In the debate over our membership of the European Union, some talk of economics – will we be better off out or in? – some of security and safety, our ability to fight terrorism or police our streets. For others the key issue is immigration. But one topic that is raised again and again by those on the Leave side is our loss of sovereignty to Brussels. They claim that we allow others to make our laws, that we are ruled from abroad and that British people are less free as a result. This is the heart of the so-called emotional argument for striking out on our own.
This argument obsesses the political elite, but for ordinary people what does it mean? For me, co-operation with our partners on the European continent and the restriction of the power of our government is a positive, not a negative. Unrestrained power is a dangerous thing, and we have a system that is already at risk of putting a huge amount of authority in the hands of the state.
In the House of Lords, we have seen this first hand as the current government has attempted to use its small Commons majority to ride roughshod over ordinary people and their rights. Labour peers have been the last line of defence, protecting families from cuts to tax credits, forcing a climbdown on plans to limit trade union rights and making sure this country fulfils our responsibility to refugee children in Europe. Ministers may not like it, but we are an essential check to a system that too often allows governments to force through destructive changes without considering the human impact of their decisions.
My experience as a peer has taught me to be sceptical when politicians complain that they do not always get their way. I have little sympathy when ministers moan that the EU interferes with their plans and frustrates their ambitions. Governments need restraints, and the framework of EU laws is one of the best protections we have against the whims of ministers, whether they be Conservatives or any other party. The Social Chapter guarantees our maternity and holiday rights and limits the hours we can be forced to work. It makes Europe unique, a continent with protections for citizens built in to the very fabric of the market.
The same is true of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), a British document written after the horror of the Second World War, enshrining values of democracy, tolerance and respect across a whole continent. It is the ultimate safeguard and recourse that citizens have against the state and has been at the heart of attempts by ordinary people to hold powerful institutions to account.
Anyone who has spoken out against state-sponsored injustice, whether it is the government, the police or even the NHS, will know that the ECHR is a vital ally in the fight for transparency, accountability and justice. Just ask the brave Hillsborough families how human rights can help to give victims the right to be heard and give a voice to the voiceless.
The Leave campaign has tried to pitch this debate as being about the people against the establishment. Nothing could be further from the truth. Europe is not an elite conspiracy against the public: at its best, it is the opposite. It is about the solidarity of the peoples of Europe with each other and our determination to create a better, freer and fairer world. It establishes a framework where citizens are protected from the state by common rules and standards.
This is valuable in Britain, but essential in other parts of the continent which may be more prone to abuses of government power. The European Union is not perfect, but it is the best expression of a powerful idea – the unity of purpose across a continent that has often been torn asunder by violence and conflict.
Turning our back on this idea, this dream based so heavily on British values, would be a huge mistake. On 23 June we should stand united with our neighbours, resolute in our belief that together we can achieve more than we ever can alone. l
Doreen Lawrence founded the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust and is a life peer