Boris promised us that Brexit would mean we would have our cake and eat it. Liz Truss, keen on growth, has pledged to increase the size of the pie. Meanwhile, thanks to both of them, the nation is now in the soup! writes Philip Bushill Matthews.
It is nearly 50 years since the country had its first referendum on EU membership. Labour had been divided on the issue, and indeed had largely voted against the terms of Edward Heath’s original proposal to Parliament which only passed because of so many Labour rebels defied their party whip. When Harold Wilson resumed the office of Prime Minister he devised a cunning plan: he would ‘demand’ major renegotiation to the terms of the new Accession Treaty accepted by Edward Heath and if successful would hold a referendum. In practice the concessions he asked for were minor and cosmetic and were largely accepted.
The 1975 referendum question itself, cleverly crafted by Wilson, was ‘Do you think that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)? He then campaigned for a ‘Yes’ vote which won an overwhelming two-thirds majority. His strategy and tactics had been smart, and he had shown real leadership – in contrast to David Cameron who effectively allowed the Leave campaign to set both the question and the low threshold for success, as well as meekly confirming that the Government itself would stay neutral on the issue. The rest is history…
There is now a new light on this history. A biography of Harold Wilson by Nick Thomas-Symonds, currently Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade, has just been published. It contains the comment that Wilson’s “attitude was based on the belief that Britain was better off in, and that being outside would put the wrong people in charge of the country”. A remarkably prophetic observation.
Since the outcome of the referendum in 2016 the Brexiteers have simply hijacked the Government. Boris Johnson purged the moderates from the party and most of them left politics completely. Prospective Conservative MP candidates had to confirm their allegiance to the new orthodoxy or they would not be selected. Now Liz Truss has gone further, filling her cabinet with those who supported her – loyalty to the Leader being prized above ability or indeed political balance. Instead of trying to heal or at least bridge opposing views, only one position is permitted to prevail: that ‘Brexit has opened up massive opportunities for Britain to grow and soon this will become obvious to all’.
The reality of course is the opposite: there can be little growth if we continue to move further away from our largest and nearest market, yet all political parties continue to duck this debate. Conservatives cannot admit they were wrong in the first place. Labour is fearful of reawakening internal divisions: with a massive opinion poll lead such timidity is understandable. What is less easy to understand is the relative silence of the Liberal Democrats: chief cheerleaders for Remain, they choose to focus on mini-messages and bye-election victories rather than set out their stall on the much bigger picture.
The polls suggest that many Conservative voters are unlikely to vote for the present bunch next time, but some are wary of voting Labour. Voting Liberal Democrat does not yet appeal, yet it is increasingly clear that alternating two-party rule is no longer sensible in a vibrant democracy. There needs to be a third force, a force to be reckoned with, a party knowing what it stands for and not afraid to shout about it. Such a third force is already prominent in the EU.
Within the 27 EU member states, five have had Liberal Democrat (ALDE) Prime Ministers since 2020: Belgium, Estonia, Ireland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. ALDE parties are also in governments in six other member states: Croatia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovenia.
The Liberal Democrat party in the UK has even more opportunity to shine as an open goal awaits. It should be leading the charge to get closer to our European colleagues by re-entering the Erasmus scheme, re-joining the Horizon research programme, confirming the UK will fully embrace EU phytosanitary standards, minimising the self-inflicted red-tape throttling small businesses in particular and increasing the number of EU workers for abattoirs, vets, fruit/vegetable harvesting and care-homes to name but a few.
A small party needs a big voice, and to do so by owning/addressing a big issue of the day. The advice of entrepreneur Sir Thomas Lipton should be noted:
He who whispers down a well
About the things he wants to sell
Will not make as many dollars
As he who stands on top, and hollers!
LibDems should start hollering. Your country needs you. Now.
The Author, Philip Bushill-Matthews, is former Leader of the UK Conservatives in the European Parliament