Last June the British people reflected on their membership of the European Union, and on a turnout of 72 per cent decided by a clear majority to Leave. Just as there are regional variations in voting in general elections, so was it the case in the referendum. But the patterns did not fall along convenient party political lines. Indeed, all the major political parties campaigned for Remain.
The Government intends to trigger Article 50, the mechanism to implement Britain’s decision to leave the EU, in the same month as the EU will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome.
These are uncertain times, but it would be mistaken to see the referendum as having caused the divisions and tensions. The referendum exposed and highlighted existing fault lines.
I see the decision to Leave as the logical consequence of three events in the past 20 years. First, the British opt-out from the single currency and the common travel area, known as Schengen. Second, the introduction of the euro. A successful single currency requires political as well as fiscal union. Third, the failure of the EU to reform itself and introduce the democratic checks and balances which the failed European Constitution in 2003 was supposed to bring about.
History provides the context of our decision to Leave. We have decided to take back control over our laws, borders, taxes and trade arrangements. This does not make as any less outward-looking, welcoming or economically competitive. It’s a decision about democratic accountability – something Britain has traditionally been rather good at.
The mechanisms for doing so are untried and untested. This is uncharted territory for the UK as much as it is for the EU. But it is a precious opportunity to rewrite the rules of how nation states relate to each other in peacetime. It will allow us and the EU to look at the challenges of globalisation – the movements of goods, money and people – and respond to them with new institutions. The post-World War II structures are not working any more. We needed the World Trade Organisation to regulate the flow of goods; but we have as yet to find institutions that can respond to the global flows of private capital and the continued flows of political refugees as well as economic migration.
There is a big job to be done to bring all sides together to find solutions. It requires the courage to imagine the as yet unimagined and the humility to admit that we no longer do things we’ve done before. It’s no longer whether you voted Leave or Remain, nor a question of narrow party politics.
The Government finds it difficult to “think aloud”, putting out ideas for discussions. Voters expect certainties, not doubts. The political parties take partisan positions. It’s easier for Conservatives who voted to Remain, because they can come together in support of their party in government. It is harder for Labour members. They, quite rightly, want to hold the Government to account and they want to ensure that their communities are not left behind.
I now chair Change Britain, a cross-party campaign. We want to refresh our politics, build our economy and strengthen our communities. A central part of our work is conducting focus groups and listening to communities around the country to find out what they expect from their politicians and the Brexit process.
We have learnt from these discussions that people want the Government to get on with it and for MPs to vote unconditionally for triggering Article 50 if and when it comes to Parliament. There has been much talk of a transitional deal in recent months and the feeling is that, while this may be necessary for an interim period, it can’t be a deal that simply delays decisions or keeps us inside the EU by the backdoor.
Immigration is a dominant issue, but not in terms of simply wanting a reduction in numbers or outright opposition to immigration. There is agreement on the need for the public sector and business to be able to employ the best and the brightest from around the world. But there is a commonly held view that the EU’s freedom of movement is discriminatory. They question why someone, simply by virtue of being born in the EU, should more easily be able to come to the UK than someone born in Bangladesh or Canada. Any new immigration system must be underpinned by fairness and focused on skills and economic needs.
Change Britain will continue to go around the country, consulting with communities and making our findings available to the political parties and Government. This is too important a decision to be narrow-minded and petty about it. It is a great opportunity and I for one have faith in this country’s ability to do the right thing.
Gisela Stuart is the Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston. She is chairing Change Britain, the cross-party group set up following the Leave vote