Trudie McGuiness stood for Labour as PPC in Staffordshire Moorlands in 2015 and is a National Policy Forum rep.
In keeping with the relentless 2016 newsreel, the front-runner for the Tory leadership race fast-forwarded into power last Wednesday. An advocate for Remain, Theresa May sought immediately to quash any idea that she might overrule the result of our advisory referendum. “Brexit means Brexit”, she declared.
And with that, the Brexiteers were to be reassured that she would carry through with the commitment to Leave the EU and the 48.1% of people who voted to Remain got the signal to desist from any further calls for a re-run of the referendum and any ongoing fancy that she might ignore the referendum result. ‘We are where we are and that is that’, she may well have said.
So for those of us, especially those in the Labour Party, whose commitment to internationalism and working in cooperative alliance with others is a cornerstone of our principles, can this – should this – really be the end of the matter? Should we just accept the Prime Minister’s assertion and leave it there. I passionately believe we should not. It is too simple to say that Brexit means Brexit. As we find ourselves rapidly hurtling towards the EU door, many important realities are coming into sharp focus. It is the job of Labour as the government’s official opposition to expose what Brexit actually means for the prosperity, peace and security of not only our country but the European continent. We need to know what we are leaving and what we are heading towards.
The economic case for remaining in the EU formed the basis of the Remain camp argument. But by focussing on the potential (now emergent) effects of leaving it became dubbed as Project Fear. People did not believe us. Out campaigning people responded to me by asking, Can it really be any worse than it is now? The answer is yes – it can and it’s coming. The Leave campaign meanwhile sought to capitalise on three things: the charisma of Boris Johnson, the tantalising promise to invest an extra £350m each week in the NHS and fanning fears about immigration numbers so that the prospect of leaving the EU would give succour. Boris’ charisma was shown to be flakey as fast as the other two promises have been exposed for the lie that they were.
The electorate needs to know the truth of what’s on the table. Invoking Article 50 to withdraw from the EU will make the UK spectacularly vulnerable both economically and socially. Even the Brexiteers know this which is why they speak of seeking a single trade deal between the UK and the EU bloc. Yet EU leaders could not have been clearer: a single trade deal is contingent on the free movement of people – the very thing that those campaigning to Leave highlighted as a major concern. With the free movement of people comes the need to sign-up to the Schengen agreement which removes the need for border identity checks of EU nationals. Is this really what we want when concerns about national security are so severe? Without even invoking Article 50, we know that alternative trade deals with the EU would deliver security consequences that British voters did not intend. Even those of us who support the free movement of people baulk at open borders. This leaves us trapped.
Linked to security, we must consider peace. The continent of Europe has enjoyed peace for over seventy years. Nations within our continent have had their strife, notably the former Yugoslavia and more recently Ukraine, but as a continent of neighbours we have experienced an unprecedented level of peace. Terrorism blights us, yet still we expect peace as the status quo. Last Friday night, though, with the now failed coup attempt erupting in Turkey, we saw a glimpse of a potentially different future.
Turkey’s borders with Syria, Iran, Iraq and the EU give it an exceptionally important geopolitical position. President Erdogan’s autocratic rule has alienated the liberal middle-class and eroded the secular principle on which the state was founded by the visionary Ataturk. But the threat of the rebel army faction toppling the democratically elected President and his government from power rightly sent shock waves far beyond the fastest sell-off of the Lira for a decade.
Those who bravely took to the streets in opposition to the army on Friday night – 265 of whom paid with it with their life – did so, I suspect, not just to show their support for Erdogan but also to valiantly protect their country from the same fate as their Iraqi and Syrian neighbours. A political vacuum in Turkey would be open season for the domestic PKK and international IS terrorists. The compromised borders of our NATO ally would threaten the peace of Europe.
When David Cameron argued that a central function of the EU and our working together is to maintain the peace he was met with cynical derision. I myself have often derided the man’s arguments, but not on this. We have taken our peace for granted. We need to cherish it and nurture it and the best way to do that is with our EU allies.
Theresa May famously berated Gordon Brown for not having an electoral mandate from the British people. She herself will be mindful of the risk of duplicity should she decide not to go to the country before 2020, but with Brexit to negotiate she may be reticent. Labour Party supporters have shared with me their fears that if we go to the country soon, we will be decimated at the polls. Such fears are not unwarranted: today’s ICM/Sun on Sunday poll shows Labour to be 10 points behind the Tories, despite the dreadful failure of their former leader to carry the country with him on the EU referendum.
It is Labour’s duty to present clearly and loudly the reality that Brexit would pose for Britain. Our economy, our security and even our own union are all more vulnerable now than they were before 23rd June. Voters certainly did not intend that. We ourselves remain committed internationalists who believe in the power of collective working. Brexit therefore gives us a stark choice.
We can either seize the initiative and push for an early General Election and present an inspiring answer to the huge challenge posed by leaving the EU – which may be to not withdraw at all; or we choose to be a party which dare not contest that Prime Minister May has no mandate and protest against the realities of Brexit whilst never offering a solution.
Either option poses significant risk to Labour. But if we are to be trusted to lead, lead we must. The national interest depends upon it.