Many who voted remain at the referendum worry that their country is being taken from them. It’s not just that they regret we are leaving the EU. They fear that as an independent country Britain might become a different place, with values they don’t recognise. This anxiety is real for many but it is groundless. Post Brexit Britain contains the same balance of people, the same political parties, our strengths and weaknesses have not changed, though I believe we now have an opportunity to meaningfully address the latter. What is different is the sense that the country feels divided, which is only natural given the result was close. Unfortunately a small but powerful coalition of politicians, campaigners and wealthy individuals are working hard to exploit this division and over-turn the referendum result.
Anti-Brexiters like Nick Clegg, Tony Blair and Michael Heseltine use language which is deliberately destabilising. They describe the leave vote (the biggest democratic mandate in our history) as an act of self-harm by dumb, weirdly agitated voters manipulated by ideological crazies who want to drag Britain into the middle of the Atlantic, hand the NHS to the Americans, steal their grandchildren’s’ money and “pull up the drawbridge” (whatever that means, who cares, etc.). This analysis is cynically distorted and deeply ungenerous. Denying any goodwill and dignity in the leave vote helps keep the country divided and makes the process of Brexit less likely to be successful. Which is of course Blair and Clegg’s objective. (Btw, I do not question Blair and co.’s patriotism, or the sincerity with which they believe in European Union.)
Since the referendum I’ve spoken with lots of leave voters from working class communities and have been struck by their pragmatism and confidence in the future. Not one regrets how they voted. They were at pains to say that their opposition to uncontrolled immigration is not racist. These people have the same British values that Blair claims for his “political centre”: tolerance and respect for other people and for rules that are fair, a desire for strong and safe communities where people look out for one another, wanting the best for your family. Let’s face it, these aren’t British values – they are values you’d find in Arusha, Chennai and everywhere else. People living in poorer communities depend on these values much more than the better off; with limited elbow room, competing for cash-strapped services, worrying about how to pay the next bill they have no choice. It’s out of these hard-pressed communities that our universal values originate because without them people would not be able to navigate the day-to-day.
The leave vote was a vote for tolerance, communities and aspiration. It was a rejection of something alien which that had become bloodless, indifferent and broken down. The EU operates as a top-down bureaucracy pre-occupied by the concerns of vested interests (its own Commission, the 28 member states, any business large enough to employ lobbyists, foreign governments) rather than ordinary Europeans. The great projects that the EU has implemented in the name of progress, most notably the Single Currency, have caused terrible damage to working class communities across the Continent. Freedom of movement, one of the EU’s four ‘freedoms’ is celebrated by metropolitan liberals (my tribe when I had one) as a beautiful idea which brings Europe together. It undoubtedly services the dream of European integration, and it is benefits business by suppressing wages. But in practice it is unsustainable, emptying poor communities in relatively poor countries, and over-crowding relatively poor communities in richer countries and trapping those living within them in low pay.
Leave voters rejected this beautiful, botched idea because it was made remotely, by individuals they did not know and could not touch. Working class leavers had nothing invested in the status quo. The founding ideals behind European Union were noble but the institutions it nurtured were contrived, rootless and corkscrewing constantly towards Heaven which the EU bureaucrats call ‘ever closer union’. This made Brussels highly vulnerable to lobbying by vested interests, particularly after the launch of the Single Market and then the Single Currency. Over time, the interests of the EU and the big banks and multinationals became inter-twined, with spectacular results. In 2002 the Greek government paid Goldman Sachs huge sums (some estimate $500m) to disguise the scale of its deficit so that it might circumvent the EU’s strict Maastricht rules and qualify for Monetary Union. Thus Greece passed into the sun-lit uplands of the Eurozone and the rest is history.
So back to ‘British’ values and where we now go as a country.
One example of British leadership which I admire is that we were the first G7 country to meet the UN target to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income on overseas development aid. This makes us the world’s second biggest aid donor after the USA. I believe this is a commitment we should maintain. As the world’s 5th largest economy, and as a former colonial power that profited from interventions in the southern hemisphere which also did a great deal of harm, we have a moral obligation to help those living in poverty. It’s also a policy that generates soft power, strengthens key bilateral and multilateral relationships and has created a generation of outstanding development professionals who now lead DfID and NGOs.
I guess that our record as a relatively generous aid donor is an example of the type of policy that some remain voters worry will cease to be a priority for post-Brexit Britain. But I don’t see why public opinion on our international aid programme will have changed because of the vote in June 2016. Aid spending has always had its critics and those of us who believe it is important must continue to make the argument for it. This should be easier after we have left because outside the EU, Britain will have to become a more responsible and internationally engaged country, and a closer and more valuable partner to developing countries.
Until we are outside the Single Market and Customs Union, we are bound by the EU’s trading relationships with developing regions like Africa. The EU has established Economic Partnership Agreements with some sub-Saharan countries but these are of limited benefit because the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy demands that trade deals with other agricultural-based economies are highly restrictive. For example, African exports of roasted coffee beans (a major cash crop for the continent) are hit with a 7.5% tariff as they enter the EU. This tax encourages African coffee producers to export their coffee beans raw, smothering attempts to create a local processing industry. In 2015, Europe’s coffee processors were the world’s second largest exporters of processed coffee (33.8% of the total). Africa’s share of processed coffee exports was 6.9%.
Outside the EU we can establish trade deals with these countries which are fairer and offer more upside to both parties. The US-African trade deal, the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), provides us with a good template. AGOA means that almost all products from the African continent now have duty-free entry into the US. AGOA has also been accompanied by a major engagement process sponsored by the US Government. As Toby Orr, a Director of the House of Commons All Party Group on Trading out of Poverty wrote for the Telegraph last year: “The impact for both Africa and US businesses has been dramatic. The Act is credited since 2000 with creating more than a million jobs in Africa and generating more than $26bn in duty-free exports to the US. At the same time US exports to sub-Saharan Africa have quadrupled. It all points to what the UK could do… Taking the best from AGOA, it should combine easy access to the UK for African exporters, more investment from the aid budget to build Africa’s trade capacity, and world-beating infrastructure on the ground to get deals flowing.”
More trade on fairer terms will help lift millions in the developing world out of poverty. Britain’s membership of the Commonwealth provides a route to 2.2bn people, 60% of whom are under the age of 30. Today, ministers from over 30 Commonwealth countries are meeting with business leaders and trade experts in London to discuss what they can do to boost intra-Commonwealth trade from 17 per cent to 25 per cent over the next three years, as well as increasing intra-Commonwealth investment and the capacity of its members to do even more trade with one another. Commonwealth countries share values, a common language, familiar institutions and similar legal and regulatory systems.
In 1995, Tony Blair called for the Commonwealth to be taken more seriously because it “includes five of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies… It is the only organisation, outside the UN itself, to transcend regional organisations and bring together north and south. The issues that dominate post-Cold War relations are at its heart; refugees, drug trafficking, international crime, terrorism, Aids, debt and trade.” Today the Commonwealth looks even more significant. Instead of trying to block Brexit, Blair should be helping to facilitate our transition from EU member state into Global Britain. As the architect of the New African Partnership (NEPAD) and an advisor to African leaders like President Kagame of Rwanda (which joined the Commonwealth in 2009, becoming its 54th member) he is particularly well placed to help boost trade between Africa and the developed world. Imagine Blair as a roving Brexit envoy, a pragmatist easing the concerns of Britain’s international partners, selling new opportunities, tee-ing up trade deals. This would restore him to real influence. But instead the former prime minister and his tycoon fan club is pre-occupied with somehow sabotaging Brexit, in defiance of an unprecedented democratic mandate, on terms that he is unable to explain, and in pursuit of reforming an EU that palpably has no desire to change.
In 2005 Tony Blair won a UK general election with 9.5 million votes and a 2.8% margin of victory over the Conservatives (8.8 million votes). He interpreted this as a mandate to take the UK into the Lisbon Treaty (the re-cooked European Constitution), give an extra £7 billion to the EU in reimbursed rebates, open the UK’s borders to new EU member states without any controls and in 2007 hand-over the keys to 10 Downing Street to Gordon Brown. Blair’s days of being able to ignore public opinion and do what he likes are over. When he stood down as Labour leader he gave his farewell speech in his Sedgefield constituency (“where my political journey began”). He closed his speech with these words: “The British are special. The world knows it. In our innermost thoughts, we know it. This is the greatest nation on earth. It has been an honour to serve it. I give my thanks to you, the British people, for the times I have succeeded and my apologies for the times I have fallen short. Good luck.” On June 23rd 2016 the north east voted 58:24 to exit the EU. Leave it there, Tony.