Gisela Stuart: With good will on all sides, we can emerge stronger
As we leave the EU, we now have the opportunity to reflect on what has been working well in our political system – and change the things that have not, argues Gisela Stuart
Politicians like to think they are making history but truly historic events have a habit of quietly creeping up. After three and half years of make or break votes, crunch moments, ministerial as well as prime ministerial resignations, the truly historic moment of The European Union Withdrawal Bill receiving Royal Assent could almost have been missed. And thus our 47-year membership of the EU comes to an end at 11pm on 31 January 2020.
In future years it is likely that it will be seen as more remarkable that we joined the Common Market in 1973, than that we decided to leave in 2016. Historically it has never been in the UK’s national interest for mainland Europe to be dominated by one big power. We joined the Common Market for economic reasons and pretended that, as political integration wasn’t part of our project, we could just ignore it. The tensions inherent in the Maastricht opt-outs on the single currency and the free travel area [Schengen] became impossible to overcome once the euro was introduced. After that it increasingly became a question of when, rather than if, the UK would cease to be part of the European Union as designed by its founder members.
We joined for economic reasons – and the Remain side made economics the core of their campaign. But – for the majority of voters – community, belonging and identity mattered more. They voted to take back control. They wanted the final say over their representatives and the policies they pursue. For once it was not the economy, stupid.
We now have the opportunity to change some of the things that need changing – as well as reflecting on the things which are working well and why. If we don’t, we will not only fail to gain the benefits of the new decision-making freedoms, but also miss the chance to have a fresh look at the governance of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
“In future years it is likely that it will be seen as more remarkable that we joined the Common Market in 1973, than that we decided to leave in 2016”
The party-political system has been remarkably resilient. In the third general election in four years, the British people returned a majority government and resoundingly rejected the leader of the opposition. They also confirmed that when they voted Leave, they meant it. None of the independent candidates or those who changed party over the referendum where re-elected. New parties sprung up only to fizzle out. For the first time in over 40 years the Conservative Party is not divided over Europe. It is too early to say if there will be some re-alignment on the left, as both Labour and the LibDems are struggling to define their core values. This doesn’t require a change in our voting system – new parties can emerge with First Past the Post, as the SNP has shown in Scotland.
Parliament took charge of the Order Paper but was no more successful finding consensus than the minority government. The Supreme Court and the monarchy were dragged into political battles, which unsettled the constitutional checks and balances between institutions. Parliament has recalibrated and if the opposition parties are not holding the government to account, it will not be for lack of structures and opportunities, but for lack of coherence on their part. Despite the turbulence of the last few years, there has been no profound dislocation in the system. There may yet be some fall out in relation to the Supreme Court. If judges make political decisions, then it is hard to defend the current appointments process. One or other will have to change.
The use of referendums has crept up on us, with insufficient thought to the interaction of direct participatory democracy with a representative parliamentary system, particularly when “the people” deliver a verdict that the majority of the elites neither anticipated nor desired. That doesn’t mean they don’t have a place – but greater caution, preparation and forethought are called for.
We will have to re-learn some skills. Negotiating trade deals, shaping agricultural and fisheries policies, framing a comprehensive immigration strategy as well as taking more care over our bilateral relationships. Other things we could have done but didn’t: addressing the skills shortage and regional inequalities are the most obvious and pressing ones.
As powers return from the EU the question of where they should rest becomes a profound and pressing one, as is the unfinished business of devolution in England outside London. The Constitution Reform Group which started work in 2015 offers some radical solutions. A more federal structure were all powers are devolved, other than those specifically reserved for the centre. The tensions within the union of the United Kingdom are not new but, as we profoundly change our relationship with Europe, addressing them becomes more urgent.
The negotiations for a trade agreement by the end of the year won’t be easy, but it will be as much of a challenge for the UK as it is for the EU. Whatever happens in the rest of the world our primary economic, security and defence, relationship will continue to be with our European neighbours and the United States.
With good will on all sides we can emerge stronger and more resilient from this process. There is some merit in the charge that, after 2016, Leave focused too much on having won, whilst Remain claimed to have been right. But most voters have moved on. They now expect Westminster to make decisions and more than anything else, show them some respect.
Gisela Stuart is a former Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston and Constitution Reform Group steering committee member