MPs should resist the pressure to accept any old Brexit deal and stand up to the new nationalism by demanding another people’s vote, says Labour MP Owen Smith
The Thiepval Memorial looms over the rolling hills of the Somme region in northern France, a permanent reminder of the blood of nations that irrigated its fields a hundred years ago. Theresa May will visit the site on Friday, alongside President Macron of France, to mark the Centennial Armistice Day alongside ‘our friends and partners in Europe’. The irony of Mrs May’s words will not be lost on President Macron, who has spent the last week touring the battlefields of the First World War, evoking de Gaulle’s provincial tours of the 1960s while warning against the rise of the ‘new nationalism’ across Europe and beyond.
The edifice that looms over our own landscape is Brexit, of course, Europe’s grandest symbol of the new nationalism. Its foundations were dug by those who peddled fear of immigrants and foreign invasion, its bricks were forged with the jingoism of anti-European ‘patriots’ and the vista from its ramparts will be comfortably backwards, to lost empire and island-nation purity.
It’s all a lie, of course. A grand folly, carefully constructed to fool the eye of a nation and win its heart with promises that cannot be met and fears that cannot be justified. Brexit will not lead to new wars across our continent or see blood shed, as a hundred years ago. But it is quite clearly a renunciation of the lessons we profess to have learned each Armistice Day. It is a retreat from the collectivist strength of nations on our continent. It is a withdrawal from the shared set of values that emerged from the last century of military conflict and a denial of the truth that closer, collective economic, environmental and security co-operation will be what keeps us well in this one.
For Members of Parliament, as we leave Westminster this week, and return home to lay wreaths at local Remembrance Services and to reflect on the sacrifice made by the men and women of our communities in the service of our nation, I hope we might also reflect on how Brexit sits against that backcloth of conflict. Will our modern national interest be served by Brexit, or slain by it?
Because that is the first-principles argument that we must have before each Member of Parliament casts our vote on the Brexit deal. All rhetoric about the will of the people and respecting the referendum, or the countervailing cries that the Leave campaign lied and that public opinion has shifted must be put aside as MPs ask themselves, on behalf of the constituents and the nations we represent: is this in their interests?
Will Brexit, with its retreat from multi-lateral engagement and economic co-operation, be good or bad for our people and our nation? Will it help or hinder collaboration and friendship between nations? Will it nurture liberal and democratic values of tolerance, openness, freedom and equality or fuel antipathies, resentments, division and conflict?
I believe that the answer to those questions is clear: Brexit, in any form, hard or soft, Tory or Labour, ‘jobs-first’ or whatever, will be bad for Britain and for the values our country has come to represent across the world. And that is why I and my colleagues should vote against it, on principle, whatever the deal that Mrs May brings back from Brussels.
That is not to deny that underpinning the Brexit vote were deep-seated, structural inequalities in our country, or that Westminster politics is failing to deliver for so many. But it is to tell the truth that membership of the EU is not the root cause of these crises, and that neither greater state sovereignty, nor socialism in one country is the answer in our modern, integrated world.
There is one further lesson that we might draw from events more than a hundred years ago, and that is the need to guard against a rush to action in the name of a phoney national interest. That’s the trick that the Tories will try and get MPs to take by presenting a binary, but utterly bogus choice between accepting ‘the deal’ or triggering ‘no deal’.
Though Theresa May is a political opponent, whose party has presided of a lost decade of austerity, it is clear to me that she has a deep, personal sense of commitment to Britain and to public service and I do not believe for a moment that she will give in to the anarchist ERG wing of her party and accept the ‘no-deal’ Brexit they desire. To do so would be to damage Britain for generations. Parliament would never accept it and no responsible prime minister would ever recommend it.
That is why, tactically, as well as on principle, MPs should resist the pressure to accept any old Brexit, safe in the knowledge that the threat of no deal is quite empty. Instead, we should forego personal, political or party interest and stand up to the new nationalism by demanding another people’s vote and the chance, at least, to turn back from the Brexit brink.
Owen Smith is Labour MP for Pontypridd