Alistair Burt is a member of the Exiting the EU Select Committee, a former Foreign Office Minister, and MP for North East Bedfordshire.
I read Iain Duncan Smith’s recent column about Brexit, published a week ago on this site, with great personal interest. We share, from opposite ends of the spectrum, a passion about the European issue, and for a short time our journeys intersected – since I was, with Owen Paterson, Iain’s PPS when Leader. We needn’t go into why I didn’t feel that the leadership of the Party was necessarily what he was made for, though he did keep us in the European Peoples Party! But I developed a genuine admiration for his sheer bravery and determination in facing PMQs with a Tony Blair at the height of his powers, and for his subsequent work in welfare when he could quite justifiably have walked away from politics in 2003. And I cannot fault his persistence on the EU.
My European journey has been different, though I think shared by many Conservatives. As a post-war child, I have never been conscripted to fight a war in Europe, as so many generations before me. And I was grateful. I joined the Conservative Party in 1970, as a teenager who saw Ted Heath’s vision of the UK’s role in world affairs and our future prosperity linked to the advancement of the European Economic Community, built on the ashes of a continent determined to ensure “never again”.
I have always believed that playing a part in Europe’s development was vital both for us and for other countries. It has not been monolithic. I think the accommodation of UK interests has been huge. We wanted “our money back”, and we got it. We disagreed on Schengen, and stayed out. We did not want the Euro, and were not forced to take it. On the party front, we were able to create our own space within the EPP, the major centre-right grouping, to allow for our different view of “ever closer union” and other matters, and were accommodated by a Europe which wanted us in. Even then, we spurned it.
I came into the Commons when there was still an ‘inner German frontier’, as the Berlin Wall was sometimes called, and when eastern Europe was Soviet-dominated. I watched with pride as barriers fell and, with the UK’s encouragement, as the former dictatorships and subjected countries of Europe found their freedom – with the EU as a major driver. I saw UK political leaders drive the Single Market prosperity and structures which have been so beneficial to all, and have seen our financial contributions to a common cause help to redress the relative poverty of poorer neighbours to our mutual advantage.
So when I stood up in the Commons late last month, and said that I was proud of the EU, and the UK’s part in it, I spoke for millions who think the same.
Europe didn’t get it all right. The repeated failure to define what it was that we should do together, and what constituted the national sovereignty of a nation state, fuelled the arguments of those who claimed it was a ratchet going in only one direction. The politics of the euro overrode the economics on which it should have been based, and the EU failed, and to a degree still fails, to fully understand the forces which drive the discontent across the continent.
And my political generation of politicians failed to make a case for the UK’s engagement with the EU. We thought the job was done, dismissed those such as Iain as troublemakers, and missed the wider danger. We partly missed it because the hysteria and abuse hurled by the media, coupled with the sheer nonsense of claims we were “ruled by Brussels’’, was so absurd we thought no one would believe it.
The result, as Iain noted in his piece, was that “in a recent Centre for Social Justice/Legatum review of the vote, it found that those who voted to leave cited regaining sovereignty as their number one reason for voting, more than migration and money.”
How ironic that the Government’s own recent White Paper punctured this view, saying (in the first part of Chapter 2): “Parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU”. Well, of course it had – but why let the facts ever spoil a good story? Donald Tusk’s face said it all the other day. We never really understood what the EU meant to those whose experiences of the last century were different to ours, and he is right.
The journeys of Iain and I now intersect once more. March 29th began a new chapter for both of us. We have to make that journey different from the past. I share his conclusion that an agreement is possible, and that all of us, from whatever background, should support Theresa May and work towards something that must be in the best interests of the UK and the EU.
But the result of the Referendum was not a zero sum game. The interests of all, as the Prime Minister has stated, will be represented in a national endeavour going forward. As I put it in my Commons question: “the script for the new relationship with the EU must be written as much by those who valued it as by those who campaigned to leave it”. And it will be.
Those whose journey reached a sad ending this week have learned something from it. We will be doing all we can to ensure this next stage works for all, and we look forward to playing a full part, in Parliament and the wider public debate, to make sure of that.