Rallying Britain’s moderates

By on 17/10/2018
Former UK PM John Major explains why a Parliament dominated by moderates finds itself heading for a highly disruptive and damaging Brexit.

This week, former UK PM John Major raised a banner for centrist MPs, urging them to challenge the radicals shaping Britain’s politics. Matt Ross asks why Parliament’s moderate majority has been so quiet – and considers where it will lead them

The topic of Europe has long been controversial in the UK’s Conservative Party, and nobody knows this better than Sir John Major. Prime minister from 1990 to ’97, he was the first of three Tory leaders whose premiership has been wrecked by internal battles over the UK’s relationship with the EU.

Yet whilst the Eurosceptics have caused huge disruption with the Tory Parliamentary party, they’ve never dominated it: during the referendum campaign, nearly 60% of Tory MPs and 75% of Cabinet ministers – including the current prime minister – campaigned for Remain. On the other side of the Commons chamber, the vast majority of opposition MPs are ardent Remainers. And the referendum result itself was famously close, with Leave winning by less than two percentage points.

So why is the UK heading for such a ‘hard’ Brexit? What’s happened to all those moderate MPs, and why haven’t they been able to push the government into pursuing a moderate policy in the wake of Britain’s controversial referendum?

Speaking at a Strand Group event held in the Foreign Office’s grand Locarno Suite on Tuesday evening, Major rose a flag for political centrists – calling for pragmatic moderates to make their voices heard in Britain’s poisoned public debate. And, answering questions after his speech, he helped explain why a Parliament dominated by moderates finds itself heading for a highly disruptive and damaging Brexit.

The centre cannot hold

During Major’s speech, he highlighted some of the reasons behind the disproportionate influence in today’s politics of more extreme viewpoints. “Political radicals show more passion than their moderate colleagues – and less readiness to find common ground,” he said. “Voices from the extreme wings of both parties – in and out of Parliament – are often the most committed, most noisy, and most likely to stir dissent.”

“My fear is that the extremes of right and left will widen divisions and refuse to compromise, whereas more moderate opinion will often seek common ground,” he added, warning of a danger that “the mainstream parties will be dragged further right and further left.”

These extremists, said Major, seek to delegitimise all those who oppose them: “The advocates of the extreme right or left must understand those with different opinions may well be opponents – but they are still our countrymen and women. To treat them as ‘enemies’ or ‘saboteurs’ or ‘traitors’ is to poison both the political system and our way of life.”

“I am deeply concerned that the ‘centre’ vote – the moderate vote that is shared among all the main parties – will not be able to hold its traditional influence over policy,” he warned. “It is crucial that it does.”

Mutual damage

The moderates must speak up, Major argued, because Brexit threatens huge harm to Britain’s position in the world. The UK is “super-charged by its alliances” with the EU and the USA, he said; and prior to President Trump, “every US president I have known has considered our relevance to America to be enhanced by our membership of the European Union.”

When the UK can no longer champion shared Anglo-American interests in free trade, open markets and strong defence within the EU, he continued, “our value as an ally of America will decline. Our friends the Americans are hard-headed about power. It is romantic folly to think otherwise. Be in no doubt: if the UK can no longer serve America’s interests in Europe, she will look elsewhere for someone who can.”

The EU would also be badly hit by a British exit, said Major – losing “their second largest economy; one of only two nations with a nuclear capacity and significant military capability; and the nation with the longest, deepest, and most effective foreign policy reach.” What’s more, Brexit threatens to change the balance of power among the remaining 27 member states: “The free market majority may be at risk: protectionists will be encouraged and, perhaps, empowered.”

Rotten timing

Brexit is coming at a particularly dangerous time in world affairs, said the former PM: “We live at a time when America is showing withdrawal symptoms, and China is growing in economic, political and military power. Whenever the US leaves a vacuum around the world, it will be filled by China, or Russia, or regional players.”

Look at Russia’s expansion into the Middle East, he said, or its use of information and cyber warfare. Consider China’s economic and military progress, and its refusal to obey international trade rules such as those on intellectual property and state aid. “The fundamental point is simple,” he added. “If America withdraws from international obligations, then Europe can best protect her own interests if she is united.”

The UK’s current stance, said Major, represents a damaging reversal of its historic role: “Over 70 years ago, Britain stood alone to fight for Europe. Now we freely choose to stand alone and, in so doing, undermine Europe.”

A false prospectus

So Brexit is, said Major, “a colossal misjudgement that will diminish both the UK and the EU.” And the referendum result, he argued, is not fully legitimate; for it was won on a false prospectus.

“No form of Brexit will remotely match up to the promises made by the Leave campaign in the referendum: they were vote-gathering fantasies, not serious politics,” he said. These deceptions represented an abrogation of politicians’ duty to the public – for government “is not about cheap grandstanding. It’s not about deceiving the electorate with slogans, or soundbites, or untruths or half-truths. It’s not about windy oratory that says nothing. It’s not about simplistic solutions to intricate problems. It’s not about scapegoating one part of our population to earn the plaudits of another.”

“Most emphatically, it’s not about princelings fighting for the political crown of premiership,” he added, in a passage clearly aimed at former foreign secretary Boris Johnson. “Such self-interest is politics at its least attractive. It does not deliver sound government. It destabilises government. As a general rule, those whose focus is on self-advancement are rarely the most suitable to be entrusted with power.”

The pull of the poll

Given that the Brexiteers’ promises cannot be met, Major said in answer to questions, “there is a credible case, depending on what happens in [the EU negotiations] and in Parliament, for a second referendum.”

Parliament cannot itself decide to reverse the referendum decision, he added – for in holding the poll, the UK usurped its own system of representative democracy in favour of direct democracy. Since the people made the decision to leave, only they can change Britain’s course.

Despite the flaws in referendum campaign, said Major, “if Parliament can reach a clear-cut decision, I would be content with that.” However, “if there’s a muddle or uncertainty, or the danger of just dropping out completely – the worst of all possible worlds – then I would certainly be in favour of a second referendum, and there’s a perfectly respectable intellectual and democratic argument for that.”

Brexiteers argue that it would be “undemocratic to ask the people again,” he added; but the public “responded to an advisory referendum on the basis of information that we now know to be incorrect. It seems to me entirely logical when we have proper information to ask them to respond in a binding referendum at that stage.”

A call for courage

So why have moderate MPs – who, in the main, recognise the huge dangers in the UK’s current course – stood by as the government has pursued a hard Brexit policy defined by a handful of radicals? The answer lies in the gap between the requirements of the common good and the personal and career interests of individual MPs.

The great majority of Tory constituency parties are dominated by passionate supporters of Brexit; Conservative MPs seen to be challenging the ‘will of the people’ face being unseated by their own local parties. And whilst most Labour voters backed Remain, the Tories have fast been winning over white working class Leave voters: Labour MPs fear that calling openly for another referendum would see them ousted at the next election. So moderates in both parties have a choice between protecting their own positions, and doing what they believe is right for the country at huge personal cost – with no guarantee that their sacrifice will produce a result.

As Major noted, the referendum result has created a powerful public mandate – and challenging it demands great bravery: “A lot of people in Parliament have been very courageous, on both sides, in raising their voices against the result of the referendum,” he said. “Do not underestimate how much courage that takes. It takes a great deal of courage because there was a referendum and 17 million people did vote to leave the EU. Elected politicians cannot ignore that.”

Coming home to roost

Yet they must be brave, he argued, and “try and persuade hearts and minds to change.” For the world is becoming a more dangerous and unstable place: “We live in a world of flux. Power structures are changing. Allegiances are changing. Little is as it was: even less will remain as it is.” And Brexit threatens to worsen these dynamics.

It would, furthermore, come at great cost to the UK’s people: “It will damage our national and personal wealth, and may seriously hamper our future security. It may even, over time, break up our United Kingdom. It will most definitely limit the prospects of our young.”

If the UK continues on its current trajectory, Major concluded, its people will eventually realise how badly they’ve been misled. “And once this becomes clear, I believe those who promised what will never be delivered will have much to answer for. They persuaded a deceived population to vote to be weaker and poorer.”

“That will never be forgotten – nor forgiven,” he concluded. And whilst he was talking about those who dishonestly championed an undeliverable and deeply harmful Brexit, some measure of blame would – surely – fall on those moderates who stood by and let it happen. Theirs would be a guilt of omission, rather than of commission. But their constituents suffering the economic, social and international damage of a Brexit nodded through by moderate MPs could rightly ask: why did you let this happen? And at that point, they’ll need a better answer than: I lacked courage.

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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