It is hard to overstate the scale of change currently occurring in Britain, Europe, and the West. 2016 is the year of Trump and Sanders; Corbyn and Farage; Brexit and perhaps the demise of our liberal consensus. Just as in 1834, the year of the Tamworth Manifesto, these challenges require answers. For many in Britain the vote to leave was a national embarrassment, exposing nationalistic tendencies previously hidden below the surface. For conservatives the referendum should mean something quite different.
Firstly it should be understood as a demand for change. Before we can think about our new relationship with Europe, we have to understand why the old one wasn’t working. This means acknowledging the diverse set of grievances held by Leavers and Remainers alike. Conservatism has been so resilient because it respects the desire for change and seeks a middle ground between the ideologues who would take us to the extremes and those happy to carry on with business as usual. This essay seeks to begin a process, to examine the key themes of the campaign and sketch the outline of a new relationship to address them. It won’t fix every problem or solve every contradiction. It is a starting point, not a silver bullet.
A discussion of democracy may seem an odd place to begin; after all it was frequently relegated behind issues like immigration and the economy. In truth, the poor health of our democracy was at the heart of the vote and fixing it should be at the centre of our negotiations. The slogan of ‘Take back control’, the anger at Brussels bureaucrats and the suggestion that Britain has “had enough of experts”. The success of these campaign devices shows us the cleavages present in our political system; the lack of faith in our institutions, a basic distrust of politicians, economists, journalists and others.
The political scientist Francis Fukuyama has theorised how liberal democracies should seek to ‘get to Denmark’ - how they should renew and restore their ailing institutions. His belief that liberal democracy rests on a balance of political accountability, a strong, effective state, and the rule of law is hardly revelatory, but Britain is currently a long way from Denmark.
We need a relationship with Europe allowing us to take more decisions at home; so that British politicians can be accountable when things go wrong and changes need to be made. That means rebalancing our current relationship, not retreating into a bunker or rejecting any slight infringement of our sovereignty. Voters care about big issues like a sense of control over immigration, the economy, and the primacy of British courts. In seeking such reform we can take a first step towards restoring confidence in our democratic institutions.
The issue of immigration was the most controversial element of the referendum, and it will be key to our new relationship with the EU. The evidence is clear that the majority of voters are unhappy with the lack of control inherent in European free movement. When trust on immigration is low it bleeds into other areas: support for populist right-wing parties, creeping xenophobia and prejudice, and anger at elites and governing institutions. Although trust is low, that doesn’t mean Britain has become an anti-immigrant nation. Polling for British Future suggests a more nuanced picture: widespread support for high-skilled workers and international students but less for large numbers of low-skilled migrants. This kind of system would be likely to have the support of those on both sides of the campaign.
Our new relationship with the EU must be built on restoring faith in our immigration system - it is a litmus test for a functioning democracy. We require a system with a higher sense of government control and an ability to slow and, in certain circumstances, stop migration from Europe. Beyond that we should seek to maintain visa-free travel to the European Union and, more intriguingly, consider a new Commonwealth-based travel area. For decades British politicians have knowingly obfuscated about their limited power to manage movement, and there is now an opportunity to rebuild trust and support for an open migration system.
For many Remain voters the economy was the defining issue of the campaign. Many of them felt unhappy about immigration and lacked trust in the EU, but decided that the risks to the economy were simply too high. While the warnings of an immediate economic collapse have proved to be ill-founded, our renegotiation should seek to give businesses certainty in the short term. After all, there is little chance of us renewing our democracy and building bridges across our divides in the midst of a recession, particularly when it is the most vulnerable who suffer in such circumstances.
It is highly unlikely that we will be able to negotiate a comprehensive and bespoke trading agreement with the European Union within the deadline set by Article 50. Instead we should seek to build short-term confidence by agreeing a basic economic relationship, possibly inside or adjacent to the European Economic Area (although establishing a clear reform to freedom of movement is a must). In the long term this allows us to reform our relationship from a position of economic strength and take advantage of the many opportunities to reinvigorate our liberal trading economy.
A path forward
This essay has not argued for ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit. Instead it has echoed the Tamworth Manifesto in seeking to understand a moment of great change and espouse the ideas and values our negotiators should prioritise. In any respect, building a new relationship with the European Union will be a process not an event, it will be managed by different leaders and multiple governments. This essay has argued that our new relationship should seek to renew faith in democracy, create a coherent system for immigration, and protect our economic interests in the short term and internationalise them in the future. With these values and interests in mind there is little to fear from Brexit, in fact there is much to gain.
Joe Slater is a student at Durham University and the winner of The Tamworth Prize, our annual essay competition.