A slogan for all of us
London4Europe Committee member and former Home Office senior civil servant Michael Romberg believes that the divisions – and the causes of divisions - in the country will persist long after the referendum, whatever the outcome. Our campaign can aim to alleviate them. We can also – behind the scenes, and in our individual capacity as members of political parties – urge the parties to adopt policies that would heal the country. These should be on the theme of a better version of “Take back control!”.
The first blog in the series sets out the problem - winning is not enough; companion articles show how we should conduct the campaign; and the need for a Prime Minister to unite the country.
The limited rôle of the Remain Movement
We have to be quite clear. The Remain movement cannot deliver any policy change, neither in the EU nor domestically. We will not form the next government. So we must not make promises about policies – that would be to replicate the dishonesty of the Leave campaign. We should not even talk about policies because some voters will confuse that with a campaign promise.
Only the political parties can make promises, contingent of course on winning an election.
What we can do is work with political parties behind the scenes – or as individual members within political parties – on policies that would help to heal the country.
The policy aim that matters: Take back control!
Any policy that is the ordinary stuff of politics is not going to do it. Ending austerity may or may not be a good policy. It might or might not remove some of the discontents that provided ground for the Leave campaign to take root. But it will not heal the country’s EU divisions.
So what will?
In the end the Brexit vote was driven by a group of issues around identity, democracy, sovereignty and respect. What Leavers wanted was to Take back Control. More than anything else, that is what they voted for.
Great! We all want that.
So to unify the country we need a set of policies on the theme of taking back control.
At the heart of Leavers’ discontent with the EU was a sense that laws are made by unelected bureaucrats (factually false) by a remote set of institutions (true) which were undemocratic (it’s complicated).
The direct election of the President of the European Commission by voters is the single action that would make the democracy of the EU real to citizens. Nation states would hate it: it would strengthen the mandate of the Commission against the Council. Brexiters might hate it too – though it would reveal their complaints about lack of EU democracy to be hollow. On the other hand they might relish the chance of installing a populist President.
Irrespective of who might or might not be elected, one would have to consider what new counter-weight measures would need to accompany such a change to the existing balance of powers in the EU’s constitution.
One change would be to give the EU Parliament the right to introduce legislation. Brexiters rather exaggerate their derision of the Parliament for not having that right. It is not as though a private members bill is going to get anywhere in the House of Commons without government support. The financial initiative of the UK Crown means that only the Government may propose a measure that involves spending money. But creating a right to introduce legislation would block off a criticism as well as maintaining a balance of power. New European Commission President-designate Ursula von der Leyen has promised to implement a sort of right of legislative initiative; but one could go further.
If the French could be persuaded to give up their insistence on the European Parliament’s moves to Strasbourg we would remove one of the biggest symbols of EU waste. What would one need to give them in return?
Non-Contentious Domestic Policies
There is of course no such thing as a non-contentious policy and these are no exception. But what I mean is that support or opposition for them does not divide on clear Remain / Leave grounds.
For “Take back Control”, one needs to look fundamentally at democratic processes.
So, proportional representation. In the UK at present a few hundred thousand swing voters in marginal seats can throw the rascals out. But the rest of us cannot (I live in the 31st safest seat – you can look yours up here). Most seats are safe (analysis from 2009). In 2017 only 70 seats changed hands, in 2010 111 seats. A calculation in 2009 showed that almost a third of seats had not changed hands since 1945, almost half not since 1970.
The rebuilding of the House of Parliament also provides an opportunity to move to a more horseshoe type chamber allowing for a more co-operative style of politics based on transparent coalitions, rather than the opaque coalitions within parties that have done so much damage.
Local government decentralisation. There is too much power concentrated in the Westminster Government. There are many options for devolution, including: an English Parliament, English regional governments, and giving more powers to existing local authorities. A programme would have to look not only at formal political powers but also at finance.
The problem with House of Lords reform is that people talk about mechanisms before settling the purpose of the upper house. We already have a directly elected chamber to represent the will of the people so what is the point of having another one? I suggest two roles. One is as a learning chamber: apolitical persons of eminence would focus on bringing the learning of experts to bear on legislation and government activity; the other is to cement local government devolution by making the members of the upper house the leaders of local authorities – much like the German Bundesrat or – to put it in a more controversial way – the European Council of Ministers.
Perhaps the most effective means of taking back control is education and training. That enables the individual to cope better with life and its changing demands. Key areas would be early years, non-university further education, and adult education and re-training. That is of course in the area of “politics as usual”. But its centrality means that we must continue to reference it.
Contentious domestic policies
These are contentious because they are about cementing the Remain victory. So they will need particular tact to implement.
They are slow burn policies. They should have been implemented in 1974. Their results will not come for years. The start can wait. But they do need to be started.
The Brexit referendum revealed huge failures of moral formation. Racism, nationalist stories of exceptionalism, violent hate attacks all rose. We need to address that. We need our own version of Vergangenheitsbewältigung – the German process of getting to grips with the past. In our case, the main elements of the past to address are Empire, racism and exceptionalism. We need to review all of our national ceremonies and symbols to see how we can update them. For example, remembrance day in Germany and France is about the futility of war; it presents the hope for reconciliation. In the UK it is about our glorious dead who brought us the victory.
People need basic information about the EU and how it works. When the Electoral Commission first tested question wording in 2013, some participants thought they were being asked about a referendum for joining the EU, ie not realising that we were already in it; others were uncertain on the point. We also need to explain how trade works and the nature of sovereignty.
There is nothing unusual about British politicians when they claim credit for popular EU laws and blame the EU for unpopular laws. All countries’ politicians do that. What is different is that the UK does not have a counter-balancing narrative that the EU is a good thing. British politicians need to make that part of their normal vocabulary.
We need to make the EU part of our symbolism. Instead of flying the flags of the Commonwealth – countries we had conquered – we should fly the flags of the EU and our EU partners.
We also need to show more realism. How about giving up our seat in the UN Security Council to the EU’s foreign affairs representative? (At least we could cheer ourselves up by arguing that the French should give up their seat too – perhaps to India, given its population)
We are not going back to the easy days before the launch of the referendum when most people did not care or think about EU membership. It will require a great deal of work to heal the country. How we campaign will affect the ability to heal. So it is important to press both for public structures in the campaign and design our own campaign in a way that is healing.
But afterwards politicians will need to find the words, symbols and substantive policy changes that allow the country to come together. That cannot be for the Remain campaign as we would be making promises we could not deliver on. But behind the scenes, and as individuals in political parties, we can encourage the thinking that is needed.
The London4Europe blogs page is edited by Nick Hopkinson. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author, not necessarily of London4Europe.