The upcoming referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union is both an opportunity and a threat for the Liberal Democrats. The party has an opportunity to define itself clearly as the most forward-thinking, internationalist force in British politics. However, if it fails to do this then it risks looking like an irrelevant, also-ran defender of the status quo.
The 2014 European election campaign shows the threat that the party faces. It was insufficient to simply argue that the European Union must be retained because it preserves jobs and helps our on-going effort to prevent climate change. If we want to galvanise support then we have to offer a vision of the future, not simply a defence of the present.
Similarly, the Better Together campaign in the Scottish independence referendum ended up creating the impression in far too many voters’ minds that the Liberal Democrats and the other unionist parties were simply interested in defending the UK as it exists now. That vote might have been won, but it was won in a fashion that did the victorious parties no good at all in Scotland.
If the Liberal Democrats are to emerge on the victorious side in the European referendum, and simultaneously enhance our reputation, then we must set out the values that underpin our belief in the EU. The old Liberal Party did this extremely clearly in its constitution where it stated that it believed in creating a “United Europe” as a precursor to a “democratically constituted World Authority”.
An international border is an unacceptable infringement on human liberty. The Liberal Democrats should be committed to the eventual abolition of all borders. The formation of the United Kingdom achieved this in one small part of the globe. A Liberal Democrat Britain should be committed to exporting this revolution across the continent and ultimately the world.
No one should be under any illusion that this would be a universally popular stance. For the majority of the population it would be off-putting. However, among the 20% of the electorate that Mark Pack and David Howarth have identified as our potential core vote it is this kind of positioning that will attract supporters.
From a practical point of view, co-operating across borders as a precursor to their elimination has much to commend it as a means of cutting defence spending, gaining meaningful influence over multinational corporations, combatting climate change and stopping beggar thy neighbour economic policies.
It is also a policy that flows from liberalism. If we want to demonstrate to the public that it means something to be a liberal today and we are not simply a pale shadow of either Labour or the Conservatives, then we must be prepared to go further than our opponents in the direction that our principles demand.
The Liberal Democrats should be full participants in the campaign to keep Britain in the EU, but at every opportunity we should be pointing out that we would reverse any infringements on the free movement of people, we would support greater tax harmonisation and we would support greater co-operation on defence.
The EU referendum is a golden opportunity to define the Liberal Democrats in the minds of the public as Britain’s internationalist party. We should be working now to create a more radical, integrationist policy approach to Europe in order to facilitate this. At the same time, we should revive our commitment to going beyond the European Union towards a more united world.
* Andrew Chamberlain is a London-based freelance journalist, Liberal Democrat member and activist. He was a councillor in North Ayrshire between 2007 and 2012.