11 MAY, 2016 @ 7:30 PM
So much of the debate around Europe has been about financial projections, trading complex cost benefit analyses about what will happen if we stay or leave. And fascinating though that all is, my hunch is that it might not, on its own, clinch the right result.
Because there is much more to this Referendum than the economy, crucial though that is.
It is also about more fundamental questions such as: what sort of country will my children be living in when they grow, what sort of country will their children live in?
What is the international legacy we want to leave to the coming generations?
We should be clear with ourselves. This decision is not so much about the here and now, but about the impact on our children and our children’s children.
It is about the character of our country. For instance, do you see Britain as a country that stands apart from others, glowering across the White Cliffs of Dover in bad-tempered isolation? Or do you see Britain as an outward-looking country that works with its neighbours to build a more prosperous and secure world?
Do you see Britain as a country that should resist any changes to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century? Or do you see Britain as an adaptable country that can thrive, innovate and lead in an open, global economy?
Do you think the only way we can protect our security against distant threats is by standing alone? Or can we make ourselves safer by sharing our response with those countries who are our friends, who share our values and who also face those threats?
I’m a natural optimist: Liberals are natural optimists. Last Thursday, as the biggest gainers in the local elections, my optimism was vindicated.
As a movement, we want to look forward, not back. We are in the future business.
A few weeks back I spoke to a 97 year old chap back home in the lakes. I asked him if he was voting in or out. He looked at me and said very matter-of-factly ‘well, either way, it’s not going to affect me for long’, which was a bit grim. And whilst I was trying work out how to respond he chipped in ‘but I’ve got grandchildren and great grandchildren, so I’ll be voting to stay’.
He didn’t expand. He didn’t need to.
Not everyone gets it though. Yesterday, Roger Daltrey came out for Brexit. He had his reasons, I’m not going to slag him off. In the 60s he led the youthful mod revolution. He’s 72, a slip of a lad compared to my constituent. But Roger, we’re not talking about your generation. We’re not talking about mine either. The referendum is about the generations to come.
So let me be really blunt. You may be grumpy about Brussels. But I suggest that you have no right to prejudice the future of your children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Liberal Democrats fought harder than anyone to give 16 and 17 year olds the vote in this referendum. The government blocked us and let those young people down. But this vote is still more about them than it is about people of my age and above.
Of course, if you want, you can cast your vote in a self-regarding way. But I want to challenge you, before you vote, to think of those people that your vote will actually affect the most – Britain’s next generation.
Have you the right to limit, bind and impoverish their futures? To narrow their horizons, curtail their freedoms, hamper their ambitions and isolate the country that they will inherit?
Some may regret that Britain is no longer the imperial power it was generations ago, sovereign over India and much of Africa., But those same individuals often fail to recognise that our own sovereignty in a complex world is a much more complex thing – shared and limited whether in Europe or out of it.
And let’s face it. The past wasn’t all that glorious, after all: it involved massive defence spending, national service, a succession of colonial conflicts in Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and Borneo and – let’s be honest – the empire didn’t do that much for the sovereignty of those countries that we occupied…
But it’s Britain future that this Referendum is about, not its past – glorious or inglorious.
We shouldn’t allow the Referendum to become a collective exorcism of our Brussels demons at the expense of a rational consideration of what is in the long-term best interest of our country and our people – and what role we want to play in the world.
I don’t want Britain to become an offshore financial centre, hoping like a Switzerland or a Panama, helping the global rich hide their wealth from tax authorities in other countries. I don’t want Britain to lose the rest of its manufacturing capabilities, which is what would happen if we go for the unilateral free trade approach that Brexit economists have suggested as an alternative to the European single market.
I don’t want us to become a society riven with nationalism, viewing foreigners as hostile and dangerous, closing its frontiers to outsiders– a second incarnation of King Zog’s Albania or a partner to Putin’s Russia.
I want us to recognise the future benefits of close relations with our neighbours and natural partners, how investing in each other’s economies and sharing in prosperity can make Britain even greater than it is now.
People talk about Europe being very good for business. The single market, no tariffs, free movement of labour. And they are right, but you know what? Even more than that, the thing that business and economies need more than anything else to prosper is…peace.
Today we sit around the table with people that seventy years ago we were at war with. We sit around the table with people that, twenty-five years ago, had nuclear weapons on their soil pointed at us. Europe is the world’s most successful peace process.
Our generations have enjoyed that peace, how dare we recklessly risk that peace for the generations to come?
I want my children to grow up in a society that shares security, shares political values and shares social standards with our European neighbours, rather than risking a return to mutual hostility.
Now, these are just a few of the vital arguments that need to be made by those of us who consider ourselves progressives.
David Cameron’s approach seems to be to point at the door to exit and say ‘there be dragons’, to emphasise the danger. Now, there is of course much to fear from the isolation that exit would bring, but I say that the progressive case for Britain in Europe is the positive case for Britain in Europe. One the focuses on hope not fear, on opportunities not threats. A case that is uplifting, inspiring, and – crucially – patriotic.
This is a decision too big for tribal loyalties. Progressives need to come together – and be seen to come together – to build a progressive political alliance. Because this is a choice between liberals and progressives on one side – and on the other, nationalists, who suspect foreigners of conspiring all the time to do Britain down.
This is not about loving everything that comes out of Brussels. It is about recognising that there is a vision of co-operation, collaboration and mutual support which Britain can play leading part in.
Look at the other side – Farage, Johnson and Goldsmith – the most conservative forces in British politics have already made their agenda clear. “These ‘Go’ rallies are one lurid blazer away from John Redwood’s fantasy cabinet.”
They are English nationalists who want to reduce workers’ rights, reduce environmental protections and reduce financial regulations on the banks.
Lord Lawson, the former Tory Chancellor, is just one of several Brexiteers who have argued that a vote to leave would free Britain to return to a full-blooded, hard-right Thatcherite agenda.
Those of us who share a positive vision of a community of nations working together to tackle the immense challenges we face must come together. Those of us who claim the mantle of progressive politics have to champion the positive reasons for being in Europe. It is not enough to point out the calamity that Brexit will be.
That is why I call on the leaders of all the progressive parties in British politics to join me on platforms such as this, going round the country making that case.
Because fighting a positive campaign is the right thing to do.
Last week saw the culmination of a despicable campaign for London Mayor by Zac Goldsmith, and saw the election of Sadiq Kahn, to whom I offer my warmest congratulations.
But it also saw the emergence of a new and credible progressive voice for Londoners: Caroline Pidgeon.
Her campaign buzzed with energy and creativity. Above all else, it was decent, positive and Liberal. Caroline’s campaign has enhanced her standing, it has enhanced the Liberal Democrats and it has enhanced London.
But there is one thing on which I can agree with the Leave campaign:
This is a once-in-a-generation decision.
That’s why it’s so important that young people register to vote before the 7 June.
We can choose isolation, only to leave our children trailing around after our European partners, haggling pathetically for the chance to get back into their markets, watching them implement the rules they tell us we have to adopt but without any influence.
Or we can choose to remain, playing an active part in shaping the future of the European Union.
And here’s the thing that frustrates me the most. We are one of the EU’s largest and richest countries. Why are we not leading from the front in Europe? For decades we haven’t been in the driving seat. We haven’t been in the passenger seat. We haven’t even been in the back seat. We have been rattling around in the boot with the spare tyre.
But that’s been our choice, the choice of the British establishment, our stupid fault. Let this be the moment when we choose to use Europe to boost our power, boost our independence, boost our influence.
We have a wealth of talent and creative energy in our tech entrepreneurs that can help shape the digital economy across Europe and that can help us tackle the delicate balance between open access and individual privacy.
Take our creative industries, often driven by young people for the benefit of young people. One of the great British success stories and the fastest growing sector of our economy.
The British music industry alone contributes £3.8 billion to the UK economy – over half of this comes from exports, and it is Europe that is its second-largest market.
The EU and its member governments have led global negotiations on containing climate change – magnifying Britain’s influence through working with like-minded European partners.
It’s only by working with our fellow European democracies that we will tackle the hiding of money around the world by the global rich revealed in the Panama Papers.
More importantly, it is only by working with our European partners that we will tackle the kind of corporate tax evasion that is too dull to make the news but which has the most significant impact on revenue. Companies that use our infrastructure and resources, yet fail to pay their fair share.
Their workforces are educated in our schools and treated in our hospitals. They use our roads and our railways. What an outrage that the likes of Amazon and Google who benefit from the investment of our tax payers, choose to sponge off those tax payers. Taxation is not a penalty. It is the subscription charge you pay for living in a civilised society. It is time that those corporations joined the civilised world. Remaining in Europe gives us a better chance of keeping those companies civilised, making them honest, collecting their taxes.
And as we look forward, the Leave camp still can’t answer basic questions about what will happen if we do vote for exit.
If we vote to leave, we will face years of uncertainty while our government negotiates different arrangements with individual governments: hitting UK employment and investment – and therefore jobs.
In a global economy in which networked services operate across national boundaries, and cars, aircraft and smart-phones are assembled out of parts designed and assembled in different countries, we will be a bit-player, on the edge of the world’s largest single market – which is the EU.
And as the Prime Minister said on Monday, we shouldn’t take the peaceful and open world we have benefitted from over the past 20 years for granted, either.
Putin’s Russia is economically weak but militarily powerful and relies for its legitimacy on stoking anti-Western nationalism. So let’s not stoke our own anti-European nationalism. We’re best off working with our partners in the EU and NATO – two closely-linked organisations, as President Obama has reminded us – to contain the threat.
Rapid population growth, economic weakness and political disorder across much of Africa and the Middle East are pushing waves of migrants cross the Mediterranean.
There’s no way any European country can manage this long-term challenge on its own.
The Leave campaign have conjured up the idea that the greatest threat to Britain’s future comes from Europe itself: that Brussels is a new Roman Empire, aiming to reduce Britain to colonial status. That’s absurd and the politics of the conspiracy theorist.
And as for Trump in the latest Leave.EU video… Could anything set the bar for credible celebrity endorsement any lower?
Our neighbours are also democratic states, with open societies and vigorous political debates. These societies share our values; they share our recent memory; if you want to know why they say to us ‘stay’ it is because they share the same experience of total war that we did. They’re like us, warts and all.
Our British Identity
We should celebrate our diversity and the fact that Britain’s character and identity has been shaped by successive waves of immigration from the continent: Saxons, Danes, Normans, then later French Huguenots, Russian Jews, and in the turmoil of two world wars German and Austrian Jews, displaced Poles and Ukrainians, Italian prisoners-of-war who stayed here to work.
The British Establishment is as diverse as the rest of us. Winston Churchill’s mother was American. Boris Johnson’s grandmother was Turkish. Zac Goldsmith has a French grandmother. Nigel Farage has a German wife.
Michael Gove has a romantic fantasy of Britain as naturally free and perfectly democratic, facing a continent that is naturally authoritarian: he’s even described the EU as ‘Soviet’.
What an insult to those now free countries, once our enemies, now our friends within the EU who could tell Michael Gove all about life under soviet imperialism. The EU is the antithesis to that authoritarianism. They should know – they were liberated from it and chose instead to belong to an international club that has freedom and liberalism at its heart.
Of course the EU is far from perfect; but then Westminster and Whitehall are far from perfect – for example, Michael, thanks to you, the Department for Education is now a basket-case. It doesn’t mean that I want to leave Britain.
Even though of course Britain isn’t a spotless miracle of democracy either. As police investigations into the Conservatives’ election expenses show.
Liberal Democrats are as frustrated at the obstacles to political reform in Westminster as in Brussels. But that doesn’t mean we want to blow the Palace of Westminster up, any more than we want to take our bat home from Brussels.
The Leave campaign has vigorously dismissed the long succession of English-speaking heads of government, the Australian and Canadian prime ministers, the US President, who have told them they are wrong. These are the leaders of the countries Boris Johnson and Michael Gove think we should be moving closer to, in an imagined ‘Anglo-sphere’ of special relationships. But the reality is that the people they want to work with think they are fools – and they certainly believe that to leave is the most foolish course of action.
Since they see European governments in the EU as hostile to Britain, and find American and Commonwealth leaders urging us to remain an EU member, they might like to adopt the old Millwall chant as their theme song: ‘Nobody likes us, and we don’t care’.
I care about the future of this country, and I’m sure that future will be more secure and more prosperous if we continue to work together with the Dutch and Danes, French and Spanish, Germans and Italians.
The EU is not a monster directed against Britain by a secret conspiracy in Brussels. It’s a grouping of friendly democratic governments, struggling to master the many challenges we all face.
The unavoidable compromises among 28 governments, with different pressures from their domestic publics, don’t always reach the perfect answer that some in Britain demand.
But life isn’t perfect, and politics is about compromise; and political negotiation among democratic governments across Europe is far better than what our grandparents suffered in war, or the numbing fear and anxiety of those of us who grew up through the cold war.
So in this referendum, my challenge to voters of my age or older, is to use your vote in the interests of those that your vote will affect the most. Your children and grandchildren. And my challenge to younger voters is that you should leave no-one in any doubt that the Britain you will inherit must be outward looking, positive, ambitious – not isolated, limited and negative.
I want my children to grow up in a confident Britain that pursues prosperity and peace in cooperation with our neighbours, countries that are also our cousins; not a sullen country cut off from the continent. Britain is a European country; we share democratic and liberal values.
We share Europe’s history.
We share Europe’s future.
That’s why I vote to remain.