blue Labour founder Maurice Glasman has called national renewal. Our political class now has an extraordinary chance to put their creative energy to work but a scrappy, ill-tempered referendum has left deep bitterness, and a small but powerful minority of politicians seem determined to try and derail Brexit instead of helping to make it a success.
A 52:48 result was always going to be painful, but the result was decisive and since June 2016 the coalition of content leavers has grown much larger than 17.4 million. EU diehards like Tony Blair and Lord Heseltine have the right to think Brexit is a mistake, they have no mandate to stop it, nor rubbish it. Blair dismisses the leave vote as the nasty by-product of dangerously ideological campaigners and irrational voters – a demagogic “insurgency” by the extremes on both the right and the left who share a thick-headed hostility to globalisation and those in power. I am sure this analysis helps some feel better about themselves but it is not just ungenerous, it is wrong. And it is deeply divisive.
By urging the well-heeled refuseniks of Richmond and Bath to join him in trying to spoil Brexit, Tony Blair challenges the legitimacy of British democracy and weakens the negotiating hand of his successor as prime minister. Seven months after the referendum an ICM poll revealed that 68% of voters wanted the government to get on with Brexit. Just 15% disagreed. If Tony Blair really wants what he calls the “political centre” to re-connect with voters, he should start by respecting their views.
Getting on with it means a clean Brexit which decouples the UK from the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union, and enables us to re-engage with Europe and the rest of the world as a sovereign nation. Blair, Heseltine and co. want to keep us in the Single Market and the Customs Union because they know that inside both we are effectively still in the EU, required to accept free movement, pay in to EU budgets and accept EU law. But taking back control is what a majority of the electorate voted for, and this is where we must start from if we are to rebuild trust in Westminster politics. This decoupling doesn’t stop Britain from being a European country, nor does it end the friendship and solidarity we will always share with our neighbours and strategic allies. Britain’s engagement with Europe does not end here, it just changes.
On the brink of fundamental change, our generation has a unique opportunity to do good for our country and the rest of the world. Intense moments of national soul-searching happen rarely in mature democracies like ours. It took war-time destruction to force bold responses such as the NHS, West Germany’s federal constitution or Japan’s economic revolution. We should use Brexit as a catalyst for something similarly progressive.
Britain is broken in many ways: a London-based political system that has lost touch with its electorate, an absence of opportunity in many communities where people feel left behind, public services that are not meeting the high standards we set for them. How can Brexit’s disruption be best used to devolve more control to Britain’s nations, cities and counties? How should extra resources be invested in the NHS, and excellent schools, apprenticeships and universities be made available to everyone? How does the north of England get its Brexit dividend, how should this be used? And as Britain champions global free trade, how do we build an economy that provides well paid, rewarding employment in an age of digitalisation and AI?
All of these questions need answers. In this unfrozen moment in our history, we are free to plan and to act. Maurice Glasman argues for the restoration of a human scale and emphasis to our politics. Leavers were motivated by the wish “to see the renewal of national institutions and a recognition that family, place and work – the things that matter to them – matter to their rulers.” If Glasman is right, then June 23rd 2016 represents a moment when the people of this country shrugged off a remote bureaucracy because they felt it placed legal uniformity and the convenience of multinational business above their needs as men and women. Surely we have it in ourselves to create a more warm-hearted settlement? We can now change Britain for the better but to make this happen all of us – whichever way we voted in June 2016 – need to come together.