We must create a non Brexit dividend

The Liberal Democrats have been the proud standard-bearers of the rearguard action from the 2016 EU referendum. That Britain is still in the EU, and we as a party are enjoying a revival from the drubbing of 2015, are direct results of our commitment to what looked at the time like a lost cause.

But if, as seems likely, we go into the next general election with a policy of revoking Article 50 without another referendum, it will become absolutely vital for us to present to the electorate a ‘non-Brexit dividend’ – otherwise we will fail the very society we have claimed to bat for over several decades.

Last year I wrote in LDV that our party’s approach to the most pressing issue of our time should be summed up by paraphrasing Tony Blair’s dictum from his time as shadow Home Office Secretary – we should be ‘tough on Brexit, and tough on the causes of Brexit’. We have been brilliant at the first but not so good at the second. That must now change.

There are no policy disagreements here. Whatever the question was, Brexit isn’t the answer. The EU is far from perfect, but the idea that we’re better off outside than inside is preposterous. But precisely because Brexit makes no sense, we have to look at why so many people voted for it. And to dismiss it as just years of anti-EU hectoring by the press won’t bring people round to understanding our view.

Our line to date has been that we want a people’s vote. In other words, there is so much doubt about what the 2016 Leave vote meant, and how legitimate the mandate is, that we have to put it back to the people. But if we’re not now putting it back to the people, we have to show that we’re as tough on the causes of Brexit as on Brexit itself, or we really will leave ourselves open to accusations that we are illiberal and undemocratic.

There’s an easy way to do this – we package a number of our existing anti-austerity policies into a non-Brexit dividend, which we market with all the zest and zeal of a front-line election slogan. Among the policies that would fit in this non-Brexit dividend are our plans to put more money into local government, and to build more houses, our NHS and education strategies, and even our approach to a land tax. Any policy that addresses the concerns of those who feel left behind by the affluence of the south-east and the international business elite can be part of the non-Brexit dividend package.

Having a non-Brexit dividend (see how often I’m trumpeting it already!) will do two things. It will establish in the minds of the public that there are material gains to be had from staying in the EU. I know we’ve been saying this, but it’s been very theoretical – our non-Brexit dividend needs to make the gains relevant to the everyday lives of Brexit-leaning voters, and to tell them that by staying in the EU we can afford anti-austerity measures. And it will offer a reward or compensation to those who feel they are giving up on their cherished dream of Britain leaving the EU.

I confess I’m not totally comfortable with us campaigning to revoke Article 50 without a people’s vote. We have deftly steered clear of the anti-democratic accusation for three years, largely because we could legitimately argue that ‘review and affirm’ is part of the British culture (we don’t exchange on buying a house until solicitors and surveyors have done their investigations; members have a vote on a completed trade union negotiation; shareholders vote on a proposed takeover; a doctor must regularly update a patient’s consent, etc; so why shouldn’t we put a Leave deal back to the people?). But I fear that not putting it back to the people will make accusations that we’re anti-democratic more likely to stick.

Whether that’s our policy or not, we have to be tough on the causes of Brexit, and that’s why the non-Brexit dividend should be an integral part of our policy offering at the next election. It involves little or nothing new, just repackaging in a form the public will get. Basic marketing really.

* Chris Bowers is a two-term district councillor and four-time parliamentary candidate. He writes on cross-party cooperation and in 2021 was the lead author of the New Liberal Manifesto.

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  • John Barrett 14th Sep '19 - 10:41am

    Unfortunately I am unable to come to conference because of illness in the family, but the news that the party may move away from its commitment to a second referendum is music to my ears.

    For many years I have felt like a lone voice, saying that another referendum was not the way forward, as there is every likelihood that it would solve nothing and leave us in exactly the same position we are in now.

    Stating clearly what the party believes and asking people to vote for it, by revoking Article 50, leaver voters in no doubt as to where we stand and what we would do if we were returned in a position to influence any future government.

    I am no fan of the SNP, but in previous contributions to Lib-Dem Voice I have used them as an example by saying that they are clear about their support for independence, regardless of any referendum result and that our party should be as clear on major issues such as EU membership, or we will not deserve the support of the electorate, who are crying out for clarity from their politicians.

    As someone who has attended Scottish and Federal Conferences for around 40 years, this is one debate I would have been submitting a speakers card for.

    Have a great conference and I will be there in spirit.

  • Fine if you want to be tough on the causes of Brexit, the main one was immigration so state “We will as a government enforce the rules on EU immigration, which previous UK governments choose not to”.
    As the Independent article shows that rather shoots the Brexiteers largest fox. It also gets them asking why their friendly neighbourhood Right Wing tough on immigration Tories never enacted the powers they had ( also plants the seed of doubt are they ever going to be, hint for the xenophobic amongst us, who worry about their little village for people like them, no they never will be, cheap people trump the need to pander to you with anything other than word every day of the week)

  • John Barrett 14th Sep '19 - 10:47am

    I should have added, that the first referendum was a bad idea, and if that was the case, there was every chance a second one would prove to be exactly the same.

    That is; divisive and inconclusive, producing a result that could be interpreted in many different ways by both sides of the argument.

  • John,
    Not alone, merely an outsider of an idea whose time was coming. It takes time for a critical mass to develop, if revoke fails, some comfort may be gained by the realistion that in time people will claim they to where in favour as they jump on the bandwagon. Why many ardent followers of Blair into Iraq now remember they where against it. Bad ideas with bad consequences soon lose their followers. I suspect they with morph into “This isn’t my Brexit/Lexit” too “I was never in favour of Lexit/Brexit”; but it is ever so with our flexible friends, they will contort themselves into ever more rediclious shapes to avoid reality and responsibility while hoping to stay cedible; a battle they long ago lost in the eyes of anyone but themselves and many of them dont thing their fellows are credible.

  • Richard Underhill 14th Sep '19 - 11:02am

    Federal conference provides delegates with a lot of paper and a lot of things to think about. David Cameron’s book is being serialised in the Times today, but read Nick Clegg’s book first. ‘Politics Between the Extremes’ is a must have in hardback or paperback. “a passionate plea for the centre ground”.
    Chapter 9 ‘The return of Liberalism’ page 225.
    “In 1993, I spent several months in Budapest, having won a writing prize from the Financial Times, examining the mass privatisation schemes that were taking place across Central and Eastern Europe. Back then Victor Orban was the leader of a fizzingly liberal, youthful party, Fidesz. Indeed, its commitment to the virtues of youth was such that it introduced a ban on any Fidesz party member being aged over forty.”
    That sounds undemocratic, but please consider a general election in which voters much older than the FIDESZ limit chose to rid themselves of the communist government with which they were all too familiar. The age limit of the candidates gave voters confidence that they were untainted and should be trusted. Imagine applying that to the UK. The MPs whom John Major called “bastards” would be out.
    At Liberal International conferences the age limit was questioned, including the one in Buda-Pest (visited by Mary Robinson). The young candidates were getting older every day, so the age limit (initially 35) was raised to allow them to continue.
    “The contrast with the Orban of today – Vladimir Putin’s chief cheerleader in Central and Eastern Europe – speaks volumes about the dramatic lurch towards insularity and nationalism in European politics since the collapse of the Berlin Wall”.

  • John Marriott 14th Sep '19 - 11:14am

    I speak still as a pragmatic remainer, like Lord Hague has always claimed to be. I could live with a half in, half out, Norway style solution and nothing I have seen, heard or read since that fateful day in June three years ago has made me change my mind (sorry ‘frankie’ for my cowardice).

    If the Lib Dems were in the position to engineer a revocation of Article 50, I am truly fearful of what this might do not only to our democracy but, equally importantly, to our social cohesion. My wife has just pre ordered Cameron’s mea culpa (she got it for £10 cheaper on a certain well known online retailer). Much as I blame Dave for what has happened, I reckon I still might just read it, especially to see what he has to say about certain individuals. It’s a pity we can’t ‘revoke’ him, or them, for that matter! He claims to think about what he has done every day. Well, Dave old chap, so do I and so do most of my friends and family!

  • Sue Sutherland 14th Sep '19 - 11:41am

    At first when I heard about us promising to Revoke Article 50 I thought we were taking a mouldy leaf out of Labour’s book and taking up two positions at the same time, one of which seemed undemocratic to me. Now I think I understand that if we win a majority in a GE we will revoke, which means we would have a democratic mandate to put all this behind us.
    I totally agree with you, Chris, that we must offer a different way of dividing up the cake at the same time as stopping this Brexit nightmare. I have seen it put quite well in the slogan Remain, Renew, Reform in that we will renew our divided society and Reform it’s outdated democracy so we never get into this mess again.

  • Richard Underhill – Oh dear, an untainted younger generation. Untainted because they have not lived long enough for their mistakes and character flaws have become clear for all to see.

    I, and a significant number of people prefer to jusdge people in the round, based on what they say, but with particular emphasis on what they have done. Contrast “Strong and Stable” Theresa with Windrush; “Hug a Husky” Dave and “We must show coalition works” Nick with Austerity; “an end to boom and bust” Gordon with the financial crash and finally “The third way” Tony with the Iraq War and spin.

    Then consider Paddy Ashdown with his battles to build up the Lib Dems; Neil Kinnock with his battle to rid Labour of Militant; David Penhalygon with “What is good for the workers at ECC, is good for Cornwall,” and “put it on a piece of paper and put it through a letterbox” even Harold Macmillan and Council Housing.

    There are good and bad, Liberal and illiberal, competent and incompetent young people, just as true as for older people. It’s just that with an older person you tend to know what you will get.

    But any attempt to restrict choice is immediately illiberal – and it gives those with massive personal ego and powerful unseen backers the chance to get to the top quickly and entrench themselves before the voters get to see their dark side.

  • The “cause” of Brexit is joining the EU in the first place. There was no vote on something that fundamentally altered politics and citizenship. And only narrowly didn’t alter the currency. Very few people in the late 1980s to 01/11/93 were actively asking to join a far reaching political unification project. So idea that you can tackle the “causes” of Brexit whilst in the EU is nonsensical. Also idea that it was “caused” is loaded. It’s like saying what “causes” people to vote Lib Dem or what “caused” them to vote “remain”. It’s a denial of political agency that treats differing views as if they are not really views, but as a sort of pseudo mystery. To be honest, I suspect not even a majority of the remain vote is actively committed to the EU as a political project in the way those who think ever closer union is desirable are. I also suspect that if the Major government had put Maastricht to a public vote we would never have joined.

  • Peter Martin 14th Sep '19 - 12:47pm

    @ Matt,

    “I also suspect that if the Major government had put Maastricht to a public vote we would never have joined.”

    No. That was why we didn’t get the vote! Maastricht was the defining moment for the start of the EU. The old EEC had its problems but worked reasonably well. The difference was of course never probably explained to the electorate. It was passed off as “just another treaty” and nothing for the rest of us to worry our heads about.

    @ Chris Bowers,

    “…tough on Brexit, and tough on the causes of Brexit’.

    Do you know just how condescending this sounds? Condescension is the natural response of superior middle class Remainers, so perhaps you don’t. It’s comparing Brexit to crime. The EU makes us oiks so angry that we decided to stop mugging old ladies, at least temporarily, and voted for Brexit instead!

    If you still don’t get it try “…tough on Remain, and tough on the causes of Remain’. How does that sound?

    I probably shouldn’t have pointed this out because this continued level of condescension doesn’t go unnoticed. It doesn’t do the the Remain cause any good at all!

    Please keep it up! 🙂

  • Dilettante Eye 14th Sep '19 - 1:54pm

    “The “cause” of Brexit is joining the EU in the first place.”


    John Major signing us up to an extra layer of EU governance which no-one in the UK asked for, or got the opportunity to vote for was an act frankly bordering on criminal.
    In June 2016 we finally got to vote on Maastricht but nigh on 25 years after the crime had been committed.

    Thankfully in about seven weeks’ time we finally get to Revoke Maastricht.

  • Bless our poor Brexi’s rehashing old history. I’ll add one to your list of moans, but this is one that can only be used in years to come “The cause of our poverty and irrelevance is the Brexiteers”. I suspect many a poltician will gain much power on being tough on “Brexiteers”, after all scape goats will be required and the majority will by then swear blind they never voted for Brexit. So my poor Brexi’s ( and that includes you Peterl no such thing as a Lexiteer going forward) we had better hope that you are only this vocal on websites or a age of loneliness and disdain awaits you.

  • Rob Parsons 14th Sep '19 - 5:37pm

    Peter, to be honest, I think it only sounds condescending if you’re looking for condescension. It is very clear that brexit will not do anything to solve the problems most of this country faces. If that is not the issue for you, and you really think it is all about sovereignty, then you are entitled to that view, but that is not what most people voted for.

    Whether we leave or stay, in my opinion, makes little difference to the problems we face here in the UK and need to solve. In my opinion, we will be much better able to solve them if we stay in, firstly because our economy will not be nearly so badly affected as if we leave, and secondly because within the EU we are protected by the ECJ and the ECHR from the disaster capitalists who have spent so heavily, lied so hard, and broken the law so many times to promote brexit.

    We have solutions to the horribly skewed housing market; to the unfair distribution of taxation and of the benefits of public services; to the financialisation of practically every aspect of our citizenship; to the lack of transparency in public contracts; to the bending of our entire education system to privatisation by any means and to the inhuman altar of employability; to our viciously unhelpful benefit system; and so much more.

    It is quite right that we should present these as an unBrexit dividend if we manage to stave off Brexit, because we will then be able to do something about them. If we leave the EU, those policies will be even more necessary, but much more difficult to deliver as both the pound and our economy tank, and as the disaster capitalists tighten their grip on all the levers of power.

  • Frankie has it right, the non-Brexit dividend is delivering all the things people actually wanted, whilst getting a real grip on immigration is going to be a big one, others include investing in UK residents, which is going to be the best and more long-term sustainable way of increasing per capita GPD and living standards than the current model of importing people.

    Unfortunately, many Brexiteers in reality denal, won’t appreciate that the real non-Brexit dividend is the avoidance of the self-inflicted wounds of actually going through with Brexit. This is just as many didn’t appreciate that the reason Y2K was largely a non-event was because a lot of skilled people put a lot of effort in behind the scenes.

  • William Fowler 15th Sep '19 - 8:50am

    I want to remain but the narrative that a leaned down UK (or whatever is left of GB) can do well in a world of cut-throat trade and AI does have some merits and possibilities but would cause social chaos for a couple of years until things settle down and would need a radical govn with a decent majority and a Trump-like leader indifferent to public opinion. A post Brexit govn that tried to inflate the State rather than reduce it would indeed crash and burn in a rater spectacular manner, especially with regards to the already somewhat ruined value of Sterling. All things considered, staying in the EU is most likely to help Sterling and govn revenues in the short term though a good case could be made for the long term decline of the EU but again endless possibilities for reform.

    It’s a pity that the LibDems can’t countenance Revoke plus a five year residence test before access to benefits, tax credits, social housing etc as this would give redress to those Leavers enraged by excess low-skilled immigrants taking their jobs or diluting the kind of wages they can earn (and if applied equally to UK citizens does not need EU permission).

  • Yeovil Yokel 18th Sep '19 - 8:45pm

    It’s WTO, joe, not WTF.

  • One cause of Brexit was and is the poor educational and administrative input to the referendum. Empowerment includes knowing about the system and how to input into it. Fairness is a british value and requires rules, oversight and sanctions. Every child knows that.

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