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25 March 2016

Tristram Hunt: Leaving the EU would be a self-defeating dereliction of duty and history

Why Michael Gove, and Vote Leave, are wrong about Europe.

By Tristram Hunt

Michael Gove’s statement in support of leaving the European Union stands out not only as an elegant piece of writing, but is also perhaps the most articulate argument offered so far by all the various ‘Vote Leave’ campaigns. In an echo of Joseph Chamberlain, he sketches out the classic ‘Anglophone’ vision of a Britain unshackled from her burdensome European obligations, free to realise its turbo-capitalist destiny. Or, as Daniel Hannan MEP sometimes dreams aloud, “Hong Kong to Europe’s China”.

Yet despite a certain seductive clarity, his case rests on a shaky grasp of European history which, in turn, begets an even shakier analysis of the British national interest. Gove is a scholar of Viscount Bolingbroke, so I am particularly puzzled by his stance given that the European single market might arguably be traced back to Bolingbroke’s attempt at a series of commercial treaties with France and Spain in the early 1700s. But then again, Bolingbroke did support the Jacobites and their attempt to destroy Great Britain. And that is what is in prospect again today, because I believe Brexit will lead to the break-up of Britain, and the end of the Whiggish tale Gove so admires.

However, before I make my case, let me first address a gripe. Due to a persistent refusal by both sides to acknowledge the legitimacy of their opponents’ claims, we have all struggled to elevate the quality of the Remain / Leave debate. On one hand, we have the brave freedom-fighters of “hope”; on the other, the dark agents of “project fear” – and, naturally, we are all on the side of the angels. But away from the froth and fury of social media, ordinary people are becoming more and more frustrated with this referendum’s polarised tone. They are well aware that this could be the single biggest decision of their democratic lives and also realise that as with any tough, complicated choice there are compelling arguments in both directions.

For example, it is fairly incontrovertible that leaving the EU would be economically damaging for Britain in the short-term. “The biggest domestic risk to financial stability” is how the Governor of the Bank of England recently put it, while manufacturers in my constituency could expect export tariffs of up to 14 per cent. Yet it is also churlish to deny that if we left the EU we might reasonably expect a greater ability to manage European economic migration in the short-term. Neither side should argue with total confidence that either of these scenarios pertain indefinitely into the long-term. Leave campaigners are right to point out that at some point Britain would expect to conclude a trade treaty with the EU. Equally, I agree with Ed Balls that one day soon the EU might have to restore national borders and controls on economic migration in the interests of social cohesion. This debate, like any other, involves trade-offs.

I suspect Gove realises that such candour would expose the terrible incoherence which runs throughout the ‘Vote Leave’ argument. Yes, a country of our economic strength and soft power clout could eventually expect to secure a decent free trade deal with Europe. But without broader EU reform – reform we can only push for if we remain – this deal will certainly not include any extra powers to manage inward EU economic migration. It is simple: there is no case of a European country which enjoys single market access without also contributing to the EU budget and accepting the free movement of labour.

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As with those who supported Chamberlain’s vision for Imperial Federation in the early 1900s, Canada stands as the final redoubt for those seeking refuge from an inconvenient choice. But even a Canadian-style free trade deal for Britain would impose tariffs on important British exports like beef and cars, as well as locking us out of the lucrative single market in services. No wonder the Canadian trade minister thinks that, ‘the Canada-EU trade deal is not a model for the UK.’  There is no getting around it: free trade without free movement is not on the ballot.

As a progressive, I want to remain within a supranational institution that has the capacity to help reform capitalism for the digital age. On issues such as tax justice, workers’ rights, climate change, environmental protection, international trade and poverty alleviation the EU plays a positive role. Yes, it is difficult for us liberals to defend its recent treatment of Greece, its inertia on the refugee crisis, or its institutional lethargy towards proper democratic accountability. But social justice requires co-operation beyond our borders, and the fact remains that the only sustained period of peace in modern European history directly coincides with the EU’s creation.

And, contrary to Gove’s bleating about how the European Union has tied his hands as a Minister (thank God!), the reason we have a housing supply crisis, doctors’ dispute, and productivity decline is because of Tory Party policy, not Brussels bureaucracy.  None of these challenges seem to attend our German colleagues in the manner they cripple British administrations. 

My support for remaining in the European Union is strengthened by the communities I represent in Parliament. Because the story of The Potteries is intimately connected to the Continent. The magic of porcelain was revived first in the kilns of Meissen and Sevres, before being copied in North Staffordshire. The designs of Josiah Wedgwood were inspired by the history of Etruria and Naples; his wares exported to France and Germany. And now the people of Stoke-on-Trent benefit from the EU’s protections against unfair Chinese imports, and work in the car firms of Toyota, Bentley and Jaguar Land Rover where unfettered single market access is essential.  They don’t want their country reduced to a mercantilist, off-shore, financial peninsula like Singapore, Dubai or Hong Kong. They want to be part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, lead member of the greatest single market in the world, and a progressive force on the world stage. The United States of America understands this, which is why our greatest ally also wants us to remain a part of Europe. 

In its essentials, the Brexiteer argument is that Britain would be freer, if a little poorer, outside of the EU.  And, just like the Cavaliers, this is ‘Wrong but Wromantic.’  Not only should we be careful about undermining the living standards of Britain’s engineers, entrepreneurs, teachers and farmers, but I also believe we are freer and stronger in and through the EU.  Brexit offers the freedom of a cork bobbing in the ocean; Remain provides liberty under the law and the protection of the rights of British citizens.

Truth be told, the entire ‘Anglosphere’ vision rests on some pretty creative historiography. Gove quite rightly highlighted the role of British ‘radicals and liberals’ who took power from unaccountable elites and exported a system of self-government around the world. But his suggestion that this was somehow a uniquely British contribution is misplaced. The roots of Lockean democracy – and the right to cashier governments on behalf of the people – can be found in the philosophy of the French Huguenots of the 1560s. Far from owning the patent on the invention of democracy, Britain’s democratic tradition has always been bound up with that of Europe.

And now, from Ukraine to Syria to our own airports and railway stations, Western unity and resolve is being tested as rarely before. This is a profoundly dangerous period for Western liberal democracy. Donald Tusk, the European council president, recently compared these times to Europe “the day before World War I” when the continent disintegrated into darkness.  Surely Gove must see that the historical lesson to draw from this is not that Britain should cast off from its geographical moorings? Instead it is, as Niall Ferguson has argued, that “British isolationism is itself a trigger for continental disintegration”.

Of course, in this age of volatile political fragmentation our own Union is itself under pretty severe stress. So I am staggered that anyone would choose to be so cavalier with the future of our country. If English votes pull Britain out of the EU against the settled will of the Welsh and Scottish people, this is the end of Britain as we know it. Another Scottish Referendum would be called as surely as night follows day.  It is all very well treating us to soaring renditions of British parliamentary democracy’s finest achievements, but Gove’s position commits you to the cessation of this history and the destruction of the very tradition he seeks  to serve.

When even the United Kingdom itself faces an uncertain future, I believe we need to stand up and renew the ties that bind. To walk away from Europe in its latest hour of need would be an entirely self-defeating dereliction of duty and history; a betrayal of our traditional role as a force for peace, security and the proper balance of powers. Brexit is the politics of defeat and the philosophy of decline. We must resist those siren voices and lead both ourselves and the Continent towards a more open, liberal, democratic, freer, fairer and stronger future.

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This article appears in the 30 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The terror trail