Michael Gove is a former Education and Justice Secretary, and is MP for Surrey Heath.
In all the reportage and commentary on the momentous events of the last twelve months, I fear one big thing is in danger of being forgotten. The vote to leave the European Union was a people’s vote in every sense of the word – it wasn’t just a reflection of popular unhappiness with our membership of the EU, it was also secured by a broad-based, grassroots, street level campaign which united people from all parties and none.
The editor of this site, Paul Goodman, has reflected, shrewdly and wittily, on five individuals who helped to win it for Leave. And he is right to single out heroes and heroines such as Steve Baker and Victoria Woodcock for praise. They worked tirelessly to ensure that a campaign which didn’t really exist a few months before the referendum could go on to win it.
But while they deserve huge credit, as do my Parliamentary colleagues Boris Johnson and Gisela Stuart, Andrea Leadsom and John Mann, Michael Forsyth and Maurice Glasman and generous supporters such as Peter Cruddas, Alan Halsall, Paul Marshall and David Ross, the real victory belongs to the tens of thousands who manned stalls, distributed leaflets, canvassed streets and encouraged friends to follow their heart.
The Vote Leave campaign secured more votes than any other democratic organisation in British history. It won in towns across all four nations of this kingdom, in Boston and Blaenau Gwent, Fraserburgh and Folkestone, Ballymena and Bodmin. If the referendum had been a general election, Vote Leave would have won more than 400 seats and would have a majority bigger than any enjoyed by Tony Blair – indeed bigger than any since 1832.
That victory is being honoured by the Government, and the clear instruction given at the referendum is being implemented.
But while the referendum victory was clear, and it would undermine the democratic foundations on which Parliament rests were that mandate to be frustrated, it is also critical that we recognise and respect the concerns of the sixteen million who did not vote to leave.
Some of those who voted Remain were concerned about the economic consequences of a Leave vote. Others, including some of my dearest friends, were fearful for the consequences for the Union. But now that the economic downturn predicted by some has failed to materialise – indeed now that our economy is growing more strongly than ever – and now that support for both the SNP and Scottish independence is actually falling, the agenda can change.
Instead of dwelling on fears and worries, we can discuss shared hopes and ambitions. Many of those who voted Remain were inspired by noble and progressive impulses – a belief this country should be open to talent, a conviction we should be in the front rank of those defending the West, a desire to see the boundaries of scientific knowledge and collaboration extended, and a myriad other generous and forward-looking ambitions. And while I voted differently, I can admire and sympathise with the reasons why many people were Remainers.
Which is why I think it’s vital that we don’t just acknowledge the nobility of many of those concerns, but also ensure they play a constructive part in the conversation we have about the country we want to be outside the EU.
Of course there will be a temptation for some on the Remain side to make the key test of Brexit’s success the extent to which any new institutional arrangements mimic or maintain the old structures of the EU. But I think that would be an exercise in institutional nostalgia and limited ambition of just the kind that the Remain camp, at its best, defined itself against. Indeed, I fear it would be a great missed opportunity for many of our best politicians – people I want to see using their formidable talents to help change Britain for the better.
My hope for 2017 is that the debate about Britain’s future can mature and evolve, so we discuss how the freedoms we will enjoy outside the EU can advance noble causes. Whether its shaping a trade policy which helps developing nations grow faster, or reforming the way we develop drugs to encourage medical innovation, there are huge opportunities for our country.
And leading this conversation will be an organisation I’m proud to be a founding member of, which exists explicitly to ensure the country makes the most of life outside the EU – Change Britain. We have the support of Labour and Conservative politicians, including both those who advocated Leave and Remain.
We’ve been talking to people across the country, making sure we listen to both those who voted Leave and those who voted Remain, to ensure the policies we are now free to adopt reflect their hopes for the future. The Labour peer Maurice Glasman and I have been working with trade unionists, business people, community organisers and concerned academics to ensure we get policy right on immigration and integration. In the New Year, Change Britain will be leading work on how we get the right economic, industrial, defence and security policies for an independent UK.
And we are pledged to respect one of the great lessons of the referendum – indeed the central success of the Leave campaign – to root ourselves among the people. Change Britain wants to generate ideas which governments adopt, but we’re not a think tank: we’re a popular movement, with tens of thousands of supporters. Our supporters have run hundreds of street stalls throughout the autumn because, whether they voted Leave or Remain, they want democracy respected and our country reformed. They’ve sent 40,000 emails to MPs making it clear they want to see Article 50 triggered without qualification or delay. They want the Government to get on with extricating ourselves from the EU, and they want a clean, constructive and complete Brexit. So we can get on with building the welfare, tax, immigration, education, innovation and industrial policies that reflect the best instincts of our country and its people.
Change Britain activists will be on the streets in the New Year, maintaining the momentum for reform that this year’s vote has now unlocked. Now is the time to get behind the push to trigger Article 50 by the end of March. I hope Conservative Home readers will want to play their part by signing up at changebritain.org.