Justine Greening is Secretary of State for International Development and MP for Putney.
With less than five weeks to go, I don’t think any ConservativeHome readers will need reminding of the significance of the forthcoming referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU on 23rd June, or of the earlier deadline of 7th June to register to vote. Indeed, I suspect you may now be more than a little familiar with the arguments on both sides of the debate.
During recent weeks, points on both sides have been made across the full range of policy areas – and made forcefully. That’s not a surprise, because this is the most fundamental question facing our country, and the reality is that whichever direction we choose for our country there will be pros and cons. It is right to have this debate, and I have huge respect for my parliamentary colleagues, whichever side of the debate we are all on. We are passionate because of how much we care and because we are committed to our country’s future success.
But whichever side, we should keep in mind that it is our Conservative Party that has made this debate possible. When we tried to get our EU Referendum Bill passed in the Coalition Government, it was originally blocked by Labour and the Liberal Democrats. They didn’t want the British people to have their say, but we did. And now we are making that happen.
So I am very proud that it is a Conservative Government that has finally given the people of our great nation, for the first time in a generation, this chance to vote on our membership of the EU. This was promised in our manifesto at the last General Election, and we have kept that promise. Each and every one of us eligible and registered to vote will now have the opportunity to play our part in determining the road the UK will follow.
Like millions of other UK citizens, I have never had this opportunity before. I was far too young to vote in the 1975 referendum; indeed, I have no memories of it. But the debate about Europe is one that has been at the centre of British politics for as long as I can remember.
I have never been a default ‘Remainer’: in fact, I have always had what I consider to be a pretty sceptical streak when it comes to Europe. When I went to work as a chartered accountant in mainland Europe for a couple of years during the 1990s, working with European clients, I did wonder if I’d come back a converted Europhile, but I didn’t. I grew to love the diversity of Europe and its different cultures, rather than its Union. However, when the time came to actually think where I would put my cross on the Remain/Leave ballot paper, it involved a much more forensic approach to assessing what the right thing to do would be for our country, combined with an element of gut instinct.
Weighing things up from my time spent in business (still a larger part of my working life than being in politics), and from my role as a Member of Parliament and as a Minister, in the end it was surprisingly clear-cut to me. We should stay in the European Union. I know we won’t all come to the same conclusion. But for me it comes down to the hard reality of economics and the diplomatic reality of how Britain gets things done in today’s world.
For me, any debate on our economy and jobs is a very personal one. When I was growing up in Rotherham during the 1980s, my own father lost his job in the steel industry and was unemployed for a year. I’ll never forget what that was like for my family and how hard it was. Successful companies create jobs, but they need a level playing field to compete.
That’s why Margaret Thatcher set about getting the Single Market in place – so that British companies could get on with competing – and they have done that very successfully, which is why we export so much to the rest of Europe. Our car manufacturers – now a net exporter for the first time since the 1970s – need that level playing field, not to be at a disadvantage with tariffs trading from outside it. I can’t see the point of leaving the Single Market and the level playing field to then try instantly to rejoin it. If you’re not in a club, you’re not going to be given the same benefits as others who are – otherwise what would be the point?
And if there’s one thing I’ve learnt over the last few years, it’s that the intractable problems that our world faces – like the Syria conflict, ebola in West Africa, or the impact of climate change – will be there whether or not Britain is in the EU. They are best dealt with, however, by working together with our neighbouring countries, in partnership. That can be exceptionally difficult, since we often have very different views about the best course of action, but that’s all the more reason to be a voice round the EU table having our say.
Why put ourselves at a disadvantage? How Europe responds collectively affects us. Europe is our continent: that’s a geographical fact, not an option. It’s why Europe is such a huge part of our history – it’s a continent we’ve shaped as much as it’s shaped us. This will be the same for our country’s future too. Britain’s voice matters and should stay at the table. We will keep winning the debates by being in them.
So for me this is a vote not just about Britain’s place in Europe, but about Britain’s place in the world. Together, working as partners, shaping events; or isolated, lobbying from the sidelines. I want us to stay as confident Great Britain, not become isolated Little England.
I think Britain’s young people understand this better than any of us. They are the most connected generation ever. For them, the world feels like a much smaller place, and they understand it’s only going to get smaller still in their lifetime. They understand that we can’t disengage from the rest of the world as a whole, let alone the countries closest to us in Europe. This isn’t about party politics – it’s about taking care of our country’s future.
And, incidentally, that’s where I hope this referendum might make another big impact, if it helps engage a new generation of voters to take their place in our democracy. I want it to be the Conservative Party that is reaching out to those new voters and, as we do that, we need to remember that first impressions count – and this includes how we play our role in this debate.
We are giving our democracy the chance to work for us, for our great country, on an issue of vital national importance. Let’s shake hands on that – and then conduct a debate in a manner that befits the country we care about so much and makes a new generation of voters feel as though it’s a debate they want to be part of.