‘Democracy is a process – it must allow the voters to change their mind’

Stephen Dorrell. Photo: Carmen Valino

Stephen Dorrell. Photo: Carmen Valino - Credit: Archant

By any normal standards the EU would be considered a huge success and now cross-party pro-European voices must come together to save it.

For 43 years until 2016, the majority of voters, and a larger majority of political and other leaders, regarded it as obvious that Britain's interests lie in developing closer links with our neighbours in Europe with who we share common bonds of history, geography and culture.

The European Union was the means by which we pursued these interests and it was an essential part of our governance.

There were irritants of course. Like all organisations, the EU is capable of saying and doing silly things, and it is sometimes slow to recognise the blindingly obvious. It regularly presents easy targets for populist politicians and journalists.

But that hardly makes it different.

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The real scandal of British politics since the EU Referendum is the craven way in which our so-called leaders have deserted principles which they would have regarded as essential national interests until 2016 and regarded the referendum result as sufficient excuse for doing so without further explanation.

Their actions demonstrate posthumously why Margaret Thatcher was right to resist referendums on the grounds that they are 'the device of dictators'. Far from improving the accountability of decision-makers to voters the effect of the EU referendum has been to provide ministers with a shield which prevents their decisions being questioned.

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Successive British governments have believed that it is in our essential national interests to be part of the process which makes the decisions which shape our continent.

Those decisions have never been purely economic. Is it a matter of economics or food safety to decide whether we eat chlorine-soaked chicken? In this example the answer is, of course, 'both'. They are important because they shape the food we eat and the air we breathe and they are also important because they shape the market in which our businesses trade.

The political question is who makes the decisions and how are they accountable?

The answer in recent years has been that the EU single market, supported by the customs union, has allowed us to make these decisions in ways which balance different interests and create an open market across Europe for the resulting goods and services. No-one believes it is perfect, but it has underwritten both continued expansion of the economies of Western Europe, including our own, and the successful development of the economies of central Europe following the collapse of their Russian-inspired communist regimes at the end of the 1980s.

Successive generations of European politicians have set out reasonably consistent objectives, pursued them and ultimately delivered them. Britain has been part of the process, partly because we embrace the objectives for ourselves, but also because we believe their adoption by others makes our continent a safer and more stable place to live.

That is what is now at risk.

The referendum is being used as an excuse to withdraw Britain's support for this process and to describe any opposition as undemocratic.

The Brexit negotiations now under way in Brussels are the first substantial trade negotiations in living memory to convene with the explicit purpose of creating barriers.

In place of the successful commitment of half a century to build a community of like-minded nations with a commitment to mutual security and common interests, the present British government is pursuing a destructive agenda which seeks short-term popularity at the expense of Britain's interests and security.

And what is the response? The leadership of the official opposition keeps mum because it sees party opportunity in the coming mayhem, and because its commitment to liberal values is qualified by its tendency to find justification for deeply illiberal causes.

That is why it is so important for cross-party pro-European voices to come together. The European Movement, with our partner organisations Britain for Europe, Scientists for EU and Healthier IN the EU, will continue to build our organisation, and we look for partnership with others who share our concern about Britain's drift towards Trumpian isolationism.

Of course we must hear the voters' voice. But democracy is a process, not an event. A healthy democracy is a dialogue in which all voices should be heard.

And it must allow the voters to change their mind.

Democracy – the open challenge to those in power to explain themselves to voters – has never been more important.

Stephen Dorrell is chair of the European Movement UK and a former cabinet minister. Follow the European Movement UK on Twitter @euromove

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