Did the EU represent a summit of human achievement, or just another step down the long road of European history? Inside the EU, was Britain making good progress towards social harmony and an economy which left no one behind? Years of polling evidence suggests not. Ditto the referendum result, in which a majority of voters ignored the warnings of those in power and rejected the status quo. Viewed from Sunderland, Sleaford and Swindon, the EU’s attempt to create efficient super-national institutions and a believable narrative for the twentieth century had failed.
It’s time to move on. That means we must complete a clean Brexit, which decouples the UK from the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union, and enables us to re-establish ourselves as an independent nation with strong relationships around the world. This decoupling doesn’t stop us being a European country, nor does it end the friendship and solidarity we will always share with our neighbours and strategic partners. Britain’s engagement with Europe does not end here, it just changes.
As we prepare to negotiate our exit it’s time to think about what Brexit means for our domestic affairs. Intense moments of national soul-searching and fresh thinking happen rarely in mature democracies like ours. It took war-time destruction to force bold, progressive responses like the NHS, West Germany’s federal constitution or Japan’s economic revolution. Having voted to leave a political and economic club we have no casualties or bomb damage, but the referendum has left our political class badly scarred. A 52:48 result was always going to be painful, but the result was decisive and must be embraced. Since June last year the electorate has accepted it (an ICM poll recently revealed that 68% of voters wanted the Government to get on with Brexit) and since Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech, so has business. We badly need our politicians to do the same.
Imagining this country’s future and legislating for it is what the politicians in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London are paid to do. Those currently in power now have an extraordinary chance to put their talents and energies to work, but first they must listen carefully to what people want from Brexit.
Britain feels broken in many ways: a London-centric political system that has lost touch with its electorate, a lack of opportunity in many communities where residents feel they are missing out, public services that are not meeting the high standards we set for them. Next month Change Britain will roll-out a policy commission which we hope will provide some possible answers.
Led by the Gisela Stuart, Michael Gove and Maurice Glasman, it will explore how we can use Brexit to begin a programme of national renewal. The commission’s work will be rooted in the views and aspirations of the working-class communities who voted Leave last June. That’s why we’ve spent much of the last six months running focus groups in constituencies across the Midlands and North of England. The voters we’ve spoken to are ambitious for this country because their livelihoods depend upon its success. They want an open competitive economy, a controlled immigration system that doesn’t discriminate against non-Europeans, and a political system that they once again feel connected to.
We will continue to represent these communities, and try to reflect their confidence in this country and their desire to see it change. How can Brexit’s disruption be best used to devolve more control to Britain’s nations, cities and counties? How should extra resources be invested in the NHS, and excellent schools, apprenticeships and universities be made available to everyone? How does the North get its Brexit dividend, how should it be spent? And as Britain champions global free trade, how do we build an economy that thrives in an age of digitalisation and space tourism? Brexit creates a unique opportunity to change Britain for the better. But to make this happen people of all political parties and none now need to come together.
Measurement and evaluation