An out-of-touch, privileged elite, who lied to the British people to serve their own interests. The true nature and motives of those who led and funded the Leave campaign is becoming clear as time rolls on. But the British people voted for change — voted to leave the EU by 52:48. So what now?
It’s clear from the unexpected popularity of Jeremy Corbyn in this June’s general election that voters are still eager to embrace change, even if it’s risky and untried. At the same time, they showed themselves unconvinced by Theresa May’s Brexit-fuelled conservatism.
Taken together, the referendum and the general election tell us that what the British people want is a fresh politics that delivers change. They want political leaders with a vision for Britain that the people can believe in.
Brexit gets in the way
So let’s speak out, loud and clear. Brexit is a distraction. It gets in the way of solving the country’s most pressing problems and achieving a fairer, safer, more prosperous society that lifts up the disadvantaged, respects communities and encourages enterprise.
As many are beginning to realise, Brexit just transfers power from one group of out-of-touch rulers to a new set that cares even less — at a cost the country can ill afford. With so many challenges, our country simply must not embark on a course that will distract our leading civil servants, waste huge resources and make it poorer.
Instead, we should take immediate action to address the true reasons why people feel cut off from the prosperity and comforts they see others enjoying. Research in the US pinpoints resentment that builds from a feeling that, “I’m not getting my fair share of power, stuff or respect.”
Persuade the left-behind
We have to spell out how our vision will help those who feel left behind — those struggling in rural communities, left out of urban and industrial regeneration, or let down by neglect and under-funding of social housing, healthcare and education. We must persuade them how we will make sure their views are listened to and have impact. And we must demonstrate how our plans will ensure that all have a proper share in prosperity.
If we are to persuade the left-behind that Brexit isn’t the real issue, that it gets in the way of building the brighter future they aspire to, then we must also explain how we will make the EU more accountable. Most notably by avoiding unpatriotic talk that underplays our influence as one of the three leading economies of the EU. If only we had a British government that was prepared to exercise our sovereignty as a full participant in the EU, we could at last play a defining leadership role instead of forever standing on the sidelines.
A week or two ago, I had a bizarre dream, in which Nigel Farage stood in a by-election in one of the most extreme leave seats in the country, and Nick Clegg decided to stand against him — and won.
A compelling message
Clegg won in my dream by persuading voters in that constituency that Brexit will get in the way of taking urgent action to make their lives better — a fair share of rising economic prosperity, a real chance in life for their children, decent NHS provision for their old age and a better deal for their local community.
Of course it would never happen. What I mean is, if Nick Clegg wants to be an MP again (which I hope he does), I’m sure he’d want to do it in Sheffield Hallam at the next general election later this year or early next, rather than in some imaginary by-election in a far-flung corner of the country.
But I do believe that Liberal Democrats can and must figure out a compelling message that can win over people who voted Leave in last year’s referendum — one that would triumph in any of the country’s most UKIP-leaning seats, whether that’s Boston & Skegness, Clacton or South Thanet.
Because what this country needs more than ever is political leadership that can unite it rather than continue to divide us all. And I believe Liberal Democrats are best placed to offer the British people real change that is bigger than Brexit.