The fundamentals of Brexit don’t change – so opposition to it is a matter of principle!

“If you can keep your head while all about you are losing theirs, then you have seriously misjudged the gravity of the situation” – goes the rather silly adaptation of Kipling’s famous line.

I am not suggesting that Liberal Democrats are losing their heads. But I am suggesting that we are the only British political party that appears to have judged the gravity of the situation on Brexit. For certain, we are the only political party that is brave enough to oppose it explicitly. We know that the least privileged households will be the most harmed by Brexit.

I have come to see explicit opposition to Brexit – despite the referendum result – as a matter of principle and I cannot understand how pro-Europeans, all of whom are aware of the damage it would wreak, can continue to support either Labour or the Conservatives in the run-up to the English local elections in May.

For sure, the politics are still hard, with polling showing only a modest shift towards Remain since the 23rd June 2016. But this is not the point. The fundamentals haven’t changed since the idea for a vote on continued membership of the EU first entered David Cameron’s head.

Fundamental 1: The EU-27 and European Parliament will not allow the UK to undermine the EU’s cohesion, its treaties or its relationships with other third countries. They cannot allow the UK to have a better deal outside the EU than it has as a member.

Fundamental 2: the only way the UK can retain close trading relationships with the EU without becoming a rule-taker is to remain a member of the EU

Fundamental 3: New free trade arrangements will not compensate for the loss of the current ones (EU27 + 67 countries).

Fundamental 4: the political consequences of leaving the formal politics of the European continent will be as far-reaching for the UK as the economic impacts

This week Jeremy Corbyn took a tactical tip-toe towards a softer Brexit, with his eye perhaps more on defeating the Government in the House of Commons than on actually halting a hard Brexit. In the same speech in which he came out in favour of a full customs union with the EU he also said that he “would not countenance a deal that left Britain as a passive recipient of rules decided elsewhere by others” but that he still supported Brexit. Back to Fundamental 2, you cannot have this and support Brexit. Everybody knows this and has done for years.

The debate over Brexit is one in which the fundamentals are fixed and the stakes are very high. That is why it’s one of those rare occasions in politics where principled leadership – not shapeshifting – is needed. We should understand the political risks – but we should be proud to be clear on this issue. For too long British governments (and oppositions) have tried to wriggle their way out of reckoning with British voters (English voters especially) on the UK’s place in Europe. Time has run out. And all pro-Europeans need to grasp this now.

* Edward Robinson is a member of the Liberal Democrats in Europe.

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  • spot on

  • William Fowler 1st Mar '18 - 8:55am

    Alas, it is now more about power plays between parties than what is best for the country, various politicians rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of what they can do sans Brussels, be it turning the UK into a socialist paradise or some kind of version of Singapore.

  • Arnold Kiel 1st Mar '18 - 9:29am

    I totally agree, Edward. May I propose

    Fundamental 5: the best protection of the UK union is to remain a member of the European Union

  • David Becket 1st Mar '18 - 9:59am

    Fundamental 6 is the need for Europe to reform. We need to back Tony Blair’s call for reform in Europe and Vince and our leaders should be in crisis talks with Guy Verhofstadt to make this happen.
    This could be the breakthrough, if our party had the guts and vision to run with it.

  • All four Fundamentals were known beore the June 2016. The argument of “we hould oppose Brexit because it’s bad” was lost on 23rd June 2016 when the majority over voters backed Leave. I feel like the LDs just don’t get this – it’s not up for debate any more.

    Next question, “why is the party marooned on 7%” of the vote?” Because it’s stilL contesting yesterday’s arguments.

  • Alan Whitfield 1st Mar '18 - 10:28am

    I agree that your fudamentals 1 and 2 really are fundamentals but 2 and 3 are debatable and subject to negotiation. You have also conveniently overlooked the fact ,that all three major parties, including the Lib Dems promised to give the country a referendum on the EU .

  • Peter Watson 1st Mar '18 - 10:29am

    “I have come to see explicit opposition to Brexit – despite the referendum result – as a matter of principle”

    This is certainly a very clear position.

    I think the Lib Dems as a whole have appeared much less clear, and consequently weaker, by trying to reconcile “respecting the result of the referendum” with opposition to that result by emphasising instead the need for a second referendum. That was exemplified in Tim Farron’s interview with Andrew Neill before the General Election, and also appears to contradict dismissals of a “neverendum” when it looked like Remain would win (that sort of apparent inconsistency, especially on this issue, is the last thing the Lib Dems need after 2010-2015).

  • Actually I do not respect the result of the referendum, not least because I do not “respect” the question that came with it and never have done. Leaving aside the point that referendums should have no place in a representative democracy*, Cameron should have had the political nous to know that fraudulent claims would be inevitable – the worst perpetrators were friends of his. Lib Dems who supported a referendum per se should have worked it out as well. I know it is difficult to have sympathy for Mrs May but it was her predecessor who dropped her in it. By the time of the fateful exit poll, he knew that he would be out the door with as much haste as decency would permit.

    * Other countries with different histories, constitutions and voting systems may see things differently.

  • Edward Robinson, the three major parties, and the LibDems, opposed leaving the EU…Sadly the electorate ignored common sense and voted, for various reasons to leave….If telling them they were wrong was the way to attract voters our polling would be around 50%; it’s actually a ‘little’ short of that..
    The UK is almost certain to leave the EU (I say ‘almost’ because, given the incoherent incompetence of those negotiating, anything is possible) and the pragmatic/sensible approach is to get the best deal possible on future relations both financial (trade) and political…
    Corbyn’s ‘customs union’ is a good start and I can envisage a coming together on free trade…The best we’ll get won’t be as good as we have now but ‘damage limitation’ is all we have…

  • John Marriott 1st Mar '18 - 11:26am

    Oh no, and here I was saying “Let’s wait and see”. (Sorry, David Raw.)
    Mr Robinson, from his position in Brussels, has, of course made a strong pro EU case (well, he would, wouldn’t he?). I’m not arguing with any of it. Although I’d still rather be in than out, the sort of arguments he uses are not likely to sway significant numbers of Leavers into the Remain camp.
    I’d much rather look at a few of the statements that appear to be the fall back position of many Brexiteers, both famous and not so famous, in defending their position.

    1. “The EU is in decline. We should do deals with areas that are on the up”.
    OK the EU’s growth rates might not match those of countries like China or India; but will they always be that way? And how do we know for certain that even those ‘emerging’ areas will continue to ‘emerge’?
    2. “We are the world’s sixth richest economy”.
    Most of that is because of Financial Services. Will that continue if a deal can’t be reached with the EU. (I believe we were fifth until Brexit kicked off.)
    3. “We want to bring back control”.
    Ok, if control is so important, why don’t far more of us vote in national and particularly local elections? And why do we continue to allow power to be concentrated in Westminster?
    4. “We need to put the ‘Great’ back into ‘Great Britain’”.
    And how will we do that? Take back our colonies? Rebuild our navy? Get everyone to speak English? (Any more ideas?)
    5. “We need to reduce immigration.”
    Many of us might agree, so let’s start paying higher taxes to train more doctors and nurses here and stop trawling particularly developing countries for their graduates. And how about a few of those unemployed picking a bit of fruit and veg?
    6. “The money we get back from Brussels will pay for all the EU subsidies we currently get.”
    Really? Have you done the maths?

    (I’m sure you can think of some more. The problem is that you will simply be accused in some quarters of perpetuating ‘Project Fear’!

  • By the time of the fateful exit poll

    There was no exit poll for the referendum. The result was not known until the early hours of the morning (though there were hints earlier when initial counts had Remain ahead, but not by as much as it needed to be to be sure of victory).

  • Laurence Cox 1st Mar '18 - 12:03pm

    @David Becket
    Yes, quite right about Fundamental 6, which needs to start with reform of the procedure for electing the President of the Commission. Juncker was elected with just 29.5% of the voters voting for EPP, and hence Juncker as their spitzenkandidat. This could only happen because the EPP and S&D groups had stitched up the election before anyone had voted, and disenfranchised all the other groups in the Parliament including ALDE. Yes, Verhofstadt should have spoken out against this travesty at the time, instead of just meekly accepting the spitzenkanditaten process.

    Moving from the Commission President being elected by the Council of Ministers should have been to direct election by EU voters, not to this corrupt system.

  • Barry Lofty 1st Mar '18 - 12:18pm

    Reading all the above comments has only made me more sad and angry about what we as a nation are about to lose when, as is distinctly possible, we leave the EU.
    As my wife and I are in our seventies it is unlikely the affects of leaving will make so much difference to our lives but we are so sad about the detrimental way it will impact on our children’s and grandchildrens lives.
    I have waited all my life for the people of this country to wake up and realise how badly governed we are.
    PS sorry about the rant

  • John Marriott 1st Mar '18 - 12:28pm

    Politicians “ignore the public” because the public, by its general indifference, allows them to do so. I have gone on record on several occasions to say that the ‘pledge’ on tuition fees was a daft idea. However you can’t go out for lunch on that one item forever. If you are prepared to keep dusting it off, and ignore all the worthwhile things the Coalition did achieve, you just reinforce my view that we are paying the price here for not taking politics seriously enough. How else can you explain the recurrent comment “We didn’t vote for a coalition”? (Answer: “Of course you didn’t; but that’s what your precious voting system delivered”.)
    A binding referendum, without a government health warning, offering a binary choice, is an imperfect method of assessing public option. It’s no wonder that Hilter preferred it to a parliamentary election. As in most things in life, it’s rarely a case of black and white, as most of us have found out, I am sure. “We voted OUT” say many Brexiteers, “so do it,” if only it were so easy!

  • Peter Watson 1st Mar '18 - 12:58pm

    @Dav “There was no exit poll for the referendum.”
    At the time it was suggested that private exit polling (commissioned by financial institutions) during the day was predicting a win for Remain, and this drove up the value of the pound and lengthened the odds against Brexit (from 3:1 the day before to 9:2 on polling day). When the first results came in and “safe” Remain seats turned out to be relatively close, it all started unwinding.

  • Michael Cole 1st Mar '18 - 1:42pm

    Barry Lofty 1st Mar ’18 – 12:18pm:

    Barry, No need to apologise for saying “I have waited all my life for the people of this country to wake up and realise how badly governed we are.
    PS sorry about the rant”.

    For most of my adult life I too have realised how badly governed we are. Without electoral reform it will continue to be so.

  • Michael Cole 1st Mar '18 - 1:51pm

    We are perceived to be pro-EU at any cost.

    Our leaders should make it clear to the electorate that the EU needs reform.

    Nick Clegg, in his debate with Nigel Farage, had the opportunity to do this but blew his chance by saying that in ten year’s time “… [the EU] will be much the same.”

  • John Marriott 1st Mar '18 - 3:34pm

    Firstly, I’m not trying to defend the Lib Dems or any other party. What I am defending is parliamentary and local government democracy. I’m not a fan of referenda; but accept there are times when, properly conducted, they have a role to play. Talking of thresholds, don’t forget that the first Scottish Devolution referendum on 3 March 1979 produced a 52%-48% result in favour (familiar figures, eh?) but was declared invalid, because only around a third of the electorate bothered to vote when a 40% turnout was required. Shortly afterwards the Callaghan government was consigned to history and the incoming Thatcher administration repealed the relevant Bill. The Scots had to wait until 1997 for another opportunity.

    Whether a referendum is advisory or not (and in my opinion it should ALWAYS be advisory), the final decision has got to remain with our elected representatives, who are not mandated delegates. The second Scottish Devolution Referendum produced a much clearer result, and on a significantly higher turnout. But even then, it required the approval of the Houses of Parliament for Devolution to take place. I think that’s what we refer to as ‘taking back control’. For me that’s got as much to do with control in County or City Hall as at Westminster and I much prefer that control to be exercised in local and General elections.

  • The referendum was held according to the rules set down for it. Further more, if you consider the referendum advisory you could argue that Parliament has acted on the advice and all the triggers for Brexit have been passed by Parliament with substantial majorities. Retrospectively deciding that it should have required this or that threshold is reimaging the outcome of a lost battle.
    A lot of Remainers simply can’t stand what happened and would argue with any result that took Britain out of the EU no matter what the majority was by using the argument that referendums were imperfect and could only ever be advisory. However, I suspect that If Article 50 had been enacted by an elected government without a referendum there would have been even more outrage. It’s fair enough to be against something and to protest, but a lot of the arguments being used consist of retrofitting and logical contortions,

  • It is always an easy path to look at any discussion as being pro and anti something. Then divide people accordingly. But reality is not as simple as that. The present situation is an example. We are talking about something important – but what is it? When the referendum was held the situation was that we were in the EU and most expected us to stay. Now we are in the situation that we have given notice of leaving. However we have a government which is not so much incompetent – as no doubt all preparations have been made – as so deeply divided it cannot make decisions.
    But still there is not a strong case being made for our membership of the EU. This is what is needed. It does not help when references are made to how rich the country is now. For people who work for long hours for a wage which hardly pays the rent, or if it does might be stopped next week this is not how the country looks.
    There is a need for a message which will fit on the side of a bus!

  • John Roffey 2nd Mar '18 - 9:50am

    It seems to me that it is unwise for the Party to challenge the outcome of the Referendum – although quite how the result is interpreted [whether hard or soft Brexit] is open to debate – as it was clear, when announced, that this was a one-off event and the government would act based on the result. The Party’s reputation must suffer if it does not also accept this result.

    From a more pragmatic point of view – the challenge is wasting the Party’s scarce resources at a time when it needs to be raising its support base in an effort to gain more MPs at the next GE [rather than losing them – as looks most likely at present]. There is little or no hope of a second referendum since Ken Clarke – who has been consistent throughout – does not believe in referenda and does not want a second.

    He repeated this view on Question Time last night – he wants a free vote in parliament on the deal eventually agreed [which will not be allowed by the Tories of course]. Without Ken Clarke’s support – any plan the Lib/Dems have for a second referendum cannot be successful..

  • John Marriott 2nd Mar '18 - 10:09am

    @Ian Sanderson
    Of course I was being ironic; but your points are well made. Having lived ‘abroad’ for some years in my early working life I was confronted with a very different view of the UK’s place in the world. Having been brought up on Empire and Rule Britannia, I returned to the UK with a sense of pride at what these little islands had achieved, tempered with a realisation of how far we had effectively slipped down the pecking order, whilst still occasionally managing to punch above our weight, especially in military terms. That was 1974 at the end of the ‘Three Day Week’ with the threat of private armies being formed and serious questions being asked as to whether our form of democracy had all the answers.

    Thank goodness we stayed in the EEC and were able to rely on it and the IMF before North Sea Oil kicked in, even though its riches were largely sacrificed on the altar of monetarism and consumerism, as well as giving the Thatcher Government the financial cushion it needed to decimate what was left of productive capacity, aided and abetted by a collection of Trades Unions, whose leaders, like many in the Tory Party, still reckoned that the rest of the world owed us a living.

    So here we are, nearly forty years later and the world view of many of those who voted to Leave would appear to have changed little over that period. But the world has moved on – and how! So, off we go, like the first Elizabeth’s buccaneers, across the high seas, doing deals and muscling our way in with the new ‘big boys’. Don’t dismiss this strategy out of hand; after all, nobody ever thought that Trump would make it to the White House, or indeed that the Soviet Union would collapse so quickly; but it will take a lot of compromise on both sides and certainly won’t be the walk in the park that some would have us believe.

  • Peter Martin 2nd Mar '18 - 10:30am

    @John Marriott,

    You ask:

    “OK the EU’s growth rates might not match those of countries like China or India; but will they always be that way?”

    You asked other questions too but I’d say this is the most important. Probably it isn’t possible for the EU to have the double digit growth rates of the countries you mention. But we could have 3% or so and enough to ensure enough jobs for all EU workers. There needs to be a process of fiscal equalisation to achieve this. In other words money needs to be raised in the wealthier parts of the EU like Germany and Holland and directly spent in the poorer areas like Andalucia in Spain, and ( dare I say it?), Bulgaria, Greece and Romania.

    But there isn’t much chance of this happening IMO. So the EU is stuck in the euro rut it has created for itself for the foreseeable future with little or no growth.

    Arnold Kiel and I disagree about most things. That’s because he’s usually wrong 🙂 But if he were to tell us that I’m quite wrong about this, that German taxpayers are quite willing to do what it takes to make a success of the EU/Eurozone, and put their hands into their pockets, I’d be happy to yield to his greater knowledge.

  • @John Roffey
    ‘It seems to me that it is unwise for the Party to challenge the outcome of the Referendum’
    I think you can respect the decision and maintain that you think it was a wrong decision. I do not agree with this ‘Referendum on the Deal’ phraseology. It just comes across as devious. Nor can you re-write history, However, I do think that if Parliament concludes that the decision and resultant ‘deal’ will be seriously detrimental to the country’s interests then it is legitimate to ask the question.
    ‘Do you want to overturn the result of the 2016 Referendum?’

  • Peter Hirst 2nd Mar '18 - 11:37am

    It’s ironic that one of the main reasons for Brexit, taking back control is threatening to put a poisoned arrow into the process. I don’t think those who voted to leave wanted the eu to decide our relationship with Eire. The Irish question will be settled in due course and by due process by the people of Ireland, both north and south not by the eu.

  • John Roffey 2nd Mar '18 - 12:28pm

    @P.J. – ” I think you can respect the decision and maintain that you think it was a wrong decision. I do not agree with this ‘Referendum on the Deal’ phraseology. It just comes across as devious.”

    Yes P.J – I agree. It does look as if the PM will be able to command enough support to push through whatever is eventually agreed. There are Tory rebels as we know – but there are also Labour rebels who are probably less concerned about enraging the Labour whips than vice versa.

    I don’t want to consider the ramifications of this not being the case – as the purpose of my post was to try to encourage the Party to abandon its attempt to obtain a second referendum – because it is damaging its reputation [apart from having little or no chance of success].

    Also on Question Time last night was Michelle Dewberry [Businesswoman] who described how she had been appalled by the two main parties behaviour throughout the Brexit debate and was now left with no party she felt she could support [centrist if memory serves].

    This view seemed to gain significant support from the audience. To me though it confirmed my concerns – since the Lib/Dems were not mentioned [throughout the whole program] – the opportunity the Party is missing to increase its popularity by focussing on the many issues that are of great concern to the voters – rather than one that is making the Party seem shabby.

  • Peter Martin 2nd Mar '18 - 1:09pm

    @ Peter Hurst,

    I’d hope you’d be proved right. However, I’m not sure you will be. If Ireland is in the EU and the UK isn’t, the EU will be likely calling the shots on what happens on the their side of the border.

    The UK will also have to abide by WTO rules but it is clear that the UK government isn’t too bothered about those rules. If it can be seen to impose some sort of automatic and semi-voluntary system on the border, which may well be ineffectual, that could be enough to keep the WTO happy.

    The EU isn’t likely to be so easily placated though! The border is likely to be much more a problem for them, post Brexit.

  • John Marriott 2nd Mar '18 - 2:22pm

    The 1997 referendum on Welsh Devolution, something for which the victorious Labour Party had campaigned in the recently held General Election, indicated a small majority in favour. Whatever the Lib Dems may or may not have done was unlikely to have had any influence on a parliament with a massive Labour majority, to where you ought to be addressing your complaints.

    Like Ken Clarke, I am sceptical of referenda in general as final arbiters of anything. I know that Swiss use them extensively and the Irish seem to favour them as well. I certainly do not favour a second EU referendum based purely on Remain/Leave, by the way. That’s why I have tried not to pass final judgement on the decision taken in 23 June 2016 until we know what comes out of the negotiations that are due to be completed later this year. One thing is clear however. Nobody appeared to know for certain at the time what remaining in or leaving the EU actually meant, despite what was said on either side of the argument. The clock is still ticking.

  • Edward Robinson – Thanks for the Bloomberg link reporting the Trade Policy Observatory’s study on “Which Manufacturing Sectors are Most Vulnerable to Brexit”.

    One detail caught my eye, namely their prediction that higher tech manufacturing will be worse hit than lower tech – in other words we will slide down the value chain towards more workaday and low-margin manufacturing.

    Studies like this are notoriously error-prone but I had already come to that conclusion; with our small (in global terms) home market, UK firms will simply not have the economies of scale to compete nor to afford R&D on the scale necessary to keep up with the big three – EU, US and China. And once you fall behind it’s hard to catch up – leaders develop a thicket of patents to protect their position. Sewing T-shirts is the Brexit future.

    The elephant in the room is services which dominate the UK economy which of course this manufacturing study doesn’t cover. The City paid £72 billion in taxes in the year to March 2017 – 11% of all tax receipts and getting on for two thirds of the cost of the NHS. It’s clear that France, Germany and others intend to get that business to compensate for the harm to their economies. As rule setters, particularly in the transition period, they will be able to make whatever laws and rules help them so that.

    So, between both manufacturing and services losing out and easy access to 60% of export markets gone Brexiteers need to explain how we will earn our living in the short to medium term. Even if they are right about the sunlit uplands in the distance (and I don’t think they are) we may not survive the desert crossing to reach them.

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