No time to weep: the fight for the soul of Britain and Europe has just begun

I have never felt more disheartened and dispirited by a political development in my lifetime. The elections I campaigned in and lost don’t come close. The damage to jobs and livelihoods resulting from the wrong party getting elected would happen over years not days as seems likely with this vote. And there was always the possibility that the government could be kicked out in four or five years. No such hope now. This decision is final, definitive and disastrous.

It would be easy to say “sod the lot of you” and go and focus on something entirely unpolitical. Shut out the world and pretend none of this has happened. But that would be wrong. Because the decision by the UK to leave the EU is not the end of a battle, it is very much the beginning. And if good people who believe in tolerance, freedom and openness don’t start fighting back now things will only get a lot worse. We will have conceded a struggle for the soul of our country and our continent before it has even really started.

Across Europe far right populist parties are on the march picking up votes and getting ever closer to the levers of power. In fact, in Poland and Hungary they already are in power promoting prejudice, stifling free speech and stoking nationalism. In France, the Netherlands, Austria and maybe even Germany they stand a good chance of being in power very soon. Make no mistake, it is these parties that will be the beneficiaries of this vote. Their confidence will be boosted enormously. Indeed they have already started calling for referenda in their own countries: a co-ordinated attempt to destroy the EU entirely.

These are not open-minded, innovation-loving free traders like Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. They are the authoritarian, chauvinistic, protectionist Farages of their country. They want to destroy a settlement that has delivered economic growth and peace for the continent for seven decades and take us back to the political distrust and beggar-thy-neighbour economics that caused so much misery and suffering throughout Europe’s history.

These parties are a menace and a deep threat to everything decent people hold dear. They must be stopped in their efforts to destroy the values of decency and the fight has to happen now as much in the UK as elsewhere. Actually maybe it has to happen more in the UK to show that even the man who is now the king of the European populists, Nigel Farage, can be defeated through robust, smart political campaigning.

However, to win this fight we need to do two things urgently.

Firstly, we must recognise that the battle we face is not one between left and right but between open and closed. Those who value free trade, welcome other cultures and believe in international co-operation must join together no matter what party they are from to fight this new political menace now strengthened by the UK vote. Tribalism must be put aside. Most importantly those who share these values who joined the Leave campaign and are tempted to support anti-EU moves in other countries must wake up and recognise that they have boosted people who hate their beliefs and hope to destroy what they cherish.

Secondly, the centrist parties and politicians who must lead this fight need to radically rethink their offer to the people of the UK and Europe. The argument that they are the most trustworthy managers of national economies no longer works. But the alternative is not to ape the values and policies of the populists or compromise with them. We can see precisely where that has got Britain! It means developing a vision based on change that addresses the three big things driving the populist rebellion.

  • A new democratic settlement that responds to anti-elitism and anti-politics by giving ordinary people much greater say over political decisions not through referenda but through deliberation led by MPs in their constituencies and held directly accountable by their constituents — the whips, the media, the party donors need to be swept aside.
  • A new economic settlement that begins to undo the gross inequality that creates such disparities of power and well-being and leaves millions feeling excluded, left behind and angry. That can’t mean some return to the post-war settlement of the big welfare state. The welfare state is already far bigger than it was in the post-war period. It must instead be a settlement based on wider home ownership, the breaking up of corporate monopolies and greater mutualism within corporations.
  • An absolutely robust and uncompromising defence of diversity, tolerance and the freedoms won in recent years for women, the LGBT community, black people and others and which the populists hope to undo.

And if the centrists cannot re-orientate around such a new offer then new organisations and parties will have to emerge to do so.

Unfortunately all of this needs to happen quickly. For too long decent people have tolerated the rise of the populists and the UK decision is the product of that inaction. Wait any longer, drag our heels and we could soon see the EU gone and chauvinists governing the continent. Europe has been there before many times and there is no reason to think it can’t happen again. So let’s not waste a second feeling sorry for ourselves. There is work to be done.

My book outlining a new agenda to fight populism is called ‘Small is Powerful: Why the era of big business, big government and big culture is over’. It is published on 30th June but can be pre-ordered on Amazon. You can follow me on Twitter here.