May’s Brexit intentions will betray the values promoted by Churchill

PUBLISHED: 16:42 21 January 2017

The statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square and the Houses of Parliament are seen in the fog in central London, after forecasters warned of visibility as low as 100 metres with fog and sub-zero temperatures across swathes of England.

The statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square and the Houses of Parliament are seen in the fog in central London, after forecasters warned of visibility as low as 100 metres with fog and sub-zero temperatures across swathes of England.

PA Wire/PA Images

The government’s Brexit strategy is a betrayal of values that has stunned Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron

If 2016 felt like a never-ending cycle of shocks and surprises, then 2017 already shows no sign of relenting. As a liberal and a progressive, in a week where the Prime Minister confirmed her intentions for a Hard Brexit and we witness the inauguration of Donald Trump to the highest office in the world – I could be forgiven for feeling rather nauseous.

If this is to be the benchmark, then we are in for quite a year. I, like all other ‘Remoaners’, get constantly criticised for being too negative about the prospects of Brexit Britain. Yet right now, it is not my confidence in the government’s direction that is significant, it is the markets, displayed so clearly in the pound slumping to a fresh 31-year low on Monday.

The prompt for this had been the impending sense of gloom in anticipation of Theresa May’s Brexit speech on Tuesday, which outlined her plans for the UK to quit the single market, before even entering into negotiations with the EU.

Staggeringly, the PM, increasingly characterised as ‘Theresa Maybe’, has chosen her only act of decisiveness to be on leaving the single market – a British invention that she and her own cabinet have spent their careers recognising as being so fundamental to our public life and economic wellbeing.

It is immensely troubling to see the lengths that the government has gone: to fight a cynical court case against the vital institutions of our parliamentary representative democracy, but have given up on the most important part of the Brexit negotiation at the first hurdle.

This is hardly the shrewd negotiating strategy Leave campaigners promised. Theresa May, if you are really going to fight Britain’s corner, then you should go in fighting for Britain’s membership of the single market, not waving the white flag before we even start.

Other strings in the PM’s Brexit bow this week has been the idea floated that there should be a special deal for the City as part of any leave package. Now, of course, the City’s financial services must be protected, but so should every other industry which is impacted by Britain leaving the EU. It will be a sad day for the UK if we transform our economic model into that of a corporate tax haven, introducing ad-hoc policies in an attempt to make ourselves more appealing for investors.

However, if the EU fails to provide the UK with an agreement on market access, this is exactly what the Chancellor is contemplating. This is yet another example of the drastic state of the Government’s strategy and the very real danger that the UK could end up with a deal that is both hugely economically damaging and completely out of keep with our best traditions and values.

A Hard Brexit was not on the ballot paper and therefore it is right that the Liberal Democrats, in the complete absence of a coherent Labour Party, stand up and say: this was not the democratic choice of the electorate. This is why it is so important that the public is given a choice at the end of this process.

Once again, the government is adopting the Nigel Farage vision of Britain’s relationship with Europe and the rest of the world – a vision that ignores British values of openness, decency and tolerance, which have been such an effective tool in projecting progress around the world. May’s capitulation in championing this message is an insult to the vast majority of people, on both sides of the Brexit argument, who do not want to see their country cower to the divisive message that Britain has turned its back on the world.

With an NHS at the brink of collapse, populism on the rise across Europe and the dawn of a new, unpredictable and isolationist American president, we are unquestionably at a defining point in our society both domestically and internationally.

While Angela Merkel met the election of Trump with a conditional offer of cooperation that was dependent on his commitment to equal rights and values of democracy, freedom, and respect, May unequivocally opened her arms. I am not convinced that the British public can rely on this government to stand up for the principles that we as a country have represented for so long.

It has been reported this week that May sent a speech by Winston Churchill to Trump as a Christmas present. In such a defining week for both these figures, they would do well to learn from the great European and liberal values of putting faith in our global institutions and partnerships that Churchill represented.

It will be the challenge, not just for liberal parties around the world, but for all those who believe in the liberal vales – of openness, tolerance and unity – to demand their place in our society throughout 2017.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats

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