With a year to go from the formal EU withdrawal date it is possible to offer a prediction of the most likely outcome. A starting-point is the House of Commons Exiting the European Union Committee report on The future UK-EU relationship, which was published earlier this month *. This excellent analysis treads carefully on the politics but suggests a possible end position: the UK will re-enter EFTA (the European Free Trade Area: Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein) as a preliminary step to joining the EEA (European Economic Area: EFTA plus Switzerland). This solution will do the least long-term damage to trading relationships while allowing both Tory and Labour leadership to tell the electorate that they have respected their wishes as expressed in the referendum. If this is indeed what transpires, this shameful chapter will end with us having achieved nothing and dumping a political problem on the next generation.
So how did we get to this state of affairs? To answer this question we must revisit the June 2016 Referendum campaign. It seemed poor at the time; in retrospect it looks even worse. Across the political spectrum there was reluctance amongst remainers to argue that a move to a global economy and an international society was a good thing. There was a strong desire, particularly amongst the new Labour leadership, to avoid offending insular Labour voters, and a feeling that the sooner the referendum was over the better. There was complacency amongst progressives amounting to a belief that we could win by stealth.
We must learn from our mistakes. In any future encounters that lie ahead – in implementing the eventual solution or even, optimistically, in a fresh referendum – we must not be afraid to articulate a positive vision. We must unapologetically put the case for an internationalist perspective.
A necessary start will be to distinguish between patriotism and nationalism. My country was at its best during the London Olympics. There was real buzz in the City. We delivered a challenging event with remarkable efficiency, made many thousands welcome, and shared something with the world. As a Welshman living in Norfolk I hold to a particular patriotism. I am proud of many features of the society in which I live. We have a robust welfare state; we have a system of government that is free of corruption; we care for our heritage, and make it accessible to all; we have many of the world’s leading Universities. However I have been fortunate, in my professional capacity, to have worked overseas alongside colleagues from many different countries. What has struck me is that our aspirations are the same: people I respect want the best for their children and grandchildren but not at the expense of others.
To her shame, in her October 2016 speech at Conservative Party Conference, Prime Minister Theresa May said: “But today, too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street. But if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means”.
Having something in common with someone who carries a different passport is not elitist, nor does it mean that you have nothing in common with people down the road. Still less does it make you a poor citizen. Sadly Theresa May’s speech set a tone and encouraged the surge of xenophobia that we are now witnessing. Speaking at a conference of EU nationals living in the UK Gina Miller, the British-Guyanese businesswomen who initiated the 2016 legal challenge (pictured above), said, “prejudice is worn as a badge and a sleeve of honour in Britain post-referendum”. She is right; this is shameful; such attitudes must be fought with vigour, irrespective of the eventual outcome of withdrawal negotiations.
* The Select Committee Repot can be downloaded at https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmexeu/935/935.pdf