I listened to Bach rather than the pre-recorded Big Ben bongs for Brexit. For me, 31 January was a sad day. It was right to honour the promise made by most MPs and political parties and implement the referendum result. We shouldn’t underestimate the damage that setting it aside would have done to the already fragile trust in our political system. But I haven’t recanted my belief that we would have been better off – both economically and politically – if we had voted to Remain.
That said, there is no point in former Remainers continuing to fight the 2016 result. However often you replay the tape, our side still lost. And I can’t take seriously the idea of a campaign to rejoin, which would involve reapplying for membership without the budget rebate and with a commitment to join the euro.
Although I wanted to Remain, I know the EU is not perfect. I have attended more than enough of its council meetings and read enough of its commission papers to understand its flaws. For those of us who supported Remain, the priority now is to contribute to the debates – within and between political parties – about how to build new relationships with our fellow European democracies and how the United Kingdom should act globally at a time of rapid technological and geopolitical change. For the first time in this country there now exists a large body of vocal, energetic pro-European opinion: the unexpected offspring of Brexit. That energy needs to be channelled into creative thinking about the future.
As the Prime Minister has often said, we are leaving the EU, but we are not leaving Europe. It is not just geography and our intertwined history but practical common interests that will inspire us and our neighbours to find ways to work together.
One thing we need to do now, post-Brexit, is design a national framework for public procurement. Meeting tech companies in London last week, I was impressed by their eagerness to deploy modern technology to provide better public services.
No 10 is right to identify reform of the machinery of government as a priority, though I hope that this won’t be seen simply in terms of media opportunities. The public is interested in the service it receives, not the mechanism that delivers it. During my time as a minister we made changes to government procurement following the collapse of Carillion. There’s plenty more work to be done: in particular, joining up policymaking, implementation and spending provision. Decisions about those three things have too often been taken in separate Whitehall silos.
On Saturday I headed for Cheltenham to speak at my goddaughter’s school; it must be one of the most beautiful town centres in England. Yes, Bath is wonderful, but Cheltenham is certainly worth a detour to visit. Last weekend, in the winter sunshine and with the daffodils out early, it looked its best.
I always enjoy speaking at schools. The questions are usually direct but courteous and designed to elicit an answer rather than to simply impress the friends of whoever is asking them. While Brexit was mentioned, the majority of the issues raised in Cheltenham focused on climate change or human rights.
Like anyone from any party who has stood for election, I’ve often had the depressing experience of meeting an 18- or 19-year-old new voter on the doorstep and being told: “I’m not interested in voting” or “none of this matters to me”. And so, on Saturday I made the same pitch that I do to every school, college, Scout, Guide or youth club audience: political decisions affect your lives; political action is a way to change things for the better. So get involved, vote, lobby, campaign – even join a political party or stand as a candidate. Above all, remember that if you are absent from the debate you cannot influence its outcome.
A life well lived
The event that mattered most to me last week was my mother’s funeral. At least when someone dies at the age of 89 you can celebrate a long life as well as grieve. So there was laughter as well as tears.
Mum lived through a lot. She was brought up in a house that consisted of just two rooms and a kitchen, and is just down the street from where my old parliamentary colleague Alan Johnson later lived. She told me about stopping on her way home from school to collect a pint of stout for her gran (who then warmed the beer by plunging a red-hot poker into the tankard), about evacuation to Oxford in the war and returning to North Kensington in time for the Blitz.
It was Mum who introduced me to the joy and solace you can find in music, especially singing. She enrolled me at the local library as soon as I started to read and insisted that I learn to cook. She taught me to loathe snobbery, that there’s always space for one more at the table, that listening is as important as speaking and that as long as you do your best, no one can ask for more.
She would have loved seeing the nearly 40 family members who attended, the organ playing Beethoven’s Für Elise (a piece that Mum played when she was younger), the snowdrops in the churchyard and the scent of the narcissi in the wreaths. When someone is 89, you know that the end cannot be too distant. But the ache of loss is still real.
Wales’s hymnal legacy
We ended the service singing “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” to the tune Blaenwern. Like so many of the finest tunes in the hymnal – Hyfrydol, Aberystwyth, Cwm Rhondda, Ebenezer – Blaenwern is Welsh. Is that because Welsh composers in particular wrote for people for whom singing was central to community life? Do I just enjoy singing those tunes for their great tenor lines? Or is it something about the harmonies? Perhaps a musical reader can shed some light.
David Lidington is the former Conservative MP for Aylesbury and minister for the cabinet office
This article appears in the 05 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Europe after Brexit