When I was a Lib Dem Cllr there were one or two things I did that illustrated the maverick nature of my beliefs. One of them was shaking up services on a housing estate that had been neglected by the Local Council. As a Councillor I was pushed from pillar to post – Fencing? That’s housing dept. Housing Dept: Try somewhere else.
On one occasion I was told point blank that a remote footpath couldn’t have lighting because `it just can’t be done!` I became so frustrated on behalf of the residents I called a meeting at the local church between all stakeholders to knock heads together and gain solutions.
It was about smashing orthodoxies, creating new realities. Fundamentally, it was about giving power back to people. Thanks to residents pressure fencing was repaired and the estate started to improve – lights were installed!
These memories came back to me while deconstructing my own feelings as an erstwhile Euro Federalist fully ingrained in European cultural identification. As a now erstwhile Liberal Democrat party activist of 30 years living in an area that voted remain by 0.2% has been akin to sitting in a vortex.
Interestingly, according to a recent poll 30% of the 2015 Lib Dem voters voted Leave about 720,000 voters! `New Liberals?`
In normal terms I should have been at the top of the Remain list. I’m a Gay man, having travelled to nearly every EU and European country (as well as many others outside of it) and a Eurovision fanatic. Add in my love of Classical music and Gramophone magazine you have a Remain cliche!
Facebook friends like to depict Brexit people as gnarled old spinsters with a bisto fix! Yet it was because of intense study I realised that it was a false assumption to trade Europeanism/Globalism with Brexit. In short, I came to the conclusion that Brexit was MORE EUROPEAN, MORE INTERNATIONALIST and will probably be MORE PROGRESSIVE. Please hear me out.
The Liberal Left have defined progress as an `EU or bust` strategy – `hyper-Europeanism`. It’s understandable people desire some overarching structure to achieve progress – however, that has to be twinned with an equally strong fight for British interests. For the EU to listen you have to take the stance of someone willing to walk away from the EU project to reform it. Either you wanted a tough meaningful negotiation in a closed customs/political union or you wanted out. I decided, as did a lot of Liberals (including comedian John Cleese) that the EU was unreformable and only a Leave vote had meaning. Furthermore, if you wanted to liberally shake the system you had to vote Leave.
Remain fully understood this threat and thus started their `project fear` that quickly morphed into `project can’t` and finally, as far as their view of the UK in a brexit-led future was concerned, `project pathetic ` .
Reflecting on it all I intuited the following:
It was Illiberal to ask those at the bottom to shoulder the responsibility of unlimited migration. Where else apart from the EU does such a system exist? Unless for some strange reason you regard Liberal Justin Trudeau of Canada an inward-looking xenophobe? Since when has unlimited migration been the standard policy for the UK?
We all understand the contribution EU citizens (and others) make and I’ve known many from my travels having visited every Eastern European/Balkan country barring Belarus, Moldova and Kosovo! The Government and opposition parties should have campaigned for a compromise on migration. It’s about getting the balance right as it impacts those at the bottom of the labour market. The EU failed.
It was Illiberal to ask our British Asian and other communities to shoulder the burden of a closed customs union. It was unfair to them and their families. It’s said that thousands of jobs has been sacrificed due to this shameful error. The Government and opposition parties should have demanded tough new timetabled discussions on Free Trade Agreements as a price for their support.
It’s an indictment of stuck British political culture that it fails to anticipate trends and issues with an effective imaginative response. Britain needs conversations in volume, over time and at the pertinent times. Yet the liberal left fail to understand it’s the inability of the body politic to conduct a national conversation over these issues that helped create this tension.
Many put chilling facebook stati about people being attacked and it’s important that they still put them up. These racist events rightly make good people shudder. Yet there’s a problem. When have you seen a status that says `Asian businesswoman loses out due to lack of EU trade deals`, `Workers in Northern warehouse factory undercut through unbalanced migration` or `Unnecessary red tape from Brussels puts strain on cupcake business`. It’s two sides of the same coin. There is a Euro-myopia on the left.
It was illiberal to ask other world leaders to bully the very people you’re elected to govern. It strikes at the very heart of trust in politics. It makes people feel unprotected and is bad for our political culture.
It was Illiberal to negotiate so weakly with the EU. It’s unfair to those at the bottom who rely on those negotiations and to the country as a whole. Liberals have prided themselves on getting the best deal for their areas in local government. Why they think it’s different for the EU I have no idea.
Finally, it was Illiberal to try and game the democratic system (£9m leaflets, corrupting the Civil Service to give misleading figures or tampering with election rules) and by bringing in the full weight of the establishment.
The Liberal Democrats (the clues in the name) sat idly by while acquiescing in all this as I suppose `the ends justifed the means`. Do they not realise that these same games will be played against them in the years to come?
I have high regard for those local Liberal Democrat Councillors and campaigners who have a more pragmatic view of Liberalism – the party will certainly have a rosy future in local government. And yet we come to the current position of the national Liberal Democrats.
Where does one start? They were once the prefigurers of policy and cultural change – whether on Iraq, LGBT, Pupil Premium/Education and lower taxes. That’s not to say there aren’t still social liberal issues to fight for.
However, the referendum was a defining moment in our political history, You were either on the right side of it or you weren’t. Like the direct question from a suspicious spouse as they stare laser like at their partner `have you ever slept with anyone else?` the first reaction defines the future of everything.
The Lib Dem leader failed me in that regard. He suggested I was `inward looking, indecent` and that I wanted a UK that was `isolated, cynical and alone`.
For the old style Liberal Left (where the Lib Dems are now finally entrenched with their preacher leader) the EU has sect like qualities. It literally = the European enlightenment. It has become a comfort blanket based on the politics of hyper-europeanism. It’s based on entwining ourselves even tighter around a European structure of politics without regard to the bigger picture.
Borne of a growing awkwardness and inability the Liberal Left fail to communicate with anyone outside of their own subset of society which is reflected in the peculiar decision of Tim Farron wanting to rejoin the EU as a flagship policy. The Lib Dems used to bravely say the unsayable – now they’re fighting for a different yesterday.
While Mr Farron impugns me who’s visited 49 countries (outside and inside Europe) often staying with people in their homes as I have hosted people as diverse as Poles, Koreans, Dutch and Americans similarly minded Lib Dem Brexiteers are left estranged.
With the illiberal campaign that pitted the elites against the people, the full force of the system against the Brexiteers it became beneath my dignity to vote Remain regardless of what I thought about the issues – and boy did I think about the issues!
Liberalism is ill-served by clinging on to the past – it needs to change into something else, something that binds big and small picture, conversant with all communities in a one nation appeal. It mustn’t escape to `false conciousness`. It needs to ditch its hyper-Europeanist orthodoxy and embrace effective internationalism!
In the end it’s about what I talked about at the start – rebuilding those fences and installing those lights. It’s about smashing orthodoxies and creating new realities.
I didn’t just vote to leave the EU – I now understand that, through Mr Farron’s response, I voted to leave the Liberal Democrats. Don’t worry I won’t slam the door too hard on the way out.