Regardless of the personal or party consequences, politicians must not be afraid to tell the truth. And the truth is that the country is destined for irreparable harm
No wonder the last battalion of John Major’s infamous bastards looked happy in the Commons on Wednesday night. The vote to trigger Article 50 and cut Britain off from our European neighbours and allies was the final victory in their 30-year culture war for control of the Conservative Party. Having enlisted half the voting public to their cause in June’s poisonous referendum, the Article 50 vote was the push to conscript Parliament too. And they succeeded.
Someone took back control on Wednesday night, that much is true. But it was neither Parliament, nor the people. Instead, it was the radical right wing of this Ukipised Tory Party. Their control was conceded in the speech of George Osborne, when he lamented, with his sardonic smile, that the current Prime Minister was so captured that controlling immigrants from the EU was now seen as more important than the health of our economy and the wealth of our people. Even more devastating, for the wry insouciance of its delivery, was the stiletto-observation of Ken Clarke: that even Enoch Powell might be surprised to see the Tories fully transformed as Euro-sceptic and ‘anti-immigrant’.
But these were rare, rational moments among the ranks of Tories who queued up to celebrate their ‘independence day’ or to invoke the memory of Agincourt, mini-Union Jack’s clutched in their sweaty hands, like Prommers on parade. And no wonder they are so emboldened, because as Osborne alluded, for the first time in their history, the eurosceptic Grand Panjandrum is the PM herself. Once a Remainer, she has fully recanted, and now asks us to follow her across the Rubicon to Brexit Britain, where the tariff-free trade deals hang from the trees and the streets are paved with productivity.
In this La-La Land logic of the new Brexonomics, leaving the largest, most sophisticated and successful single market in the history of mankind is the most effective means to increase trade. Loosening London’s connections with Frankfurt and Paris is the only way to guarantee our parochial capital becomes a truly global trading city. And forgetting the Treasury estimate that to quit the single market would cost £66 billion in lost GDP, to just believe that Brexit is the best means to build the fairer, more equal and prosperous nation that May wants for us all.
Sitting on the Labour benches and listening to the debate throughout Tuesday and Wednesday, part of the minority who have decided not to play along with this dangerous fantasy, I asked myself: how do we combat this potent mix of fabulist economics and nativist politics? And the answer, I believe, has to be a resolute determination to tell the truth, whatever the political consequences for individuals, or even for parties.
Now for me to say that, as a Labour man to the soles of my shoes, who believes wholeheartedly that we have been the greatest vehicle for working class progress ever created in Britain, is some admission. But the fate of our nation is at stake in this debate, and not just our economic wellbeing, but our values, our culture, the Union which binds our islands together and the decency, pluralism and tolerance that truly makes us the British People.
And that is why, though I understand and respect the different decisions taken by my colleagues in Labour, I could not agree to accept the passage of Article 50 and the one way ticket I fear it represents to increased insecurity for my constituents and my children, and worse, to the illiberal, intolerant, extreme-vetted Britain that Nigel Farage and his Tory out-riders dream of for our country.
Now some will say that’s just over the top, that no-one is talking about such a cultural change, just as no-one said we were leaving the single market. But the facts speak for themselves. Brexit began with the ugly politics of blaming immigrants for all the ills of our country, it has continued in that vein, and its destination is unnervingly unknown. Dominic Cummings, the man who masterminded the Leave campaign, declares proudly that immigration was the number one reason for their victory. With brutal eloquence, he says it was their ‘baseball bat’, merely needing to be ‘pick(ed) up at the right moment’.
And what has followed in the wake of that victory? The elevation of control over immigrants above control of our economy. The pitiful sight of our PM hand in hand with a modern day George Wallace, an American racist our only ally, as we shun the friendship of the European family we fought for so long, but with whom we built peace and prosperity for the last seventy years. That isn’t some Trumpian fantasy, it’s the reality of where we find ourselves. And it should be a deep concern to us all.
Because increased control over EU immigration – the only extra control we will get upon exit – will neither remedy the deep-seated problems of our aging industrial economy, not offset the cultural discomfort that some feel in multi-cultural Britain. Those problems will be remainers, I’m afraid, as Brexit will deepen our economic travails, do nothing to assist community cohesion and thus may well compound frustration that politics can’t fix what people see as broken.
But all is not lost, because politics got us into this mess and politics can get us out of it. Bad politics, a politics solely serving the interests of the Tory Party, may have led us to the brink, but good politics, in the interests of our nation and its values, can still lead us back from it. Now that the totemic Article 50 vote is over, MPs from all parties, some of whom voted to trigger, but who still believe in the value of European collaboration and the values of progressive Britain should take heart and take advice from Winston Churchill. He said that ‘the first duty of a MP is to do what he (or she!) thinks is right and necessary for the honour and safety of Great Britain – his second duty is to his constituents, of whom he is the representative but not the delegate’.
For this MP, that meant voting against the trigger this week. But for all of us, now that moment is passed, it can mean our politics will still decide if Article 50 is revocable, and that in my view it must be, in the interests of the country and my constituents. That is a case that will be tested in the Irish courts in the coming days, but it is one that can only truly be won in the country and in her Parliament at Westminster. In the committee stage of the Brexit Bill next week, and in the years of debate that will follow, we need to rebuild the case for Europe and rediscover our progressive, European voice. It’s time to fight back, in the interests of the people.
Owen Smith is the MP for Pontypridd. He was one of the 47 Labour MPs who defied the party whip and voted against triggering Article 50