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Mike Galsworthy: Brexit has failed and we must be ready to rejoin, step-by-step

New chair of the European Movement gives surprise backing to Labour’s cautious approach

Photo: Mike Galsworthy

Mike Galsworthy, 47, the new chair of the European Movement, is a scientist – a facts man. It is no surprise, then, that he campaigned vigorously against Brexit and now spearheads the campaign to rejoin the EU.

But, as we sit outside a cafe at a South London lido, I wonder – what, if anything, was the moment he realised being European was an emotive thing for him?

“There was a trigger point,” he thinks. “And that was when I came back to the UK from Slovenia in 2013, and I’d done research on science policy and science funding by the European Union in life sciences.

“So I felt I had a good understand – a very good understanding – of EU science policy, and then I came back to the UK and I saw a publication from some Conservative Eurosceptics – as they were called at the time, not Brexiteers – saying that the EU was anti-science. And their arguments about it were complete bunk. And this was at a time when the Conservative government – well, it was the coalition government at the time – had UK science funding at the bottom of the G8, but the EU had been ramping up funding into science. 

“And I thought: what has happened to my country, which is a proud science country, whereby you can have a political faction which has politicised science in a really weird way and got it completely back-to-front?”.

It’s not exactly a stolen kiss on a school exchange to Germany but, as I say, Galsworthy is a scientist (his thesis was A psychometric and quantitative genetic study of cognitive task performance in a heterogeneous stock (hs) population of MUS musculus).

And he is, since last month, chair of the European Movement UK, having beaten former Sunday Telegraph editor Patience Wheatcroft and ex-Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake in a poll of members of the body whose origins lie in the aftermath of the second world war. Set up to support European cooperation, it now, says Galsworthy, “currently exists to rejoin the EU step-by-step”.

“It’s very clear to most of the public that Brexit isn’t working, polling shows that – repeated polling shows not just that people think Brexit was the wrong decision and that it’s not working on immigration and travel, and that it’s not working for business, but also that most people would vote to rejoin if they could,” he says. “And they would even be up for a referendum over the coming years on exactly that.

“This is now what we are about. And this is what we are telling everyone that we are about. So we are the organisation that is clearly stating that we want to rejoin the EU and also have the capacity to mobilise both public and politicians in order to move in that direction.”

Some of the coverage – admittedly in media not sympathetic to the Movement’s aims – characterised the leadership race as an SNP-style battle between ‘gradualists’, those accepting rejoining will take time, and those desiring a more immediate return, but Galsworthy dismisses this.

“There was absolutely none of that and, because the three of us were all on the same page, which is – the policy is, step-by-step, to rejoin, and we were also all saying the same thing, which is, before the next general election, the main mission is to minimise the damage from, for example, the Retained EU Law Bill, or the Labour Party painting red lines too hard around free movement and all the rest. 

“Then the next phase is, presumably, Labour coming in, but if it’s not Labour then, whichever the government is, you’re not expecting a referendum to rejoin in that first term, unless you get really lucky, but you’re expecting the government to recognise that they cannot fix their economic situation unless they’re looking again at our travel relationships with the EU, with our shared standards with the EU and reworking our relationship with the single market. 

“And then the idea being that, if you get lucky in that first term of a new government you get solid steps and maybe, if you’re really lucky, a referendum then on the principle of whether the government should be renegotiating with Europe to see what it can get in terms of either single market or rejoining or new political arrangements.

“I think the notion that there are two camps within the rejoin movement, one that’s gradualist and one is ‘let’s rejoin now’ doesn’t exist anymore. I think that there was a sort of, after 2019, to a degree a sort of reactionary ‘let’s get back in’ from some of the grassroots, but even some of the local groups that have been very much staunchly pro-rejoin from the get-go like, for example, Leeds For Europe, have now added much more pragmatic strings to their bows.

“So I think right across the movement we’re making a loud noise about rejoin and we’ll make it louder, but we recognise that we have to get ourselves rejoin-ready.”

The policy, he says, in what almost amounts to a rare soundbite is “rejoin by passion, gradualist by necessity”.

We talk about how and where that campaigning takes place and arguments are made, and it’s clear Galsworthy is very passionate about new media – podcasts, for example, and the Bylines Network of papers and online TV, of which he is founder. But how does the rejoin movement get beyond that, I ask, to those voters who are unlikely to ever search out an anti-Brexit podcast? Those – and they remain sizeable – who rely on the traditional media to get their news?

“By community-building,” he says. “And that’s why it’s so important that the European Movement is not just a Westminster outfit. 

“And that’s why it’s important that Leeds For Europe are leading the charge – angry northerners, if you will – on the Brexit inquiry petition and that we have North-East For Europe and that we have Cornwall For Europe, so that each and every location of the country you’ve got a local group that is getting into local press, that is doing local events, meeting up with local groups and thinking about the local identity and how you build campaigning from the streets up and the grassroots up everywhere around the country. It is so important that the way we go forward in this is not giving down the fiats to lots of local groups everywhere but, rather, being a resource for all the local groups, constantly saying ‘what do you need in your area?’.”

Galsworthy is still a member of the Labour Party (he spun Scientists For EU, which campaigned in the referendum, out of the Scientists For Labour group) “but my passion is actually more of a cross-party passion”, he says. The movement is “passionately cross-party and single-issue” – he points out that Michael Heseltine is its president, Winston Churchill effectively co-founded it, and reels off a list of pro-European Conservatives who have served in senior positions in the past.

But they are all just that – from the past. Hasn’t that ship sailed, I ask? It seems highly unlikely, whatever happens in the next election, that the Tories will elect a pro-European leader any time soon.

“I disagree,” says Galsworthy. “I think that it is a very different party now, yes, and they’ve kicked out a lot of very capable operators, but those people have not gone away absolutely. And the Conservative Party, if it loses the next general election heavily, it will need to think about what shape it has to be in in order to win power again. If Brexit is wildly unpopular at that stage, and they don’t think that they can get 40% of the vote, or close to it, on a sort of Brexit ticket and shunning Europe ticket, they are gonna have to think about how they approach Europe. 

“So never write off what can happen in politics. It can always surprise and, certainly if we were ever to get proportional representation, the Conservative Party could split down those lines. So I think there is a lot to fight for, if not within the Conservative Party as it is right now, let us say conservatism in Britain. There’s a lot to fight for in that thoughtspace and that political space.”

And what about his own party, Labour? Is it not a source of frustration that Keir Starmer steadfastly refuses to even say the B-word for fear of the so-called Red Wall?

“For me, not at all,” he says, surprisingly. “I’m quite happy with the Labour position as it is, because… two reasons. Firstly, you don’t want Keir Starmer championing Europe. He’s not a good champion of stuff. He’s not very charismatic, and he won’t sell it in a convincing way. So it would be very mealy-mouthed and it would rather bleed out any passion from it. We at the European Movement and campaigns like us, we’re a lot more passionate about Europe. We can sell it much better, sector by sector and on the fundamental values of what we’re talking about. Keir Starmer would be a very poor salesman.

“Secondly, if Labour were pro-Europe at the moment, every time they got on interviews people would drag it back to the Brexit vote, back to 2019 and saying ‘why are you doing this? Why are you doing that?’, and they’d be making excuses for that. At the moment what’s happening is they’re going on interviews and people are saying ‘why aren’t you looking at free movement, why aren’t you looking at the single market?’. And they have to twist and turn awkwardly about that, and it helps build up a useful frustration in the public about an obvious issue not being adequately addressed, and that is, to be blunt, strongly to our advantage. So I’m very happy with Labour’s awkward position at the moment because it gives us a lot of growing and breathing space to set things out on our own terms.”

And the Liberal Democrats – does Galsworthy understand why they are not positioning themselves explicitly as the UK-wide pro-rejoin party?

“I don’t, and I think the Liberal Democrats are missing a trick at the moment,” says Galsworthy. “I think the Liberal Democrats care about winning as many seats as they can and they care about Europe and they care about proportional representation, and all of those go together nicely because if the Liberal Democrats were to campaign in rural seats that Labour can’t really reach, but that the Lib Dems could take away from the Tories, on the fundamental issues of water quality, environmental standards, food standards, farming and why being a part of Europe in regards of standards and protections is all part of that, then that not only explains why they’ve held the positions that they have all the time and been proven right, but they can take back a lot of their heartlands in the West Country, across the southern band of the UK, into East Anglia.”

Finally, we talk about the battles ahead for the Movement. As it becomes ever-clearer that Brexit is a disaster and the current relationship with the EU untenable, the rejoiners become, in effect, the new Brexiteers, fighting issue by issue, bill by bill. In that case, does the movement need its Nigel Farage, its embodiment of the cause, as willing and able to make the case to Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby as to Newsnight? And if so, who is it? Is it Galsworthy?

“It probably needs to be me,” he says. “As the new chair of the European Movement in the UK, I am pretty much de facto the leader of the rejoin campaign in the UK and I do need to act like it, and a lot of people have impressed upon me that they want to see me getting out there and taking the fight to the mainstream media across radio, across television and in the press. Someone needs to do it and I’m up for it. There’s passions I have about all of this that I think needs to be communicated.

“It’s not just the dry economics of it, it’s about our values here. And there’s lots of values that our community, our British pro-European community, shares that need to be communicated at that media level that are not being communicated at the moment, and I’m more than happy to go out and do that. And that needs to be fun, and it needs to be engaging and it needs to be from the heart.”

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