Now we must stand firm, and proclaim our own powerful vision.

So we come to the crunch. We have voted against triggering Article 50 in both the Commons and the Lords. We are being attacked, as Tim Farron was on Radio 4’s Any Questions last Friday night, for being anti-democratic.

I have read this accusation many times here on Liberal Democrat Voice. I have occasionally heard it on Copeland doorsteps too, during the recent by-election. No amount of pointing out, as Tim did again that night, that the people who voted Leave in the Referendum had not voted to leave the EU Single Market has cut much ice with those voters who simply demand, ‘We voted to leave – get on with it!’  Theresa May’s government will shortly obey them.

Were we wrong in what we insisted on? And if so, are our electoral chances being harmed by that public perception? Maybe the latest Tory wins in local elections, maybe the commanding Tory lead in the opinion polls, maybe the too-few votes for us in the recent by-elections – perhaps they all had some small connection with public disagreement over our known stance. Could that be the case?

What seems clear to me is that the idea of staying in the single market does not have compelling emotional appeal. It can’t compete with the emotional pull of the Brexit slogans which are so familiar now. And that is important at a time of tremendous emotional turmoil in this country, stirred perhaps by everyone’s frequent contact with people of non-British background as well as by the media. Emotions trump reasoned argument at present.

It’s equally true that for us to state as we did that as a party we would vote against Article 50 unless the government agreed to a final vote of the people on the negotiated deal was not going to convince the masses. We know that our intention was democratic. To aim to give the people a final say is democratic. But it is a complicated argument. So the Tory peer on Any Questions was applauded when he characterised us as liberal but not democratic.

Were we wrong there? Should we perhaps have stuck to demanding a meaningful parliamentary vote at the end of the negotiations? That proposed amendment was defeated in the Commons and will not be accepted by the government. Theresa May demands a ‘yes’ vote, or a reversion to World Trade Organisation rules if Parliament finally says no. Asked what would happen in that case, the Tory peer said that there would then have to be a General Election. Another member of the panel, the economist Stephanie Flanders, pointed out the likely resulting chaos. So this is the best that the combined wisdom of the governing Tories and opposition Labour Party can come up with, as they prepare to vote through the Bill activating Article 50.

Well, why not have chaos? Our people have voted in the manner of a seafaring nation for perilous seas, in the manner of descendants of Empire for voyages to far-off lands of promise! But our party can’t join in with this romantic fantasy of a Britain apparently unleashed from chains, once more proudly in charge of her own destiny. We await the grim realities of the negotiations to bring people back to earth, to show that there is no treasure to be found at the foot of their rainbow and that the rainbow will vanish in the rain clouds to come.

No, we were and are not wrong. We advocated democracy, and we put a rational case to protect the country’s interests which will gradually be seen to be right. But we too have our powerful vision, seeking peace and prosperity for ourselves and the world. We are fighting to remain a free, liberal, outward-looking country in the most advanced grouping of nations the world has ever known, and to share the power and beauty of this lasting vision.

* Katharine Pindar is a long-standing member of the Lib Dems and an activist in the West Cumbrian constituency of Copeland and Workington.

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7 Comments

  • Tony Greaves 13th Mar '17 - 1:11pm

    What this has all shown is the appalling lack of any understanding of the meaning and complexity of democracy and the different kinds of it. What an indictment of our schools and of the calibre of public discourse in the media.

  • When democracy becomes the tyranny of the majority it invites schism. We saw this in N.I. It is emerging between Scotland and England. It may filter down to region against region and if something like Nissan pulling out of Sunderland happens, it may even come down to neighbour against neighbour. It is not undemocratic to appreciate this and seek to avoid it. The vote to leave the EU followed a democratic process but does not necessarily mean that slavishly following the result is democratic and certainly cannot be called the ‘Will of the People’. You could say that only 37% of eligible voters, voted to leave and this is only a subset of the population in total. It is the ‘grim reality’ that is keeping me awake. The Tories are gambling with other peoples welfare in the knowledge that they will be alright if things go wrong. Labour seem to be hoping that things go wrong so that they can ride the backlash. That is how much they care about ordinary people. The LibDems are 100% correct to care more about people than to persist in a course of action they believe will end up causing them harm. Of course, I could be completely wrong and the economy could go from strength to strength and I will look a fool. In that case I will be more than happy to concede that I was wrong but I will still lament our lack of comradeship with the peoples of Europe.

  • Katharine Pindar 13th Mar '17 - 10:20pm

    There is even more reason for Leavers to doubt the ‘Brexit at any price’ idea today, Rebecca, since the threat of Scottish Independence is live again; and I remember that many people including David Cameron himself (and possibly even H.M.?) felt passionately opposed to the possible break-up of the UK. Could the Conservative and Unionist Party itself be shaken in its support for Brexit if the Scots Nats begin to seem likely to succeed? Your ‘grim reality’, P,J., seems worst to us because of the probable suffering of the poorest of our society – as you say, we care first about the welfare of our people – but since the Tory Party doesn’t seem to share that preoccupation, something that really shakes them up might just help. The pity of it all is that things have to get worse in so many ways before they get better, but we go on fighting for the right.

  • Jonathan Greenhow 14th Mar '17 - 8:21am

    We have been strong in parliament and clear in our position. So why, as reported, are LD Scotland going to vote against an Independence referendum when the reason is clearly for democratic choice based on the result of Brexit negotiations?

  • David Evershed 14th Mar '17 - 10:52am

    We (the Lib Dems) sought an IN/OUT referendum when we thought we would comfortably get an IN vote.

    We dropped the policy when the voting started to look a lot closer.

    If the party supports referendums then it has to support the outcome of the vote (regardless of it being advisory or mandatory).

  • Katharine Pindar 14th Mar '17 - 2:32pm

    Is it not likely that by 2020 Britain will have joined the EEA/EFTA group, with a mollified Scotland still part of the Union? If we don’t get the Referendum for the British people that we are seeking at the end of negotiations for EU exit, Liberal Democrat policies will allow campaigning to join this group, because that will grant access to the internal market for Britain as well as free movement of people. This last requirement is already being modified in the EU, suggesting agreement on the extent of this should be possible, and the Liberal Democrats will still lead in advancing a pro-Europe practical policy to recommend to the British people. As always, we combine practicality with vision, and can foresee ways out of the current confusion and dismay.

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