Alex Haida is Co-Chairman of Volt UK. Renew and Volt UK have been working together in recent months as we discuss ideas and opinions on the UK’s future relationship with the EU. Alex has laid out his thoughts for moving forward in this article.
I would like to take you back to May 2019. I remember it was a rainy month, I was struggling to put my wet leaflets through doors in Ordsall during the local council elections campaign. I stood as an independent but told the people I met that I was a member of Volt UK. My programme focused on cleaning the many waterways in Ordsall and as well as initiatives to strengthen the local community (I was thinking about a new community pub). As I campaigned throughout my neighbourhood, I had many special moments when I knocked on doors and met the people in my community.
In between all the stories that I told and listened to, my encounter with one woman particularly struck me. She lived in one of these houses of typical crimson Salford bricks with a small garden out front. I gave her my usual Volt pitch of working together in Europe and using best practices to improve our local community. After that, she only said one thing to me: She had voted Leave, yet she would vote for me because I was not one of them even though I was firmly pro-EU. This struck me profoundly and I was left speechless, I couldn’t say anything else other than that Volt didn’t align for what you voted for back then, but I thanked her and let her go.
red brick terraced urban streets of moss side, manchester
A Leave voter chose me over the other candidates from the established parties. Even though I was campaigning in the name of the pro-European Party, Volt, she voted for me. She voted for a neighbour, who was born in Germany and had only lived in the UK for a couple of years, but was campaigning for our Ordsall. She needed to know that I cared about local issues and that I was doing something about it. She did not really seem to care about Europe, and she did not really seem to care about Brexit either. It highlighted to me what we must focus on when we try to find balance between prosperity and desire.
Why was she planning to vote for me despite our differenc of opinion when it came to Europe? It was not important to her as a voter ‘how’ I do politics. All that mattered was ‘why’. Unknown to her the way I was doing it brought me to her doorstep. I needed not only her vote, but also her voice as a citizen of the UK to make change happen. People-powered change, regardless of political affiliations, but based on trust and human values.
The 2016 referendum was a disaster. Instead of asking a stupid Yes/No question, the question should have considered the political diversity and opportunities of the UK. The questions never needed to be Yes/No to Europe, the conversation needed to be ‘How do we interact with Europe’.
Brexit is still unsolved. Nevertheless, I think we can find a solution by asking the right questions: How do the British people see themselves in Europe? What do people really care about? What is a British dream for Europe about?
Quo vadis, Britannia?
Firstly, there is a frustration with politics and politicians. This was demonstrated during the last general election. Many could not side with Corbyn’s hard left agenda, while others were dismayed at the failure to create a real remain alliance. Many, as usual, felt that voting was a waste of time. The Brexit referendum offered a change. This change has not happened; all we are left with is division.
The UK is our house, we live in it, we work in it and we want it to thrive in a neighbourhood where, thanks to teamwork and compassion, we can build certainty and a future.
Politics needs a new product. Politicians need to understand democracy as a marketplace. Let us take an example: Imagine a market selling different types of transportation. You can buy horses, bicycles or cars. All the products come with pros and cons, but all the products will help you to move forward. You know a fair and open market should allow you to choose your product and make deals that work best for you. Generally, the best salesmen are the ones that listen and advise you to purchase the product that best suits your needs. Bad salesmen, on the other hand, promise you the option that suits them best, not the option that is best for your needs. Sounds familiar? Ask yourself: Do I really need a Ferrari when I only drive it to Aldi?
If we continue to follow Johnson, we might get ‘true independence’. Britain will sit on a throne made from the legacy of the once proud Empire; Britain will wear a crown again. It will have control back again, as they say. That is true. However, the throne is a cracked and unstable chair, rather a piece for the museum, standing remarkably close to the gates of a much grander castle called Europe. Previously, the UK had helped build this castle, but no more. In Brexit Britain and under a No Deal, we will wear a paper crown as we wave hello to our old friends from the US, India, or Africa, that will flood to our castle gates. But the UK will not be their destination. They will be en-route to Europe.
Johnson dictates for a new era where the British people live poorer and with less freedom and less choice as they go about their lives. They talk about winning the sovereignty of the UK, but what happened to the sovereignty of the people? We don’t have it. We have no proportional representation, we are lacking effective devolution, and we have tribal party politics, personality cults and a lot of old men shouting at each other in an old building on the island that is London, far away from where politics needs to implement the change. This doesn’t sound like sovereignty to me.
The political establishment lost the people; they are assets on balance sheets, without dignity, without care, without hope.
The people of the UK, their families, their businesses, must not lose out to Brexit: open doors and open opportunities in our continental neighbourhood are vital. Was 52% a strong enough mandate to pull 100% of the people 100% away from this neighbourhood? Mathematically this is a majority, but it is a majority of the people who voted not a majority of the people and Britain is more than numbers and figures. It’s not just Yes or No. Britain is diverse and is proud of that, too. We are champions of debate and compromise. No Deal is no compromise.
In the end, we need to draw a new future for the UK and all of its people. Of course, you cry, everybody talks about it. The Government is talking about it, but it still can’t open or even find the next door to replace EU membership. You can argue that we have seen some political change; the Government under the rule of the Conservative Party did a remarkable job breaking their ancient values by introducing the most Socialist manifesto the UK has ever seen. But this only proves that political pragmatism, not political idealism, is leading the way. However, we need a new political product that suits the citizens, not the establishment.
But why is Europe really important for the UK, you may ask yourself? I think the British people are not wrong with their concerns about uncontrolled immigration, security threats, the uncontrollable Commission and missing links between fiscal and monetary policies; the EU gives you a headache rather than a solution. The EU has plans for reform but will it be able to adapt to global challenges? The UK is experienced in tactfulness and finesse and knows how to play a significant role on the global stage. To a level with the USA, China, and India, too.
Nevertheless, the strengths of the UK will be amplified with the help of close relationships with other countries. With Europe, the UK can set improved standards for defence, foreign affairs, green energy, and trade, all of which must be reformed in the EU. Economic freedom can be developed when the UK works with Europe and especially under the Single Market, Thatcher’s legacy to the EU. Does the UK want to leave it to a Franco-German playgroup, which fails to realise the potential of a liberal single market that benefits all market players? A competitive market that really benefits everyone from the grain farmers of Bulgaria to the pub landlord of Anglesea. Over-regulation and complicated bureaucracy can be shown the door, but only with a pragmatic Britain at the helm.
Of course, a future deal with the EU must ensure that the UK can be a global political trend setter. If Europeans want Britain to enter the European castle again and play a part in it, then there have to be special arrangements in regard to currency, social security and taxation that will guarantee the social and moral principles of the British people.
The Brexit debate has brought back the dead: we are reminded with Churchill’s rhetoric when fighting Nazi Germany, leading the UK to glory and unforgettable victory. The EU is a by-product of this victory. The UK helped to build the EU, but Churchill himself was hesitant to further integrate with the Europe that he helped to keep alive. Does that make him a great, modern European? Many would say not. But with all respect, he was certainly a great warrior, and the one Europe needed in its darkest hours. After ‘45, there was no war anymore. Reason took over, however nobody other than Margaret Thatcher moved ahead with the proposal for the Single Market to further shape the European Project. The seeds for two main aspects of the EU, peace and economic power, were planted by Brits.
So, what happened to the reason and courage that characterised Churchill’s and Thatcher’s politics in the fight for a strong and stable European continent when it was needed the most? When we want to play our role at the helm again and help others with good old British pragmatism, we need to implement reforms that solve the people’s frustration. We must address the lack of participation and fight against populism. However, these reforms must happen here first. Firstly, we need to fix the UK, then we can talk about Europe. Do you remember the lady in Ordsall that voted for me? She was interested in why I campaigned, not Europe.
It doesn’t matter how you do it
Thatcher said: “to be free is better than to be unfree – always. Any politician who suggests the opposite should be treated as suspect”. In a way she is addressing the untransparent, unaccountable EU. But what she forgot was the will of the people of Britain. Brexit is pushing Scotland and Wales into a position where political change threatens the United Kingdom as we know it. Don’t forget too that England does not even have its own parliamentary representation. It does not have a voice like the other British nations have. If the British people are so proud of their political pragmatism when it comes to foreign affairs, then the pragmatism in its internal affairs must feel like loss of freedom. So much about sovereignty.
We need to enable citizen power, working locally as neighbours for neighbours, just like I did in Ordsall. As I mentioned before, democracy is a marketplace, a living process, not a single event. A new political product, which includes electoral reform and empowered communities, and will put tolerance and pragmatism over tribal loyalty and faith. It works, the woman in Ordsall is proof of that.
How do we move on with Europe then? Firstly, do not take anything for granted. Britain has been and will probably always be special in Europe. When politicians in the coming months look to preserve Europe’s most valuable aspects, they must remember the British art of making deals again. We need a deal that gives everybody the chance to reach their full potential and ensure the people’s sovereignty is not blocked by politicians more interested in satisfying their own interests.
This brings me back to the British Dream of Europe: Do you remember the song by Madness, “Our House”? The lyrics include the following: “I remember way back then when everything was true and when | We would have such a very good time, such a fine time | Such a happy time | And I remember how we’d play, simply waste the day away | Then we’d say nothing would come between us | Two dreamers”.
Where have those dreamers gone? Johnson can’t open the door that provides hope and a prosperous future. He closed all the doors. No more dreams. But the UK dreams to play a global role. Britain is full of nostalgia for the good old days, “when everything was true”. we must reflect, be honest to ourselves and admit that the EU is also our legacy and whatever it will be able to achieve, it will be thanks to a lot of input from Britain. We must understand that Europe is not only a German or French house; it is also a British house. From a British point of view, our European House is broken and needs to be fixed. But first, we need to take care of ourselves. So let’s not let anything “come in between us, two dreamers”, leavers and remainers let’s make things happen. Let’s fix the UK.
Create an electoral platform for change.
While the opposition works in the parliament, keeping Boris in check, we must seed a new political community to campaign for change. If you want to self-realise your political goals, want to join a movement that stands for change and are not happy with the other parties, then let’s join together and create a new political platform. I am sharing my story to give you a vision for Britain’s role in Europe. For your role in “Our House”. However, two dreamers are not enough. I invite you to be the change you wish to see in the UK. Together, we can create something new and special. You can do it, because you are “not one of them”.
Britain saved the European continent in two World Wars. But there is a new war, a new crisis. It’s a crisis of identification and vision. We forgot what it means to be British: We used to be the guardians for peace and economic prosperity in Europe. The populists pull us back into the past but we have been there before, when we were blind to foresee the future and what is best for us. But we are lucky. We can learn from the past, we can advance. So, I ask you: Do we want to take the same path again?
Who do you want to be in this new, global world: A leader?
Chris Lovejoy poses the question: how can we help the UK resolve this crisis before its too late?
400 million people in highly developed countries don’t know why they have suffered so badly from the coronavirus. The failure to publish relevant data in the USA and UK made it difficult for opposition parties, and the media, to rigorously scrutinise decisions the government has taken on critical issues affecting their country. Various checks and balances found in mature democracies should have required governments to publish relevant data. We don’t know why opposition parties haven’t demanded relevant data, why investigative journalism and research by academic bodies didn’t create a demand that this tragedy was rigorously investigated, or, even why capitalist lobby groups failed to prevent themselves suffering incredible losses. But a failure to scrutinise decisions on critical issues resulted in the government becoming the de-facto sovereign body. This degraded democratic processes in the USA and UK, increasing the possibility that decisions taken to end the lockdown will not be implemented smoothly, which might cause a second wave of the epidemic.
After external authorities had published critical facts that affected the USA or the UK, some government decisions need to be justified. For instance:
· WHO report cases of coronavirus infections and deaths, which reveal the UK has one of the world’s highest rates of infections and deaths (per million citizens), yet the UK government claimed, without providing relevant facts, it had successfully dealt with the virus.
· WHO revealed the crisis is rapidly growing in the USA and a surge in infections in the USA could occur before the presidential election. The USA government also claims it has successfully dealt with the virus without providing relevant facts.
Some government decisions may need to be justified by other facts. For instance, it is known that infectious viruses shouldn’t be ignored and restrictions are necessary on planes, for example, as passengers sit in a confined space, creating an ideal incubation area for the virus and the flight enables the virus to quickly move into new areas. The risk of spreading the virus is reduced if passengers with high temperatures are quarantined until it is proved they were not infected by the virus. Other decisions also may need to be justified as:
· Governments normally stockpile essential medical equipment and, if more is needed, they rapidly obtained additional equipment (as the EU did).
· Some Governments warned their citizens a crisis was imminent and explained how citizens can minimise the risks of being infected.
· Most Governments didn’t believe in herd immunity and, when they couldn’t stop the virus, they quickly enforced a lockdown (to save lives and reduced the economic damage).
Therefore, in the USA and the UK, some decisions may need to be justified.
People are naturally worried about being infected by the virus and suffering economic damage, as some politicians who accentuated the crisis remain in power. While the globe is recovering from the economic costs of the lockdowns, the UK will find it difficult to recover from this crisis. This is because the UK has not yet made a treaty with the EU or with any of its major trading partners. The difficulty in finding new export markets will be increased (because the UK weakened its political relationship with the EU; is currently opposing China on several fronts; claims Russia has interfered with the UK elections etc.) and it is challenging to persuade countries the UK is a desirable business partner after UK ended a 40-year commercial agreement in a manner that causes considerable costs to the EU.
There are weaknesses in the USA and UK’s political systems (and, if either system failed, it would have major global consequences). Yet the greatest impact a political failure would have is on its citizens and, therefore, the UK must consider how the UK’s political system could be improved as the virus might re-emerge in the winter.
The problem will be to identify changes in the UK’s political system that weren't divisive and would reduce the risk of another lockdown.
Therefore, can Renew members help? For instance:
· Tax havens reduce the amount of taxes collected and this reduces government services or requires the government to increase the taxes that other taxpayers have to pay. Therefore, can recovery be partially financed if tax havens were restricted?
· Could members evaluate if constitutional changes can prevent the UK Government from implementing contradictory policies? For instance, the government argued people over 70 were vulnerable to the virus and required them to stay in their homes and not see their relatives or friends. Yet the government also instructed the NHS that elderly patients, who had ceased to require intensive care, should recover from the virus in old people care homes in which neither staff nor patients had adequate PPE. Tragically, about a quarter of all vires deaths occurred in care homes.
· Could Members evaluate if constitutional changes may enable Parliament to scrutinise decisions made by the government, or make Parliament the de-facto sovereign authority in a crisis?
Therefore, can you help the UK resolve this crisis before it is too late?
Renew's Terrance Knot investigates the demise of democracy in the UK.
The term "democracy" first appeared in ancient Greek political and philosophical thought in the city-state of Athens during classical antiquity. The word comes from demos, "common people" and kratos, "strength". Led by Cleisthenes, Athenians established what is generally considered the first democracy in 508–507 BC.
Since then, many countries have claimed to be democracies, but none more so than the United Kingdom. Indeed those who still profess to be British, and who identify, more or less, as English, Scottish, Irish or Welsh, have often taken pride in a supra-national United Kingdom: renowned worldwide for its sense of honesty, fairness and democratic decision making and rule, although in some cases harshly, but with “tough love” over countries comprising a quarter of the globe.
Nowhere was the sense of a thriving democracy more portrayed than in the coming together to support the “mother country” in the two World Wars, with thousands laying down their lives, for a concept founded on a common ideal, principle, or faith. Meanwhile one of the modern bodies of democracy was - at the same time as women got the vote - a health system, created for all. We also battled with the consequences of the national sale of assets to fund the defence of democracy – still living, believe it or not, with the abolition of the Slave Trade. Many will find it hard to come to terms with the fact that, although the UK connection with this trade officially happened in 1833-1840, throughout the British Empire, we were still paying off the money borrowed for the Slave Abolition Act in 2015!
On a lesser scale, the UK took steps to abolish child labour, to improve schooling (although the battle between so-called private and state-run schooling continues to this day) and workers were striking and marching against poverty and unemployment (Yarrow march 1936 et al.). On the back of this poverty and the feeling of frustration about the condition of the country, trade unions gained in power, especially in the fields of mining, textiles and transportation. An even-minded person would perhaps admit that the people of the country were fighting back in the only way they knew how: by denying their labour. Indeed they were “voting with their feet”, a democratic exercise of their human rights.
Before readers assume that this is a rant about human rights, let me assure you that it is not: it is simply a portrayal of some of the major steps along the way, as the British people, led by the English in 1215, gradually threw off the yoke imposed by royalty, later the “robber barons” and finally the affluent upper classes. This development of the “rights of man” (Thomas Paine in 1791, published a book, in which he linked the French Revolution with the idea that popular political revolution is permissible “when a government does not safeguard the natural rights of its people”) was a gradual process, over several centuries, but sped up as modern communications allowed ideas to be spread over the internet and similar systems.
Meanwhile the other major component countries, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, in no particular order, also showed a strong and understandable tendency to rebel and "do their own thing".
It is of note that, impoverished though she was after the Second World War, Britain (readers will forgive if I shorten Great Britain and Northern Ireland to “Britain, or the UK), played a major role, in international deliberations, post WW2. This applied, amongst other activities, to help to rebuild Europe, much of which was in ruins, both financially and in terms of assets and infrastructure. Of course, anyone with a grasp of basic history knows that this included the initial building blocks of a Free Trade Area, or Market, which grew in time, into the European Union.
This one short paragraph above disguises an enormous development, which in time has proved enormously popular, no matter how some may try to gainsay it, encompassing an amazing mixture of long-term civilisations, including a rather unsteady Greece, the so-called cradle of democracy, and many younger and smaller countries, some of which did not exist, at the end of WW2.
Again, despite sniping and protestations to the contrary, this union, as opposed to the British one, developed a democratic system of elected members from each country, a council and a mechanism for enabling each countries’ own elected senior ministers to exercise the right to contribute to - and vote for – its further development. It would be a surprise only to the most naïve, that this development, enabling seventy-five years of relative peace in Europe, has not been without its problems along the way, but try to point to a similar union which has not? Indeed compare the UK’s chequered history of sometimes vicious infighting between Irish, Scots, Welsh and English. Compare also, the “Land of the Free”, in which the American Confederacy fought against its Southern counterpart; and some in Virginia still quarrel to this day!
So, while the Continent of Europe was rebuilding itself, with initial whole-hearted input from the British, what of our own “Home of Democracy”?
We have only to say the word “Brexit”, to recall immediately the appalling schism that has developed in our union, and the negative effect this is having on our immediate international neighbours. One has only to take advantage of the Freedom of Movement that we have enjoyed for the last seventy-five years, to realise the shock and horror, the incredulity and derision, the snigger behind the hand that confronts the British, as they travel, holiday, or read the international press.
To say that we have become an international laughing stock, as the present Tory government wrangles about percentage points of approval or disapproval, is an understatement.
Yet, this wrangle, voiced in every newspaper, TV show and published article, both pre and during the pandemic, seem to make little difference to the small yet vocal group of alt-right politicians, bent on wresting political and financial advantage and lining their own pockets and those of their friends and cronies. Never mind that current polling indicates some 55-65% of the population of the UK would prefer to cancel Brexit. (Professor John Curtice, political guru, asserts that many of the young, who were unable to vote in 2016, are now “twice as likely to vote Remain and puts the Leavers on only 44-47%).
But here is the crux of the matter. Under the current “first past the post” (FPTP) electoral system, the public vote of 2016 overturned the referendum of 1975 and since then, the 2019 election, by what some regard as devious means, persuaded the great British public to return the Tories with a majority of 80 members in Parliament. This completely ignored the fact that a “proportional representation” (PR) electoral system would return a very, very different result. Yet neither the Tories, nor indeed the Labour Party, would vote for such a change, as their power base depends upon the status quo.
It does not help that the major party, in favour of PR, the Liberal Democrats, were completely out-manoeuvred and beaten, in the 2019 election: hardly a cause for confidence in the future. Other smaller parties also exist, such as the relatively new and centre of the road Renew Party, and the Green party, but again, under FPTP, the “big beasts” of politics are reluctant to switch loyalty, to more centrist policies, which lack a high profile. Except by honest and reasonable people, of which there seem to be fewer and fewer these days, most support tends to go to the headline catching extremists, rather than the outmoded concept that “the government of the people should be by the people, for the people”!
In that respect, the writer and many others, both friends and acquaintances, are amazed at the supine attitude of the average “Brit in the Streets”, compared with, for example, the French and many other significant countries in Europe, who are not slow to voice their views on poor government. Apart from two major marches, which saw not a single person arrested, the British public seems to have rolled on its back to have its tummy tickled! People outside the UK regard this as quite extraordinary and quite at odds with the battles and indeed a Civil War, fought for democratic freedom.
Meanwhile, the UK’s current government takes full example of the impact of the pandemic, to cement its grip on power and to railroad through policies and stratagems, that cannot be queried or fought on the floor of the House of Commons. It might be said that the Tories have a stranglehold on the throat of Democracy.
One other point before I close. From one who lives most of the time now, in Mainland Europe, amongst a thriving, educated, motivated group of 1.3 million British citizens, I must note that two aspects of life are paramount. We view with mounting horror, the downward slide of democratic freedoms in our mother countries of the union; and we feel embarrassed at the pity we encounter, amongst our fellow Europeans.
Is Democracy dead in the United Kingdom? Not yet, maybe, but on its last gasp.