What does the EU Referendum mean for Liberal Democrats

This vote has been a collective howl of frustration – at the political class, at big business, at a global elite.

These were Tim Farron’s words in his outstanding speech following the results of the EU referendum. It raises a question this party must answer – is this party simply part of that political class and global elite that the voters continue so clearly to reject? Are we, like other mainstream political parties, set in our ways, disconnected from the public whose trust the mainstream has lost, stuck in a mindset and language that is hopelessly outdated, and with no idea as to how to understand and empathise with the concerns of today’s voter, let alone find ways to address them? We like to think of ourselves as the outsiders, the challengers, those who question the status quo. But is this reality or simply self-delusion? Does anyone out there see us like that?

Liberalism is a child of the Enlightenment. It is founded on the principles of reason, openness and tolerance – all principles that have been soundly rejected in this referendum. What does this mean for our party? My own view is that we should not abandon these principles but we need to re-define them for a twenty-first century world. We glibly bandy about terms like “open” and “internationalist”, but what should these terms mean in today’s world? What should they be taken to mean by those at the lower end of the skills and income scale? Those who see such words as threats to their livelihoods rather than the aspirational connotations these words have for the cosmopolitan elite whose vision of the future has now been roundly rejected by the British public.

I sit in many meetings where the same old language is trotted out. It has become a mantra shorn of meaning or, worse, a trope that is associated in most voters’ minds with negative rather than positive connotations. But the language doesn’t change and neither is its meaning deeply questioned. It’s almost like speech on autopilot.

And we are dreadfully set in our ways. Attempts to do things that are out of the ordinary; to be real challengers that rock the boat; to behave, not just talk, like outsiders is greeted with huge resistance. With a fear of being seen to do anything that is not “proper.” As a result we are, in spite of our rhetoric, seen by voters as part of the mainstream establishment that has left them behind.

When liberalism came into being, its principles were seen as radical, outrageous even, by the then Establishment. Today, I can’t recall any policy, any statement or any behaviour that anyone would call radical. And, as Paddy Ashdown recently said to me, “If we are not radical, we are nothing.”

At the beginning of the referendum campaign I suggested that a visceral, emotional campaign is always likely to win out against a reasonable, rational one. This has proven to be the case. But I have always believed that when things don’t go my way, the most useful tool is the mirror not the finger. For me, the result is not the time to blame others – and especially not the voters – but an opportunity to look in the mirror and ask several questions: Who are we? Are we part of the mainstream establishment that is slowly dying or can we re-discover our radical roots? Do we have the will – and are we willing to devote the time – to re-examine in some depth the language that we throw around so glibly and discover what it all really means in today’s world? I don’t know.

* Joe Zammit-Lucia is a co-founder and trustee of the think tank radix.org.uk and a Lib Dem member

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15 Comments

  • In the last few days, tensions between those who supported Leave and Remain have only grown more harsh, and there are vast numbers of people, especially young people, who feel abandoned by those who reject the notions of openness and internationalism.

    Young people of today are very different to the youth of the 80s; we are not the anti-establishment, rebellious minds that young people once were. We support the ideas of collectivism, of social democracy, of openness and internationalism. Principles that were rejected by the 52% are the exact same principles that the 48% hold close to their hearts. With the rise of UKIP, I think we do still need a party that represents those left behind by this referendum result.

    It would be a good idea to enshrine our values in the context of the vast numbers of young people who are worried, and not simply react to this referendum as if the electorate have rejected us.

    There are people with genuine worries, and they need to be addressed, and it’s not just right to listen to these views, it’s imperative. But this is not the time to accept defeat. It’s true that we have not expressed our values to the working poor, to older people, indeed to those who live outside the cities. But our values need context, not redefinition.

  • David Cooper 25th Jun '16 - 2:31pm

    Good article. The unskilled at the bottom of the job market were betrayed in 2004. When the EU expanded, their only bargaining position in the labor market, scarcity, was destroyed.

    Britain had long had a shoddy social contract in which the education of the underclass was neglected, but they had exclusive access to the UK job market. The political classes, including the Libdems, acquiesced in this contract. In 2004 they broke it allowing free access to the job market to the whole of Eastern Europe, without compensating the poorly educated British. Thursday was payback time.

  • Rightsaidfredfan 25th Jun '16 - 2:38pm

    “is this party simply part of that political class”

    I’m amazed lib dems even have to ask themselves that, to everyone else the answer is so obvious the question wouldn’t even be asked.

    The answer is yes.

    The lib dems are a small party but they’re as establishment as the Tories they were recently in government with and the other lords and ladies that their peers sit next to.

    When every lib dems have been in government either in Westminster, holyrood or local they have largely been moderate and status quo, they have never really insisted on radical sweeping changes.

    Yes. The lib dems are part of the political establishment.

  • paul barker 25th Jun '16 - 2:38pm

    The vote on Thursday seems to have accidentally created what Marxists call a “Pre-Revolutionary Situation”. A Situation where nothing works the way it used to, where the Rulers cant Rule & the People are shouting a confused “No”, where The PM has resigned but is still PM. In such Situations small groups who know what they want can have influence way beyond their size.
    We know what we want, Electoral Reform, A Federal Britain in a Federal Europe, Votes at 16 & real Devolution & what we want seems to chime with what a lot of (mostly young) people want. Just look at the various Petitions that have sprung up in response to Thursday. We should stop looking just at our defeat & realise that everyone lost on Thursday, everything is up for grabs.

  • Ted,
    I’m not so certain it’s that simple. How many of leave were rejecting openness and how many of remain were embracing it is pretty hard to tell really. A lot of this was about fear and wanting some sort of change rather than the being entire about the EU, although for me it was about the EU.

    What I would say about the EU is, contrary to some of the spin, that it was only formed in 1993 and the free movement stuff really only goes back to, what, 2004? In truth it’s been a bit of mess since it started to aim openly for supranational status with ever greater monetary and political union. It’s really not done Spain or Italy or Greece any great favours and has reduced social democratic politics to rubble. As for the idea that collectivism and internationalism is alien to the older generation these are the foundations of socialism which if anything was stronger in the past. They can also lead to different problems and are not traditionally the liberal approach. The EU to me is really a business club with political pretentions and with the primary aim of making trade between nations easier. It’s those nations as economies rather than as peoples. I voted leave, not to give David Cameron a kick, or to stop young people from travelling or because I’m a mean person, but because I think the EU has been disruptive and damaging in such a short space, 23 years, of time.To me it seems like the social democracies of Europe are social democracies despite being in the EU not because of it. They all predate the EU by decades and were products of settled prosperous Nation States not internationalism.

  • Christopher Haigh 25th Jun '16 - 3:47pm

    Reflecting on the post referendum detritus I can now see Glenn’s reasoning that what was until 1993 an excellent social democratic organisation is now a chaotic neo-liberal mess. Probably for the best that we have voted out, although I was a remainer, mainly because I thought of the EU as a safeguard against what appears to be virtual perpetual right wing Tory rule in England.

  • The Professor 25th Jun '16 - 3:49pm

    It would be wrong for anyone to assume that the 52% for Leave was a homogenous bloc voting out for one reason only.

    As an ex-Lib Dem voter who voted Leave let me give you my perspective, particularly on the words “Open” and “Internationalist”.

    “Open” means being open to the world in terms of globalisation and global trade. I want to see trade barriers come down except in the rare instances where vital strategic industries need protection (think steel for our future warships).

    “Internationalist” means co-operating with other countries and institutions think Nato, United Nations and the European Union and doing deals that are in the UK’s best interests.

    What ‘Leavers’ do not want is to be over-ruled by being part of an EU that is incapable of reform, where the Euro causes financial stresses that leads to a break down in social cohesion and uncontrolled migrant flows. Where the strongest part (Germany) bullies and dominates the weakest (Greece et al). Where financial accounts are not signed off by auditors.
    Nick Clegg, in 2014, said he saw an EU with no change in 10 years time. No thanks.

  • @Glenn
    We’ve had freedom of movement since we joined the EEC. I used it to work in Germany in the 1970s

    @TheProfessor
    That thing about the ‘not signed off by auditors’ is not true.

  • The Professor 25th Jun '16 - 4:20pm

    Fair comment re accounts being signed off. I stand corrected.

  • Chris.
    Directive 2004/38/EC, before that it was was applied to the right to work, but not to reside as a citizen in the host country. The older system effectively just removed the need for visas. The newer one is attached to European rather national citizenship. They are not the same thing. It is also entirely possible to work in most countries in the world but this is within the rules of national not supranational borders.

  • This article is a good example of what causes people to be disengaged with politics. It asks itself a question and then takes a depressingly long time to conclude ‘I don’t know’. Along the way it vaguely suggests the need to be radical – but with no suggestions as to how. All questions, when people want solutions.
    In the last general election, the lib-dems were reduced to sideline spectators. If there is a general election called this year, there is 48% of the electorate that is a bit passed off at the moment and looking for a radical party to be the antithesis of UKIP, to say they will do whatever it takes to keep in Europe. There is your radical act – to say no to thelp result of the (not legally binding) referendum.

  • Excellent article.

    I joined the party (the Alliance as it then was) in the mid 1980s knowing nothing about politics but with a deep conviction that Thatcher was wrong in ways I couldn’t properly articulate and an instinct that there had to be a better way to run the country.

    What I discovered was a party with great strength in local government and with a strong self-image as outsiders, challengers and radicals in a great tradition. But, as I soon discovered, when it came to the national stage it was a party that actually had no idea how the world worked and therefore no idea what could/should be done about it. In short, it had no ‘narrative’ and worse, it had no ambition to know. What it did have was an smug complacency in the superiority of its democratic governance and policy making but in fact only a suffocating home-grown political correctness. That is not a formula for success as has been proven time and again.

    Whatever radicalism there was has seeped away to be replaced by signing up to the neoliberal programme and supporting the establishment – hence the refusal to question, challenge or rock the boat in any way.

    This has no value and therefore no future. The forces behind Brexit and its repercussions are going to entirely remake British politics leaving all the old parties changed beyond recognition – that is those that still exist – so it’s last chance saloon time. Either the party leadership faces up to the issues or Tim Farron will be its last leader who is also an MP.

  • Not Previously Voted 26th Jun '16 - 8:03pm

    “The Liberal Democrats will stand at the next general election on a platform of derailing Brexit and keeping Britain in the European Union, the party has announced.”

    That gets my vote.

  • This is a once in a generation opportunity for the LibDems to grab the centre ground and snatch victory from the jaws of national calamity. Time to reach out to the MPs and voters on all sides of the House/country and form a coalition based on the simple premise of Remain and Reform. Imagine the consequences of MPs such as Phillip Hammond and Amber Rudd on the right to Chuka Ummuna and Sadiq Khan defecting to LibDem … and uniting with SNP and Sinn Fein to keep the Union together and in the EU? Labour MPs really have nothing to lose and the Remain Tory’s will either be in the wilderness or damned by assosication – and they know it.

    I have always been a center-left voter by nature, waivering between the LibDems and Labour. I am not sure I feel strongly (and I am certain that most of the country do not care at all) about many of the “techy” arguments about electoral reform, House of Lords, etc. I am not saying ditch these policies – rather go into the snap election that is coming in the next 6 months with one vision – not “take back control” but rather “save the United Kingdom”.

  • Simon Banks 30th Jun '16 - 8:34am

    I don’t entirely agree that Liberalism arose from the Enlightenment. There were things being said by radicals like the Levellers in the Civil War and Commonwealth period that sound very Liberal and the roots of the British Liberals are in the Whigs, who grew up in the late 17th century and admired the resistance to Charles I. Liberalism so named arose much later, in the early 19th century, but you don’t need the name to have the reality. This is not a pernickety point because the Levellers’ commitment arose out of religious radicalism and was not short of emotion.

    I agree we’re not being radical enough, but the cannabis policy is a start.

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