What's left after Brexit?

This article was first published at: https://leftfootforward.org/2016/07/we-must-develop-a-progressive-vision-of-post-brexit-britain/

Friday 24 June was a bleak day for many people across the country. Almost everyone can recall when it was that they heard the news.

Some had spent a sleepless night watching the results come in with a mounting sense of disbelief and disillusionment; many awoke, switched on their phones or TV  and were astonished at the news that our country had rejected the most successful peace project of our time.

I am unwavering in my view that leaving the European Union is the wrong decision for both the city of Cambridge and for our country as a whole. I was proud that Cambridge people voted overwhelmingly to remain, and I will be respecting and reflecting that decision when a vote comes before Parliament.

I will also vote against any attempt to take Britain out of the single market, and against any deal which would damage Cambridge and its dynamic economy. It is my job as MP for Cambridge to represent the decision the people of Cambridge made, in every part of our city, to remain. That won’t change.

But we cannot just ignore the fact that over half of the country disagreed—even just up the road in other parts of Cambridgeshire—and voted to leave.

I and close colleagues spent months travelling around the region addressing hustings and meeting local people, and we were left in no doubt that many were going to vote Leave.

We need to formulate a progressive response which explains why there was such hostility to a system that, in the view of people in Cambridge, has helped to create an unparalleled period of peace and prosperity.  At least, for some.

And there is the rub – while some have prospered, others have been left behind. The last few years have been good for places where people move freely from country to country to do good jobs – but very tough for those who have seen their skills undercut by people very happy to do the job for much more than they would have got at home, but much less than local people rightly expected.   

Of course, it is also true that many were misled.

The Tory and UKIP Brexiteers constructed their campaign from lies, and within hours of the result that slapdash construction fell to pieces. In the aftermath of the referendum, Iain Duncan Smith relabeled the Leave campaign’s promises ‘a series of possibilities’.

Daniel Hannan said people expecting immigration to come down will be ‘disappointed’.

And, most infamously, the pledge of £350 million a week for the NHS emblazoned on the side of the Brexit battle bus has been thrown from Vote Leave to leave.eu and dropped like a hot potato.

Remainers were labelled Project Fear, but the aftershocks of the referendum are already severe. The pound plummeted to a 31 year low.

Anecdotally, I hear of companies already losing important investment. And sickeningly, racial abuse has rocketed across all regions of the country.

To many it seems unfathomable we have reached this point, unfathomable that our open, tolerant society has ruptured in this way. But it is no coincidence that we have seen the pattern in the UK replicated in Europe and the United States.

Countries are becoming increasingly polarised, and centrist politics are being rejected. The Front National in France, Jobbik in Hungary, and the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, among others, are taking heart from the Brexit vote.

The idea of Donald Trump as president – previously a favourite punchline in cities like Cambridge – is no longer impossible. There is a troubling growth in movements that are anti human rights, liberal democracy and internationalism. Brexit is just another symptom of a more profound problem in the West, and a genuine crisis of confidence.

So it is vital that progressive people in Britain and across Europe develop ideas for the post-Brexit landscape.

It is a particular opportunity for those with progressive politics because the Conservatives have spent their time in Government making the divisions in our country worse, not better – and it is those divisions that are at the root of the problem.

By every assessment, money has been taken from poorer areas of Britain and redistributed to richer areas – not a surprise, because that is what Conservative governments do. At the same time communities have faced rapid change, economically, technically and culturally.

In Cambridge we are surfing that wave but for others it is seen as a crashing blow.

The divide between rich and poor has become so dangerously large that the social divisions pose a real threat to the entire country, not just the poorer areas. Which is why an optimistic, forward-looking prospectus could once again appeal to parts of the country monopolised by the Tories for a couple of decades.

In swathes of the country, there are people who don’t want to see a country disunited, don’t want to see us cut off from our European friends, and appreciate that the wealth a successful globalised economy creates now has to be shared more fairly.

Leave campaigners had no answer for when Britain voted to leave, now we the 48 per cent must urgently formulate answers.

We face unprecedented challenges and huge numbers of questions. Is access to the single market a red line? Or retaining the European Arrest warrant? What about immigration? Food security? How will we fund science in the future?

That is why I have launched a consultation today looking at a number of key areas – the economy, the environment, security, immigration, science and research and our relationship with other progressive groups across Europe.

We need to work out the objectives, values and principles that we want to drive Britain’s post-Brexit vote policies.

We cannot allow the Conservative government to monopolise the post-Brexit vote discussion. We who believed in a social Europe still do, and equally we believe in a ‘social Britain’.

I am optimistic that something positive can come from the wreckage of this result, and that at its heart Britain can still be the inclusive and outward-looking place I have known it to be.

Our task is to seek to understand the causes of challenges being faced by communities across our country, and how we can best find and communicate the solutions to those problems.

I hope these first steps will begin the process of stitching the social fabric of our divided country back together.

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