A third of Labour supporters voted to leave the EU. This was not because of Boris Johnson or Michael Gove, nor because of some xenophobic dislike of Europe. We voted for Brexit because we want Britain to reset its relationship with the European Continent on terms that optimise and protect our democracy and sovereignty.
Parliamentary sovereignty ultimately rests upon the consent of the people. In the EU referendum, popular sovereignty defeated parliament. For the first time in history, MPs are required by a national vote to enact a policy they opposed.
Globalisation has created oligarchies of financiers, investors and high-skilled professionals that dominate national politics. The EU expands their opportunities and its rules work in their interests. The power they have wielded has been at the expense of the country as a whole. Brexit was a vote against their interests. It was a vote for the nation state, which remains the fundamental unit of democracy, and the best means of managing globalisation in the interests of citizens. And it was a vote born of two concerns. First, a long disquiet at the Napoleonic nature of the EU and its imperial ambitions for “ever closer union”. And second, a distrust that the British governing class would defend the UK’s national integrity inside the EU, or that it would be capable of constructing a more democratic model.
Britain has often been an uncooperative member of the bloc – better to be a co-operative partner. Outside the EU we can sustain a close relationship with our Continental neighbours, and agree a reciprocal trading arrangement. Our commitment to Europe’s defence and our valuing of its culture and science would be undiminished.
Many who voted Remain share these sentiments. Debate, however, is polarised, dominated by those warning of the dire consequences of Brexit and those guaranteeing it will be the best of all possible worlds. The outcome of Brexit will be neither.
Britain is in the top five of global military and economic players. We are a major European power with the second largest economy in the EU – twice the size of Russia’s. We have a seat on the UN Security Council and a military budget, which despite irresponsible Conservative cuts, is significantly larger than the budgets of Germany and Italy. We are part of the G7. The soft power of our language, culture and history is the envy of Europe.
And yet, for many British politicians and commentators, this all counts for nothing. They speak like apologists for a soon-to-be vassal state. It is reminiscent of the declinism that gripped the governing class after the Suez debacle in 1956. Those with the most cultural and political power have been the most vocal in their negative opinion of the country.
The Conservative government has no strategic view of the country’s future. It appears incapable of defending the national interest in the Brexit negotiations, and it has made Britain look weak and incompetent.
In opposition, Labour’s deep rifts are held in abeyance. The party should be 20 points ahead of this hopeless government but the hard left in control mirrors the hard right of the Conservative Party. It is not trustworthy and it is not credible, and the public know it. Neither of the two main party leaderships is fit to govern the country.
Brexit happened because Britain failed to put right its own deficiencies. Over the past 30 years, successive governments have overseen growing inequality and, despite widespread disquiet, historically unprecedented levels of immigration. Returns to capital reached an all-time high, while returns to labour fell to an all-time low.
A successful Brexit requires national renewal. We need an economy in which there is a fair distribution of income and wealth, and a reciprocal balance of power between capital and labour. We need a dynamic entrepreneurial culture to take advantage of the fourth industrial revolution. We need a democratic revolution to spread opportunity and share political, economic and social power across the regions, across classes and with and within communities.
We need social security and a welfare system that values contribution and equips individuals with the capabilities and assets they need to get on and lead independent lives. We need homes, vocational education, a proper system of mental health care, good jobs that are properly paid, and taxes that target the wealthy.
Brexit can restore Britain to its major nation status, or it can fulfil the predictions of the declinists and lead us to irrelevance. Nothing is decided. The majority of people do not share the turmoil of the political classes over Brexit. We need national leadership, political resolve, and a strategy for a better country. These are in short supply. The EU cannot provide them for us – only we can do that.
Jonathan Rutherford is a leading Blue Labour thinker
This article appears in the 22 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder