I was taken in by Saturday’s April 1st joke on the pages of The Liberal Democrat Voice: that we should stop “remoaning”, and be a bit more positive about the Brexit process. No doubt some readers will call me foolish, but I absolutely agreed with the thrust of the article. After all, many a true word’s spoken in jest…
So here are three reasons for my optimism:
1) Moving past the romanticism of the EU would help, not hinder a more pragmatic pro-European cause. During both the referendum and the period before Article 50 was triggered, extreme arguments flourished on both sides: a nostalgia for British Imperialism or a desire for “Singapore on steroids” on the one hand, and too romantic an image of the EU on the other. Having lived in Europe — both in the EU and in Switzerland — I am surprised at how much fellow Liberal Democrats idealise the EU as an organisation. One that, in the romantic story, has simply enabled individuals across the continent to lead freer lives, become more open-minded, and move beyond ugly nationalism. Now that Article 50 has been triggered, the negotiations will pour cold water on so much idealism — on both sides of the Brexit divide.
Of course, I think that many of the most ardent Brexiteers exaggerate and talk nonsense, dangerously so. But still passionately insisting on the virtues of the EU will prove much more difficult to defend as a stance over the coming months, too. Take Gibraltar. It’s saddening, maddening even that Michael Howard says Theresa May will show the “same resolve” over Gibraltar as Maggie Thatcher did over the Falklands — he’s recklessly pouring petrol on the flames. This fire of nationalist fervour, however, was started not by the Article 50 letter, but by an EU document. And it was started by Spain’s position towards a territory that has democratically (and overwhelmingly) voted against shared sovereignty. I’m no colonialist, with dual British and Irish citizenship. I am instead, and above all, a democrat. And at times, the EU has operated with a democratic deficit, despite its many other benefits and virtues.
So as negotiations get underway, I’d be optimistic if we began to pick our battles, rather than entrenching ourselves in a position of wholesale Remain.
2) Creative compromises are what the Liberal Democrats do best. I first joined the party during the coalition government. The Liberal Democrats stepped up to the challenge of sharing power when the 2010 election results showed a divided nation. With Labour in disarray, we could speak for the whole nation again. But that entails a more centrist stance on the EU question than “remoaning”, or stereotyping the 52% — some of whom share our values, and whom we could win over.
3) Reform of the House of Lords has long been on the Liberal Democrat agenda. Now the role of that house is in the spotlight more than ever, with commentary and scandals in the pages of both the right- and the left-wing press. There is greater public debate on what an upper house should do than ever before. If Brexit is to give effect to “taking back control” at all, then the Liberal Democrats could — at the very least — take command of the Lords debate as a result.
* Sean Williams is a Lib Dem member in the Sheffield Hallam constituency