David Macphee is Chairman of Foxhills Conservatives.
On January 15th, after months of tough negotiations, the Prime Minister presented the text agreed with the European Commission for our withdrawal from the EU. After due consideration of its imperfections through debate, Parliament decided to ratify the agreement. The UK left the EU on March 29, and initiated trade discussions with the bloc on the following Monday. Citizen’s rights were assure – and we entered a two year transition period providing continuity for business.
Those trade talks are progressing well. With uncertainty removed and consumer confidence returning, people are spending more, and the economy is enjoying a Brexit bounce. The Prime Minister is enjoying her highest-ever approval ratings, and local election candidates look set to benefit too. The government will now focus on key domestic challenges: knife crime, infrastructure, housing and social care reform.
This is how it was meant to be. This is how it could have been. This is how it should have been.
But now, we are in a morass. The Prime Minister’s capital is shot. Parliament, in a painfully protracted process, has struggled to reconcile itself to the Leave vote. With the Brexit deadline moved to Halloween, there is now time for a change of leadership for a general election. The alternative is continued Brexit purgatory.
Present debate is myopic and short-termist. Look at the big picture and consider what we have learnt. Far from being uninterested in politics, people are very interested when two key conditions are met; when they feel that the issues before them matter, and when they believe they are able to affect change. A good measure of engagement is turnout. In the last European elections, only 35 per cent of the electorate voted. By comparison, the turnout in the 2017 general election was 69 per cent, and turnout for the the EU referendum was 72 per cent.
People believed that their vote would count in the EU referendum and for good reason: the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, said so. “It will be your decision. Nobody else’s. Not politicians’. Not Parliament’s. Not lobby groups’. Not mine. Just you. You the British people will decide. ….and it will be the final decision”
Many say the country is in crisis and that our political system is broken. I reject this categorically. Parliamentarians are under pressure and perhaps they are in crisis – perhaps the main political parties are in crisis – but the country is not. Look at the streets of Paris in recent weeks, and tell me that Britain is the country in crisis.
The referendum injected a shot of direct democracy into the arteries of our representative system. The medicine has proven impossible for MPs to stomach. Blaming the system for our predicament is at best a cop-out, and worst an attempt to distract from the fact that MPs are abrogating their responsibility.
In this representative democracy, it is MPs that make laws and they are judged by the public at general election time. If they fail to deliver, they are removed. This is how public discontent is constructively channelled in our system and how we ensure accountability. Now is the time for that accountability to be exercised.
Tightly-contested referenda are divisive and have long-lasting consequences. It is ironic that some of the most vociferous campaigners for them, such as the SNP, are unwilling to accept the results of these votes. Moreover, their go-to solution is to have yet another referendum and put us through it all over again. (By the way, there were no plans for a ‘confirmatory referendum’ in the event of a Yes vote in 2014.)
For a glimpse of the future, we should observe that, five years on from the 2014 referendum, it is the constitution, not left and right, that is the key dividing line in Scottish politics. Parties with clear positions on the constitutional question – the SNP and the Conservative and Unionist Party – are now the largest parties in the Scottish Parliament and Westminster representing Scottish seats. Years later, the focus of the SNP remains grievance rather than government, and the beginnings of this narrative at a UK level are already clear. The betrayal described at the Brexit Party launch is compelling for many.
If the Conservative Party goes to the electorate without a clear and unambiguous message on the constitutional question, it will at best usher in a rainbow coalition government and at worst a full-throated marxist revolutionary one, with all the dire consequences that would bring for our country.
Alongside the political morass has come deepening social divisions. Leave/Remain, old/young, male/female, liberal/conservative, north/south, rich/poor, home-owners/renters, open/closed, London/ the rest, the list goes on.
These are exacerbated by the rise in identity politics, fully embraced by the Left. At its heart, socialism believes in the collective, the group identity, over that of the individual. For a movement that prides itself on being anti-discriminatory, it belies a stunning lack of self-awareness.
The fundamental challenge we have in society today is division. This can only be addressed by finding something to unify around. What is the antidote to our divisions?
It is easy to criticise the Prime Minister just now; it is in vogue. One area where she is right, however, is her focus on the union and citizenship. Patriotism, distinct from narrow nationalism, is an idea around which most Brits can unite. We all live together on these islands, have a rich history and culture, a shared experience and a natural human desire to belong. Who could be better placed than the Conservative and Unionist Party to build such an inclusive message?
To break the impasse, we need a political reset. MPs need to be held to account at the ballot box. The Conservative Party needs to speak with one voice and be unambiguous on Brexit. A general election would force this development. Above all, we need new leadership. We need to rediscover our confidence and sense of optimism. We need a leader with a clear vision and the ability to communicate it. The only question now is: who?