Alistair Burt is a member of the Exiting the EU Select Committee, a former Foreign Office Minister, and MP for North East Bedfordshire.
In Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent wait to be ejected from an airlock into the depths of outer space, and certain death. Suddenly Ford says: “No, wait, just a moment, what’s this switch?” Arthur looks up in hope of escape and cries “What?” But Ford says “No, just fooling, there’s nothing there. We are going to die.”
Since June 23rd last year, some who voted Remain have been hoping that such a switch was real – in the form of a legal device, a Parliamentary vote or even a Tony Blair to overturn the Referendum result. Their letters to MPs are angry and passionate, demanding for many reasons that we should find a way to avoid that ejection into outer space. And trust me, I understand, sympathise and agree with many of them.
But I have come to the conclusion that for those who supported the UK’s membership of the EU, and fought in many ways for it during the past 40 years, it may be best now to realise that the switch is not there. We are not going to die, but we are going to leave.
I said recently in the Commons that I could not see the point in seeking to reverse the 48-52 against membership to 52-48 the other way at some stage in the future. We have had that 40 years to make the case for UK membership. For a whole galaxy of reasons, from the bile and hatred of elements of the media and politics to errors in the EU itself we have not succeeded. It is not so much the referendum result that should be significant: it is that the divisions surrounding Europe, even if not directly caused by the EU, have eaten away at the UK for too long, with consequences of bitterness and uncertainty that dog too many aspects of our national life.
The Labour Party cannot shake it off. And Europe has dominated Conservative politics inside and outside Westminster – where selections, friendships and careers have been affected by being pro or anti Britain’s EU membership. And now, effectively, Conservatives at Westminster risk a self-proclaimed and identified party within a party operating – something we have never had before. In the country at large, the conflict has spawned an unpleasant overtone in which honest patriotism has become nationalistic; where we define ourselves more by what we are against than what we are for.
That has immediately been evident in the reaction to Blair’s speech, undoubtedly well-meant for those who voted Remain. It has provoked a fury of pro and negative responses, essentially in re-pitching the referendum arguments, into which both sides will re-dig themselves.
Enough. The country needs more discord like a hole in the head. I think it is time to look ahead to a different relationship with the EU, and set our sights on something rather better than securing the bare minimum of public support for it. And I think a pro-European needs to say it.
There are positive advantages to a clear change of view. Firstly, the negotiations both to leave the EU and create the new trading arrangements should not be clouded with suspicion that the terms are being designed to somehow ‘deny Brexit’, and force the UK back. Otherwise the cries for a default ‘no deal’ arrangement will grow louder, and be deliberately cultivated regardless of national interest.
Secondly, such an approach will give us a chance to examine the other necessary parts of the relationship with Europe, in terms of defence and mutual security from the many perils facing us all, in a renewed sense of partnership. The Prime Minister’s rejection of Donald Trump’s casual comments about EU breakup was important. A prosperous and effective EU will need support from the outside. The UK is crucial to this, and a negotiated mutually beneficial deal – once again Theresa May’s clear preference as opposed to a walking away ‘no deal’ – should set the seal on it
Thirdly, those who support the EU in the UK can actively promote that new relationship as something positive at last, rather than an endless, wearying rearguard action – the only prospect if the battle of the Referendum is replayed over and over.
And, surely, it is time we as a nation defined ourselves as being proud to be British without hating the EU, which I suspect in some quarters is exactly what some do. Replaying the debate against the backdrop of the new vicious style of political language, encouraged by social media, is allowing for matters previously unspoken to become common currency. Hatred of the EU, indeed of anything, leads us down dark paths.
It is time we turned a corner. It is best for the UK, the EU, and all our wider interests. Ford and Arthur were thrown out of the airlock, but, picked up in a passing spaceship, they survived for an adventurous and glorious future. So can we.