An extraordinarily bad prime minister has been replaced by one who, if his record is anything to go by, will be even worse and more divisive. Our country is in danger. I want us to confront what this means in terms of our international position as well as Brexit, and for ourselves and our democracy.
We have to take the time to understand what is going wrong – otherwise we will condemn ourselves to perpetual division as we repeat ourselves. I’m sorry to have to tell you this. Impatience with Brexit is very understandable. But if no one else is going to be honest about it, I must be. The last three years have been a “phony Brexit”. The real arguments over and consequences of Brexit are, I’m afraid, just beginning.
Three years ago we split virtually down the middle over whether to leave the European Union. Since then, that split has deepened and has not been resolved. And now we all have to confront the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit. Boris Johnson denies this. But he says what he thinks people want to hear. What matters is what he does.
And what he is doing is aligning the United Kingdom with Donald Trump’s White House. Trump and his advisors have declared that the European Union is their “foe”. They will offer Johnson a generous treaty and immediate support if he backs no deal. And we will be reduced to mercenaries in America’s trade wars. And not just trade wars.
The US has effectively lured British forces into a dangerous trap: to seize and continue to hold an Iranian tanker, with no clear legal basis. In retaliation, to the delight of the White House, Iranian forces have seized a ship that sails under the British flag.
We’ve now been co-opted onto the front line of Washington’s confrontation with Iran. We have threatened “serious consequences” without any idea what that might mean, we are moving dangerously close to war and risk becoming a satellite of US foreign policy.
This is not what anyone voted for three years ago. It will not allow us to “take back control” or rescue our democracy. And far from bringing our country together, it will divide us even more, especially if Johnson uses the threat of war to mobilise support.
How can we overcome this grave threat?
We want good relations with both the United States and the European Union. And if both are far from perfect, who are we to talk? Let’s be modest as well as realistic. We like them both, we need them both. But right now, they represent competing approaches and are the world’s two greatest economic zones. We are not strong enough to be neutral in any contest between them, should President Trump continue on his course of polarisation.
This means we have to decide the kind of future we want – and the values we want to underpin it. I believe that our closest partners should be our fellow Europeans, with whom we have collectively forged peace and sought to tackle some of the greatest challenges, including the climate crisis.
The alternative will mean that we become an appendage of the US, which in this era of Trump means belligerent bullying, racist dog-whistling, climate denial and dismantling the very foundations of our democracy. But, if we must choose, then how we choose is of vital importance.
We have to go about it in a way that inspires support within and across all the communities, classes, regions, nations and generations of our country. Yet our political leaders are incapable of addressing the causes of our country’s crisis, or the choices we need to make, with the honesty and clarity that are essential to bring us together. Instead they offer fatuous phrases about “putting Brexit behind us”, which will only ensure that it carries on.
A different approach means we must talk to those we disagree with, not just to our own “side”. At the start of this year I congratulated Leave voters on giving the establishment a good kicking in the referendum. Their arrogance and complacency meant our political elite deserved it. And I repeat my thanks now.
Since then I have travelled across the UK to talk with Leave voters, and crucially, to listen. I have seen with my own eyes the places that are home to them and make them proud and I have shared feelings of shame, regret and rage at the powerlessness of being routinely ignored and denied a say in the decisions that matter.
Like all of us, in the EU referendum, Leave voters were asked to make a choice – and made a brave and unexpected call. We were promised it would be carried through and this has not happened. The whole process: from the simplified question, to the refusal to spell out the huge significance and consequences of what it meant – whether for Remain or Leave – through to today’s failure, has been a democratic outrage.
From the start, I argued that we must build on the democracy of the referendum with more democracy. My view was: let us see what kind of Brexit can be negotiated: then let the country, not the politicians, decide if this is indeed the Brexit we actually want. Crucially, where I, and I believe a huge majority, agree, is that we cannot return to the way things were before. Some advocates of Remain dismiss Brexiteers as”crazy” and say we should default to the way things were.
In fact, the starting point for any positive consensus now is that we have to change and we the people, have the right to say what that really means. Let me repeat that. The way the country is run has to change and we the voters have the right to decide how. Just as we have the right, in the face of the evidence, to change our minds.
For this to happen we also need honest leadership. The biggest deceit of the Brexit referendum was that the choice was not spelled out. Instead, there were competing versions of what the promised Brexit might be. Three years later, there is still no clear vision of what Brexit means. The UK is even more deeply and damagingly divided. We need leadership and instead what have we got?
A new Prime Minister whose casual disregard for the truth is legendary, who blows with what he calculates to be the prevailing winds. Who described Theresa May’s EU agreement as a “turd” and then voted for it. Who will not even rule out a shut-down of parliament in the name of “taking back control” to force through a no-deal Brexit. It’s hard to imagine an MP less qualified to assume the premiership in such dangerous and divided times.
The Labour Party has a different leadership crisis. It has failed to seize the opportunity and set out a programme of true democratic renewal, which is what Brexit is about. Rather than putting country before party, it has retreated into tactics when what we need is a principled strategy.
Nor is “Bollocks to Brexit” the answer, writing off with such contempt half the country. Half of the country who are rightly angry at the establishment for decades of neglect and at the austerity imposed on them by the coalition government.
The result is that, here in England we are bereft of coherent opposition. I’m the only Green MP and we are the only party in England that is both honest about the need for deep democratic reform and knows what it thinks. (I don’t count the Brexit Party, which is at the moment merely a private limited company with no internal democracy.)
It therefore falls to me to issue a warning. Boris Johnson and his supporters do not represent the decision a majority took in the referendum three years ago. Instead, he and Nigel Farage are playing the game of President Trump, who wants to use us as a battering ram against Europe.
With the money and the media behind him, Johnson may well be the Prime Minister who carries out Trump’s wishes and ensures the UK crashes out the EU. I want all of you, especially Leave voters, to help make sure he does not get his way in the country at large.
Johnson may have to call an election and the surest way he can win a majority is by striking an electoral pact with the Brexit Party. This is the outcome Trump wants and it’s also guaranteed to stop any democratic movement in its tracks. Power will remain in the hands of the few and our voices will continue to be locked out of decisions about the future.
I know this is not what you voted for three years ago. But the battle over Brexit is about another kind of struggle too. One for the future of our country and our planet. We can choose to be led by Boris Johnson or we can choose another kind of leadership: one that is principled, inclusive and gives us all a real voice and say. A leadership that ensures Leaver voters and Remain voters identify with what we have in common and find a new identity for ourselves as a country. So that we can achieve an overwhelming shift in public opinion against a Trump Brexit.
We have to talk with each other, especially because this is the start, not the end, of what may be an uncomfortable journey. One that I believe must take us back to the EU. We’ve got to look at our own democracy, and its deep flaws. The call to take back control was justified. We have to work through what it can mean. We need to come together to demand voting reform so our votes always count. We need to talk about how England has been deprived of democratic government.
It is the absence of any English representation that has led to so many turning their frustration against Brussels. Where there is a strong sense of democratic representation, as in Scotland, London and Ireland, people have the self-confidence to feel at ease with sharing sovereignty with Europe.
We will not win the future unless we are all genuine democrats. Unless we all refuse to tolerate a return to rule by the old elite in whatever form.
The next three months, until 31 October, will put our democracy to the test in an unprecedented manner. Johnson has compared the EU to Hitler’s project of Nazi domination. This is shameless nonsense. The countries of Europe are more free and more themselves than ever before.
The menace now is from the other side of the Atlantic. We need a great coalition to prevent a disgraceful, humiliating Brexit that serves Trump’s cause. All I can tell you, as a modest, solitary member of parliament, is that we will “ride out the storm and outlive the menace…if necessary for years… At any rate this is what we are going to try to do”.
Yes, I am quoting Winston Churchill. This is what he told the country when he promised that we would fight tyranny on the beaches, the fields and the streets. “At any rate,” he said, “at any rate, this is what we are going to try to do”.
There was no bluster, no false jollying, just hard determination. This is what we need. This is what I have to offer you in the months that lie ahead.