Britain and Europe

Can Britain’s relationship with Europe be saved?

29 September 2017

Reporting from Liberal Democrat party conference

George Kendall

There was an outpouring of positive feedback for Policy Network’s event with the Social Democrat Group last Monday, which was described as the fringe of the Liberal Democrat party conference and by far best #ldconf Brexit discussion yet. The only downside to the meeting was large queues lined up outside the door who sadly missed hearing the great debate in person.

Entitled ‘Can Britain’s relationship with Europe be saved?’, it was a fantastic discussion, opened by Policy Network co-chair, Roger Liddle. Roger believes the Conservatives will stick together enough to manage some kind of Brexit deal. He thinks there will be a transition deal before a final agreement is struck, and he correctly predicted that Theresa May’s speech in Florence later in the week would say as much.

Roger warned thought this will make campaigning to remain in the EU more difficult. During a transition period it is likely that little will change for the British public, who would only discover the catastrophic effects of Brexit two years after the country has already left the EU. He therefore suggests that it is likely we will leave and the battle will then be to re-join. But he believes this is a battle we can win.

Wera Hobhouse, Liberal Democrat MP for Bath, emphasised our position as democrats: we are not afraid of the will of the people and we should therefore propose a referendum on exit terms. To convince the public how dangerous Brexit is, we need to find language to bring a divided country together. We must also persuade the EU too to change its language, as some comments from Jean-Claude Juncker have been unhelpfully divisive.

Chairing the meeting, Sarah Ludford, who speaks for the Liberal Democrats on Brexit in the Lords and is a former MEP, agreed, saying that some in the EU “just see us as a pain in the backside” without appreciating the significant positive contribution the UK has brought to the EU.

James Chapman, former chief of staff to David Davis and Daily Mail political editor, conveyed his anger at the situation and said we must stop the exit process altogether rather than fight to get back in. He believes Brexit won’t happen, because to leave the single market the government must trigger article 127 of the EEA, but they do not have the majority to get this through parliament.

James talked about the Liberal Democrat brand being damaged by coalition, but he also said that in Vince Cable the party has the perfect leader for the time. Economic issues will become increasingly important in the coming years and, with his record as Secretary of State for Business, he is trusted on the economy.

Business Insider’s Adam Payne spoke of the sadness felt within the EU about Brexit. For the other member states, Britain is like a friend who goes off the rails but refuses help. The British public needs to change its mind, but this won’t come through mud-slinging and insults. We will only be able to persuade with arguments: points made clearly and relentlessly.

The two journalists on the panel stressed the need for emotional messages that resonate with people, using personal stories to put forward our case as well as intellectual arguments.

On a practical level, Adam said that, with a few exceptions, petitions are “borderline pointless”. James suggested that social media, particularly twitter, is a much better use of time, especially if we make sure we always tag the people we are criticising.

Overall, it was a fantastic meeting. I suspect, like me, most wished it could have continued beyond the allotted time. For the hundreds who sadly were not able to fit into the room, and the many more who weren’t in Bournemouth for the Liberal Democrat conference, you can listen to the whole event or watch it here.

This article was first published on Liberal Democrat Voice.


Image credit: Cicero Castro / Shutterstock.com