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?