Although I took a sabbatical to work for Vote Leave during last year’s referendum campaign I was never an enthusiastic leaver; it took David Cameron’s unconvincing renegotiation to push me over the line, confirming my impression that the UK’s dream of a reformed, more flexible EU was now broken, and in order to protect our democracy the UK had no choice but to take back control. I was surprised by how uncomfortable I felt at the time: guilty for being a bad neighbour, and for giving up on the idea that it was possible to reform the EU from the inside, uncomfortable about having to take sides on a decision that I didn’t see as black and white. I was a reluctant leaver I told people, half apologetically.
Now the country has millions of reluctant leavers. Almost all of them deserve praise for respecting the fact that the referendum was decisive. Politics always creates winners and losers, what distinguishes democracies is that losers accept a result they do not like. The referendum was raucous and hard-fought, and many wish the debate had been more thoughtful and wide-ranging. But few voters were left unaware that there was something very important at stake, nor could they have missed the principal arguments made by each side. On June 23rd millions voted in historic numbers for change and soon the Prime Minister will trigger Article 50 and begin to negotiate our exit from the EU.
The leave voters I’ve met since the referendum (as part of Change Britain’s research programme I’ve interviewed over 100 men and women in working class communities across England) want a sovereign parliament. They also want an immigration system that is rigorous and applies the same rules to migrants coming from inside and outside the EU. I haven’t met a leave voter who thinks we should “pull up the drawbridge” – everyone has a story about an EU migrant whom they admire because s/he works so hard. As long as there is a controlled and fair process then good luck to those who want to try and come to Britain. The voters I’ve met also support free trade and have confidence in the ability of British business to compete around the world. They are generally optimistic about Britain’s potential, they just want to see their country deliver more and quicker because they are ambitious for themselves and their children, and like the rest of us they only have so much time. The working class remain voters I’ve spoken to have a strikingly similar outlook to leave voters and both groups now want to see the government “get on with the job”. Both groups hold politicians in depressingly low esteem but they also recognise that delivering Brexit is not going to be easy. Get the job done and Theresa May’s government will have earned their respect, and Westminster has a chance to begin to repair its frayed connections with working class Britain. Fudge it and British politics could end up looking dangerously torn. There’s still a lot at stake.
Of course there’s a lot at stake – that’s the bloody point, argue those who never wanted this in the first place. Given the scale and exaggeration of the remain campaign’s scare tactics it’s not surprising that some people still feel anxious. The process is complex and unprecedented, and many of Brexit’s benefits won’t be realised for years. But if we take stock of what’s happened since June there’s a lot that should reassure those who voted remain that things are going to be OK, and perhaps persuade them that we might have done something extraordinarily exciting.
First, Project Fear was nonsense. Instead of tipping backwards into recession the UK was the fastest growing economy in the G7 last year. Despite Brexit. The Bank of England has now upgraded its 2017 growth forecast to 2% (it forecast 0.8% back in August) and raised its forecasts for 2018 (1.6%) and 2019 (1.7%). Businesses dislike the current level of uncertainty but international firms from Google to Nissan, Jaguar Land Rover and Novo Nordisk have pledged new investments in the UK. TheCityUK, the lobby group that campaigned for Remain is now calling Brexit a ‘once in a generation opportunity’ for the UK while Michel Barnier, the EU’s lead Brexit negotiator has acknowledged that the City, with its deep capital reserves and unrivalled skill-base, is an irreplaceable resource for EU firms and governments. Business people like Sir Paul Marshall and Lord (Jonathan) Hill, who campaigned on different sides, are now coming together to work out how we use Brexit to make our economy stronger and more resilient. And the Legatum Institute’s Special Trade Commission led by the timely Shanker Singham is beginning to illuminate the wide horizons awaiting Britain outside the EU’s Customs Union. If we can stick to the plan set out by the prime minister in her January Lancaster House speech then we have the opportunity to become the world’s free trade impresario, unlocking a new wave of trade agreements which would boost the global economy and improve livelihoods from Sofia to Senegal.
Second, Britain’s values haven’t changed. We’ve voted to leave the EU – an organisation that Remain campaigners showed very little enthusiasm for. That’s all we’ve done. Since the referendum we’ve swapped a male one nation Conservative prime minister for … a female one nation Conservative prime minister. Last month Theresa May made a big speech at Davos. Did she deny climate change or ban trade unions? No. She spoke in support of liberalism and free trade while also urging the world’s business leaders to recognise the frustration of ordinary people and help ensure that the benefits of economic success are there for “all our citizens”. Six months after the referendum Britain’s prime minister interprets the referendum result as a mandate to remind global CEOs that economic inequality is a problem and that their businesses have a responsibility towards their employees. Oh and by the way Brexit Britain is committed to upholding a rule based global order, supporting multi-lateral institutions like Nato, the UN and WTO and leading the fight against modern slavery. This followed promises at Lancaster House to protect both UK workers’ rights and the rights of EU nationals in the UK as we left the EU. Quelle catastrophe!
Third, outside the EU Britain will exert more influence, not less. As an independent country we will discover that much of Britain’s elite massively (and weirdly) underestimate our influence. The idea that Britain still has things to share with the world – a habit for global engagement and familiarity with international institutions, political nous, military, diplomatic and security muscle, science and technologies, development expertise, language, money, creative freedoms – and that much of this good stuff was being squandered by membership of a self-absorbed, snagged, muffled-eared EU was another reason for me to back leave. Inside the EU we are hamstrung by problems (Eurozone crisis, free movement, political extremism) of the EU’s own making, and which only the EU can solve. Soon we will be out of the EU’s way, free to help our close neighbours as best we can while also building the new alliances and coalitions needed to improve international relations. The prime minister’s controversial visit to the White House was an important first step. Of course there was realpolitik and self-interest in her visit, but look at what she achieved: immediately after their meeting President Trump committed himself to supporting Nato and ceded control of military interrogation to his Defence Secretary. British influence in action? Well, something happened. As we re-learn the arts of an independent foreign policy we will get better at this and more sure-footed about operating alone and in concert with allies. Hopefully our diplomats will re-discover the optimism and sense of possibility that once gave the FCO its famous chutzpah. Now we’re all sharing Planet Trump the world could use a resourceful, purposeful and wide awake UK.
Finally, the referendum result and everything that has happened since has begun to jolt our politics back into life. By facilitating such an ill-tempered referendum, absorbing its disruptive result and processing Brexit through the courts and parliament, peoples’ frustrations and desire for change have been channelled into the political mainstream. The prime minister of Brexit Britain is a Remain supporting vicar’s daughter, not Nigel Farage. In France, the Netherlands, Italy and even Germany nationalist, anti-immigrant and anti-EU parties led by charismatic individuals are on the march. Inspect the House of Commons and the only significant nationalist presence is the SNP. The British centre-ground is pragmatic, unionist and fair-minded. Tories and Labour share a commitment to the NHS, want to build more houses, are pre-occupied by narrowing the north-south divide, improving British infrastructure and raising the productivity of British industry. By whipping the Article 50 Bill through parliament Jeremy Corbyn has shown that he doesn’t want to surrender Brexit to the Conservatives. He is right – Labour should develop its own narrative around Brexit and the national renewal it makes possible. This is 1945 all over again. Our democracy needs work: power is too centralised and Westminster’s authority has been undermined by decades of EU membership but we can see it adapting to reflect the will of the people. Britain’s value and genius starts with this democratic instinct which has nurtured tolerance, individual liberty and respect for good institutions that have been allowed to evolve over centuries. Outside the EU this instinct can flourish and we can become a fairer, more prosperous and more generous community, a better neighbour and a resource for the world.