Public Affairs Networking
14/06 – At last, the big issues emerge

Talk about the big picture. The BBC’s Andrew Marr recently took on the Foreign Secretary ,Philip Hammond and the Labour leadership candidate, Liz Kendall on Europe writes Peter Wilding. Knowing that a scoop comes from a slip on micro-detail, he drilled away on how would we get treaty change from Paris and how could we stop child benefit seeping to Warsaw. To her credit, Liz Kendall MP, desperately tried to drag the man who wrote two magisterial histories of 20th century Britain onto the real issue facing the British people: what sort of future do you want for the country?

In his books Marr memorably defined the 1985 defeat of the miners as the end of the ‘age of clunk’, the death of industrial Britain. Perhaps yesterday’s Europe debate was the end of the bent banana era. At least yesterday, in the debate on the EU Referendum Bill, some MP’s realised the enormity of the choice the country faces. It is binary and demands politicians set out their visions to a people starved of big thinking statesmen. It also requires luminaries like Marr to ‘educate and inform’ rather than focus on the minutiae. The public must see the wood and the trees or they will switch off. The vote on Europe is a vote not only on Britain’s future but on her survival as united nation.

The pro-EU Conservative, Ken Clarke, said in the House of Commons debate: “On the question of being in the European Union, we need to get across to people that our effective voice in the world is best deployed as a leading and influential player in the European Union. There will be less interest taken in British views by the United States, Russia, China, India and other emerging powers if we go into splendid isolation. The idea that we can somehow advance our future prosperity by withdrawing from the biggest organised trading bloc in the world, while at the same time, as a Conservative party, advocating wider free trade wherever it can be obtained, is an absurdity.”

But what is also vital in this debate is for the Marr’s of this world to seriously cross-examine the Europhobes on the meaning of ‘out’. British Influence caused a bit of fuss in February when we brought the Norwegian Europe Minister over to London to say to the British establishment that the Norway option was no way to conduct a serious European policy. It is critical because the one thing the outers don’t agree on is which future they want. They are effectively taking the British people to the edge of the cliff without knowing where they are asking the people to jump.

Clarke asked the question, “Does it mean the Norwegian option? Do we stay in the trading area? That would mean we pay a large subscription, accept free movement of labour—Norway has a higher proportion of other EU nationals compared with Norwegians than we have compared with Brits—and comply with all the legislation, rules and regulations of the single market without having any say in them. Do we go further than that and have the Swiss model? The Swiss model means we would have some access to the single market. However, in those areas we would have to comply with all the laws and rules that would be directly applied and have no influence on what they are.”

Sadly, others in the debate revealed a startling misunderstanding not only of the importance of the choice but what the real issues are. Twenty years of built up frustration fed by the media and dyspeptic colleagues have blinded some to the first rule of statesmanship: look to the long-term. As I put it: this is a choice between Great Britain and Little England. The outers ignore the threat to the union that would result from Brexit and envision our future as a market-state bobbing and weaving in a dangerous world. This is not a future that our businesses, trading partners and allies, nor in truth the British people, see as realistic. They see it as a sad last sigh of a great nation which lost an empire and failed to find a role.

Finally a quote from Ken Clarke: “This is about Britain’s role in the modern 21st-century world of interdependent nations. How do we maximise our influence? By using our powerbase in Europe. The alternative, I am afraid, is a fanciful escapist route into isolated nationalism which would greatly diminish our influence in the world and greatly damage our economy.”

Peter Wilding is the director of British Influence. This article was first published by British influence.

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