Banging on about Europe

I didn’t join the Liberal Democrats in order (to use David Cameron’s phrase) ‘to bang on about Europe.’ My main pre-occupation was building communities and quality public services.

I have met colleagues in the party though for whom this was the big “thing” that brought them into politics and for whom any tinge of Euro-scepticism smelt of heresy; any suggestion that the European project was going off the rails was unspeakable back-sliding.

This sensitivity always struck me as odd but as something to be aware of rather than to react to.

Liberals have always been internationalist and for free trade, peace and prosperity, but also for devolving power as far as possible. The EU could seem pointlessly prescriptive at times and any version of free trade that involves something as clunky as the Common Agricultural Policy has at least to be up for debate.

There was always a gap between what Liberals wanted from the EU and what they got. It therefore seemed to me reverse engineering to suggest as Jeremy Hardy did scathingly on the News Quiz that the test of whether you were a Liberal was how keen you were on the EU.

Now, however, I accept that I am doomed by some horrid quirk of fate to spend the rest of my political life “banging on about Europe”. I used to take a wholly irrational pride in never having seen “The Sound of Music” – no small feat when you consider it’s on TV every Christmas – and so it’s the political equivalent for me of having to sing “The Hills are alive… etc” – morning, noon and night.

To save a little time you can see me doing it here:

There is though something that has sharpened my view. The choice on the EU was or should never have been carry on regardless, but reform or reject. Some on both sides of the Brexit vote despaired of reform, however, and made a calculated, on balance decision. Others, however, quite consciously turned their back on internationalism, free trade and co-operation across national boundaries – many out of fear, some out of suspicion, a few out of actual enmity. The same drivers drew American voters to Trump.

It’s not always stupid to be fearful or suspicious and there are things that you definitely should hate but when political success is built around demonising the other and making your nation great (albeit more selfish) the world is heading for trouble.

Brexit symbolises a withdrawal from Pan-European co-operation in favour of pursuing enlightened self-interest elsewhere. On one level that may just be economically foolish but on another level it clearly plays to a little-Englander mentality that will serve us ill and has historically held us back in so many ways.

I guess we are at a historic juncture. That great internationalist Dag Hammarskjold, Secretary General of the UN, referring to the Zoroastian battle between good and evil said

“On the field where Ormuzd has challenged Ahriman to battle, he who chases away the dogs is wasting his time”

Banging on about Europe (and internationalism) is maybe what one has to do

* John Pugh was Liberal Democrat MP for Southport until 2017 and was elected as a Councillor for the Dukes ward of Sefton Borough Council on 2 November 2017.

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22 Comments

  • Peter Watson 31st Jan '17 - 10:54am

    “To save a little time you can see me doing it here”
    It was a great relief to find out that this was not singing “The Hills are alive”!

  • Little Jackie Paper 31st Jan '17 - 10:57am

    ‘The choice on the EU was or should never have been carry on regardless, but reform or reject.’

    Well…yes. But I don’t think that anyone in the REMAIN camp (and I mean of all parties) made that argument. Don’t get me wrong here, we shouldn’t be talking in talkboard caricature. A lot of leavers were not exactly happy about aspects of the leave campaign to put it mildly. A lot of remainers weren’t exactly belting out Ode to Joy as they stepped to the ballot box.

    But what are these reforms? What would an IN UK do differently? The idea that there are things that the UK could/should have done differently over the years seems to be fashionable at the moment, but it’s all a day late and a dollar short.

    What the referendum exposed was that severe discontent about the European project in its current form is not in anyway limited to the so-called little-Englander mentality. If remainers think there are things that can be done within the EU to change then great. Just it would be helpful to know the specifics.

  • John Barrett 31st Jan '17 - 11:12am

    It is always good to read another thoughtful article from John Pugh and having watched the Sound of Music, I am sure he would find it an enjoyable break from the Article 50 and EU debate in Parliament.

    Like John, I have also met many Lib-Dems who are so positive about every aspect of the EU and who now see it as the only issue they will bang on about, that it is clear that there are many Lib-Dems who have little understanding as to why so many people voted to leave the EU. I am also sure John does not fall into this category.

    For whatever reason the majority of people decided to vote Leave, the vote to remain was lost and if we cannot accept that result, what results in the future would we accept?

    The discussions now should be about what type of deal we can come to with the rest of the EU and then the rest of the world, not as to how we can go against the will of the majority by reversing the result.

    The party has ended up opposing a second referendum where it agreed with the result (Scotland) and supporting a second referendum where it disagreed with the result. Hardly a position on the high moral ground.

    We have all been involved in many, many elections which were close and where we would like to reverse the result, but sadly, even although many Lib-Dem candidates would have been the best MPs or Councillors for any area, most of the time they lose the election they stand in.

    As John says “The choice on the EU was or should never have been carry on regardless, but reform or reject.”

    However, when David Cameron came back with the few reforms the EU was prepared to grant, many clearly decided that reforms were not on the agenda and in that case, with no meaningful reforms on offer, reject was the alternative chosen by the majority.

    As a regular viewer of the Andrew Marr show on Sunday mornings, he regularly points out that almost every political leader he interviewed in the run up to the referendum confirmed that leaving the EU meant leaving the Single Market. So banging on that those who voted Leave did not understand this, is like saying that those who voted for Trump will be surprised by his actions after his election.

    Banging on about Europe will not rebuild faith in the party or those communities which need to be rebuilt. Banging on about Internationalism is a different matter.

    Thinking global and acting local has always made sense.

  • Peter Watson 31st Jan '17 - 11:18am

    I think that John Pugh makes some very sensible and well-considered points here about EU membership, etc.
    In some ways it seems to be similar to the more equivocal position that Jeremy Corbyn was roundly condemned for taking before the referendum. It is a shame that those campaigning to remain in the EU allowed the debate became so polarised, playing into the hands of Farage et al, so that more nuanced views about what a future in the EU could and should be like were drowned out.

  • Bill le Breton 31st Jan '17 - 11:38am

    John’s piece is very useful and coherent.

    We should not give the Government a blank cheque – actually it isn’t a blank cheque – traced in pencil on the cheque is the PM’s speech and etched deeper will be the contents of the promised White Paper.

    As ever, the UK constitution will ensure that decisions are made back to front. Parliament should have the right to vote on the contents of and amendments to the White Paper before it votes on the Bill.

    Parliament is faced with an artificial timetable to vote yes or no to the cheque, to extend the metaphor, that is to the ‘objectives’. There are more than one way to frame the objectives. There are more than two potential destinations.

    Opponents of the terms in the White Paper should be working together to bring ‘it’ before Parliament in advance of the Bill and to amend it. As second best those opponents should table to the contents of the May speech and debate amendments to that so that the House of Commons arrives at its expression of the objectives.

    There was a false choice in the referendum and a politically contrived timetable and now we have a false choice over the objectives driven by a randomly chosen date of 31st march 2017.

  • Richard Underhill 31st Jan '17 - 11:48am

    The truth about the Sound of Music was that the family transitted Switzerland, arrived at the USA and were refused entry. They re-applied as visitors and became over-stayers, but needed to make a living during the great depression. World War 2 caused the United Nations and the 1951 UN refugee convention.
    We have been part of Europe since before Julius Caesar came here in 55 BC. Please take advice (from US experience) and try not to use the language of the opposite party/parties.
    https://www.bing.com/search?q=the+political+brain&form=WNSGPH&qs=AS&cvid=8ee24e59e5144d6782b68dc8b8e8dc16&pq=the+political+brain&nclid=D19A84F13F0AA22DEE7AE50DDCF460A0&ts=1485861425828&cc=GB&setlang=en-US

  • Little Jackie Paper 31st Jan '17 - 11:49am

    Otten – The problem is that sneering away like that really doesn’t help all that much. OK, I suspect that there aren’t all that many people with a detailed knowledge of the intricacies of the Posted Workers Directive. But that doesn’t take away from the problem. Sneering at people is probably not the best way to start the debate you say you want.

    I certainly am very open to the suggestion that there are things that successive UK governments, Coalition included, could have done differently within the EU. There are any number of examples I could give from around the EU of things I’d like to see in the UK that other countries have reconciled with EU membership. Those ‘euromyths’ you mention are often things that stem in at least some part from the UK and the UK can do things about them. Those things are, of course, not always popular – think the (very sensible) temperature test for the winter fuel payment.

    But again I don’t think that any remainers made those arguments, still less set out ideas.

    Even the holy of holies is not untouchable WITHIN the EU – http://europeanlawblog.eu/2016/08/18/could-it-all-have-been-avoided-brexit-and-treaty-permitted-restrictions-on-movement-of-workers/

    Indeed Mr Otten, out of interest what reform would you like to see. I’d start with welfare eligibility being a full member state competence, how about you?

    Anyway I’ll let you spit some poison at me now.

  • Little Jackie Paper 31st Jan '17 - 11:52am

    Bill le Breton – Sure. But you can add to that what the rest of the EU thinks. My suspicion (and that’s all it is) is that despite what was said in public there were informal talks/negotiations/thinking sessions or whatever and May’s speech was conditioned by that.

    Of course it doesn’t help that A50 is, to say the least, slapdash.

  • Amongst other things, I certainly voted Leave out of a certain level of antipathy to internationalism. Basically, I just don’t believe it’s entirely real or possible in democracies that are based on the structures of the nation state.

  • Bill le Breton 31st Jan '17 - 12:44pm

    LJP by which do you mean that she met in those talks the ‘anticipated’ wall and therefore set the opening stance as out of SM and CU?

    It still seems a powerful argument to make that Parliament and not the Executive should define the ‘objectives’. And that the Executive should seek to execute those objectives.

    The mechanics of the two Houses are such that theoretically anything is possible.

    Any MP can go and get a Bill published this afternoon.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 31st Jan '17 - 1:19pm

    John Pugh this is excellent !

    Please go with your instinct and the needs of the party, both, not the latter as perceived, negating thus, the former.

    We need different perspectives,within the mainstream of our definite internationalism.

    When a half Italian, part Irish origin, born and bred British patriotic citizen , such as I, married to a wife of American origin, herself partly Italian , Polish etc., say I am not a EUphile, or phobe, but pragmatist, I, as a Liberal Democrat do not have to with my or any background, prove internationalist credentials !

    And go and watch the Sound of Music, an inspiring Liberal oriented stoy, based on the lives of anti-Nazi Austrians, Captain and Marua Von Trapp, people of faith and conviction, written by two Liberal minded staunch Democrats, Rodgers and Hammerstein !

  • Eddie Sammon 31st Jan '17 - 1:20pm

    Very good article. I think the most important thing about the EU is travel and residency rights. Peace is another important one, but I don’t feel a significant risk of major war between EU nation states anytime soon.

    The travel and residency rights thing can be pretty much secured outside of the EU. It should be done via a liberal visa regime. It’s a mistake to see support for the EU as a reliable litmus test for how “continental” people are. Some leavers have stronger ties to the continent than some remainers and even I as someone who is nearly fluent in French do not very attached to the institution.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 31st Jan '17 - 1:21pm

    p.s.

    Two mistakes,should read, story, and , Maria, typo!

  • Tony Greaves 31st Jan '17 - 2:36pm

    I think we have for many years now been in favour of fair trade rather than free trade.

  • Peter Watson 31st Jan '17 - 3:48pm

    @Tony Greaves “I think we have for many years now been in favour of fair trade rather than free trade.”
    Tim Farron’s conference speech in September 2016:

    We are the free market, free trade pro-business party now.

  • John Pugh is right to use the term ‘banging on about Europe’, although in what may be a first for me, I thought Nick Clegg made an excellent speech today in the House. He spoke with real conviction and a passion I’ve not seen before.

    However, in terms of Dr Pugh’s ‘banging on about Europe’, we must not lose sight of other issues nearer home.

    Yesterday, a Junior Minister, David Mowat, hinted at increasing the burden on families of the elderly and today the Local Government Association (LGA) warned that older and more vulnerable people could stop receiving vital help to get out of bed, get washed and dressed, because the underfunding of social care has become so severe.

    Leaders of 370 local authorities in England and Wales warn that some councils are finding it so hard to provide the right level of support they could face a high court legal challenge for breaking the law. Responding to this is every bit as important, if not more so, than Europe.

    It’s time for Liberal Democrats to ‘bang on’ about social justice, inequality and the right to a dignified old age.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 31st Jan '17 - 11:08pm

    This is not a first for me, unlike , David Raw’s comments in such a strong support of Nick Clegg, but I agree totally with David ! I do so from time to time but not too often, as I do not want him to get embarrassed keeping such company !

    We have good policies and potential to develop more, on these issues, relating to social inequality and poverty and inhumanity.

    Let’s get to it and be known as the only viable possibility in politics that has common sense and common decency !

  • Turning our backs on 27 neighbourly democracies means we make new friends with the strong men: Xi, Putin, Trump, Erdogan, etc. Brexit is a race to the bottom that drags all the other issues down with it.

  • This had a good start, well first sentence. A great pity about the rest of it. I am not sure how high up the aim of “building communities” is within liberalism, which is of course not to say that communities do not have a role within liberalism. Unlike Socialism I have always thought that the individual trumps communities within Liberalism. I am also not sure that the most important thing about public services is their quality; universal access and equal treatment are equally as important.

    It would be wrong for Liberal Democrats to think their future will involve “banging on about Europe” forever; there lies the total collapse of the party. Once we leave the EU, it will not be an important issue for many future general elections. Internationalism – knowing the importance of international agreements and encouraging more of them and for them to be more widely adhered to is not such a problem, but it will win no general elections. Our future must lie in us having solutions for the problems faced by people living in the UK.

  • Simon Banks 1st Feb '17 - 10:44am

    We all have our big issues. There are many Liberal Democrats for whom the environment is a bit of an add-on, but their approach to issues in general is Liberal. There are Economic Liberals who see most things in terms of individuals shopping in the market and for whom community is just a warm fuzziness – but who can be counted on to defend civil liberties.

    My approach to the EU has resembled John’s. It was needed, but reform was needed (as it is in Whitehall and Westminster). There were issues best addressed at European level, but the process was often creaky and not very democratic. It would be absolutely right to press for things decided by the EU that could be effectively decided at more local level to be devolved, just as we’d do for any other level of government, but recent events – in particular the refugee crisis and the election of Trump – have made effective European co-operation urgent.

    I understand the need to get us identified with two or three key issues simply expressed, but I’ve always been suspicious of us being defined by just one issue because that means we lose definition on others.

  • Robert Wootton 1st Feb '17 - 1:47pm

    David Raw “It’s time for Liberal Democrats to ‘bang on’ about social justice, inequality and the right to a dignified old age.”
    I have been “banging on” about these theings since 2012. I even came up with a solution for these things and published a small book about it. As it says in my pinned tweet to Nick Clegg “How can there be a fair and just society based on an inherently unfair economic system?”

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