Oh, Jeremy Corbyn! — just a little speech for you….
I am not a supporter of the Labour Party (I am a member of the Green Party), but I hold quite a lot of affection for the Member of Parliament for Islington North. I appreciate his position on Trident: on that, I wish he would listen to the dictates of his conscience rather than the will of the majority of his Party. But on Europe, I would it were the other way round.
I have written a little speech for him, to be delivered to Parliament. Perhaps, when he becomes First Lord of the Treasury, which I expect that he will soon; alternatively, he could make it as Prime Minister in Waiting.
A speech for Jeremy Corbyn
This country stands on the brink of taking a momentous step. It is one for which many people have worked hard and which many others have opposed with equal passion. It is clear that we as a nation, despite the evident, but slender, majority in favour of taking this step demonstrated in last year’s Referendum, are deeply divided. Does our future lie bound in with our European brothers and sisters, family and friends — or free and independent of them?
It is clear that the free and independent route, while exciting and liberating as an ideal, is fraught with danger. It would be very surprising if it did not involve a substantial economic shock, which could last several years, even decades. It is, I submit, unlikely although not impossible that Britain will ever regain its place amongst the world’s leading economies after the one-off economic shock of Brexit. The scale of the task itself will absorb all the energy of government for years to come, as is evident from the scant content of the Conservative government’s legislative programme. The task of disentangling the complex web of agreements that ties together the way we trade both within and beyond the European Union from all European Law is just one of the intractable issues that the nation faces. We have much more important tasks to which we should be devoting our energies: reducing inequality, solving the scandal of homelessness at the heart of our prosperous cities, saving the NHS, dealing with the crisis in social care.
It is no secret, Mr Speaker, that I have been harshly critical of the institution we are about to leave. My reservations stem from the fact that it was founded on economic principles with which I have been in profound disagreement all my political life, neoliberal principles which Conservative and New Labour governments have actively promoted both at Westminster and in Brussels. You will not be surprised to know that of the four Freedoms guaranteed by the Union, it is the free movement of capital with which I have always had the greatest difficulty.
Yet there is another side to the European Union, its pursuit of peace and human rights, its noble aspiration, set out in the recitals to its founding Treaty of Rome, to pursue ever closer union between the people of Europe. The people of Europe. Next year we will count one hundred years since the guns on the Western Front fell silent at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month; before that, we will remember seventy-three years since the end of the Second war, and twenty-nine years since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. That moment when millions of Eastern Europeans began to be able to exercise free movement without risking being shot. It makes me profoundly sad — indeed, a little ashamed of our nation — to think that opposition to the free movement of people, rather than of capital, seems to have driven many to vote Leave in last year’s Referendum. It is the great diversity of the British people that has always made this nation great, as the continuing energy of our great multicultural capital city shows so clearly.
People, Mr Speaker, matter much more than capital.
People, Mr Speaker, matter much more than goods or services.
People, Mr Speaker, are worth much more than capital.
The right of free movement of people — the right for British people to move freely around Europe just as much as the other way round — is one we should be valuing, not demonising. There is a debate to be had about the detail and the implementation, but those who challenge the principle might do well to pause and remember the name of Chris Gueffroy*. And if it rings no bells, can I recommend Wikipedia?
But it is the Will of the People that we should leave the European Union — or rather, on 23rd June last year it was the Will of 37% of the electorate, and 52% of those who voted in the Referendum. A slender majority, but a majority nonetheless.
As you know, it did not formally bind this, or any, Parliament. Whether it binds us informally, by the democratic mandate it confers on us, is for us to decide. Parliament is and must always be sovereign, the ultimate repository of the authority vested in us by the people of this country. We are elected to represent our constituents, to whom we owe not obedience but honest, impassioned judgement. The outcome of the 2016 Referendum — not its result, but its consequences — should be a lesson to us all. Calling such plebiscites for the sake of short-term political manoeuvering, was bound, eventually, to fail. Putting all your money on red, successfully, twice in a row is no guarantee that the ball will not land on a black number at the next spin of the wheel.
Whether referendums have any place at all in a representative Parliamentary democracy is a matter of legitimate debate. I remain far from convinced. But I hope we can all agree that there should be no future place at all for referendums without at the very least a plan. The Scottish Government published a detailed, six-hundred page White Paper before the first Indyref in 2014. No such document was produced by either of the Leave campaigns, and the absence of any form of plan is at least as responsible for the chaotic non-governance we have seen since July 2016 as the stubborn incompetence of those landed with the task by the internal politics of the Conservative Party.
But, Mr Speaker, we should all be concerned that the conduct of the referendum campaign on both sides seems to have been suspect. The evidence of collaboration between the two Leave campaigns, against election funding rules, is growing. Whether or not it turns out to have been a deliberate attempt to breach the expenditure limits, more and more people are questioning whether the result is democratically-legitimate. Mr Speaker, the referendum result — other things being equal — ought to be followed. It is, after all, the will of a small majority of the people, but a majority nonetheless. But other things are not equal. The referendum was flawed in the first place. It was called as a political gamble by the former Member for Witney, to placate the Leavers in his own party and to see off the challenge from UKIP.
Well, it seems to have done that, but at what price?
At the price of undermining the authority of Parliament.
At the price of opening deep and wounding divisions in our society.
At the price of calling into question the one European principle of which we as a continent — we are all on the same shelf, thank you very much — a continent which has been so brutally divided in such recent memory — should be proudest: the principle of the free movement of people.
And at the price, Mr Speaker, of giving voice to some most repugnant ideas, utterly alien to our traditions and values, ideas such as xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and other types of racism. Of course, these ideas are just as hateful to most Leave voters as they are to the rest of us; but if you doubt that the Brexit campaign has begun to legitimise them, I urge you to read more widely. I have seen the type of discourse that some of the most fervent supporters of Brexit conduct on social media, and it is deeply disturbing. It is, indeed, shameful.
The emergence of these ideas is not unique to the United Kingdom. Mr Speaker, they are the ideas against which our parents and grandparents fought so courageously during the Second World War and for the defeat of which so many lives were sacrificed. They are ideas that should have been consigned to history by that conflict, but which continue to blight the world and, Mr Speaker, they are ideas against which the European Union has always stood.
In taking the momentous step ahead of us, we should be absolutely clear that we will continue to stand for our modern values of multiculturalism, of openness to the world, of equality for all regardless of identity. If we cannot do so, if, in pursuing Brexit, we end up legitimising in our own backyard the sort of ethno-nationalism that has destroyed Europe so many times before, then, let me be quite clear, referendum or no referendum, we should stop, think again, and step back.
I do not think we need to. We can, should we choose to do so, pursue a Brexit in which we are the global champions of equality, of liberty, of social justice, of prosperity shared widely rather than held by a narrow elite. That, a people’s Brexit, is the only sort of Brexit I am willing to countenance. But we can also pursue the same goals within the European Union, and do so globally more effectively in collaboration with our European brothers and sisters, our family and friends. These great British ideals and values, of liberty, of social justice, of celebrating our diversity, of more-widely shared prosperity are also European ideals. They are global ideals, and they are threatened globally by the re-emergence of the alt.right, of right-wing ethnonationalism in all its forms. Whatever we do, the global defeat of that poison, right-wing ethnonationalism, should be a priority.
I have spoken at length about Brexit, but it is austerity, not Brexit that should bear the blame for the mess in which we find ourselves. Austerity creates the conditions in which the politics of ethnicity and exclusion, the politics of hatred, thrive.
Austerity is a deliberate policy of oppression justified by failed neo-liberal dogma. Brexit arose because the neoliberal elite used Europe as a scapegoat for its own failed austerity agenda. It is an agenda pursued by some in Europe, Herr Schauble, with the dire consequences of which the people of Greece are only too familiar, but nowhere has it been pursued as cruelly and as relentlessly as here at Westminster by the party opposite. We cannot hope to build the sort of society I want to see if we are ground down by a decade of ideological austerity, and we cannot hope to create growth without investment. It is austerity that has brought us to Brexit, because it is austerity — and not the EU — that has caused so much hardship in the areas that voted Leave. The neo-liberal belief that prosperity will trickle-down, without any government intervention is not only unsubstantiated, it is demonstrably false. Prosperity doesn’t trickle down: given the opportunity, the few that have it hold on to it. We have to change that. If being a member of the European Union prevents us from doing so, then either, we should Leave, or, we should use our influence within Europe in collaboration with our many like-minded European colleagues to change the European Union.
Mr Speaker, Parliament is sovereign. We are bound only by our conscience, and we should vote with our conscience. I therefore put to this House, the motion, that this House requests Her Majesty’s Government to ask the European Council to agree to the withdrawal of the notification letter submitted by the Member for Maidenhead on 29th March 2017. I will vote for the motion, but it is a free vote. The party opposite has agreed that they will not whip their members any more than we will whip ours. We are first and foremost parliamentarians, and we must by this vote assert our authority as the sovereign body of this realm, representatives of (not mere conduits for) the sovereignty of our constituents.
*(Chris Gueffroy was the last person to be shot dead attempting to cross the Berlin Wall).