This article was first published in Reaction
The Brexit process, like the long debate that preceded it, nearly always generates more heat than light. The process, like the debate, has continued to cause bitter division, but slowly a considered and thoughtful approach is emerging.
Most of the public focus has been on Brexit’s impact on business, with some loud voices consistently complaining about the negative effects. Business is the part of our society that generates jobs, wealth, income, investment and enables politicians to raise money through tax and spend it on the things we like – schools, hospitals, parks, teachers, doctors, nurses, roads, railways, security, the military, the police and so on. Keeping British business successful and vibrant is key to the country’s success and effectiveness in every other area of our shared endeavour – but business varies widely in size, sector, and interest. One effect of Brexit may have a huge impact on one part of business and very little on another area. Business is not uniform in its interests, cares and concerns. Vitally important as it is business is not the whole Brexit story. The vote to leave the European Union was an expression of dissatisfaction about the prevailing political settlement.
Brexit is a political process. The referendum was called because of political pressure on the then Prime Minister, David Cameron. It was called from a position of political weakness not strength. David Cameron called the vote because he felt he had no other option, not because he thought it was a good idea. The pressure had been generated inside the Conservative Party, and outside of it, over a period of years. The vote, when it came, was an assertion of the majority of voters voting against the advice of all the main party leaders and the vast majority of MPs. Their view that the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union was over-ruled. In truth not only was David Cameron’s political credibility destroyed by the vote but so too all those senior politicians who took leading parts in the Remain campaign – some have dealt with this more elegantly than others. In essence however the credibility of a whole generation of our political leaders, from all parties, will never fully recover.
Brexit will be a tough, hard and bumpy ride – but it is a ride we are all committed to. Those who endlessly predict doom and catastrophe need to embrace the inevitable and they are as wearisome as those who see an endless clear blue horizon once we have left. Neither is right. Doomsters are right to be concerned, but it is not then end of the world but a new path the country has chosen. The over-optimists, mainly the cheeky chappy journalists who enjoy a platform without shouldering any actual responsibility for their scribblings, are equally unhelpful to the sensible, practical and pragmatic Brexit that is – and always has been – necessary.
Michael Gove, the recently appointed Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, leads a department whose interests will be directly affected by Brexit. As a leading Brexiteer he bears more moral responsibility than most at Westminster for explaining and making Brexit a success. In taking swift action on fishing and subsequently saying Brexit must enhance Britain’s environment he has begun the long overdue task of framing the case for a positive and constructive Brexit. He has also leant his authority to backing the sensible and pragmatic need for a transition period to departure, joining and supporting the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, in the cause of measured Brexit.
Michael Gove may have more responsibility than most round the Cabinet table to set out a positive vision for Britain over the years and decades to come, but he is not alone. The Cabinet as a whole has accepted the principle that the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union. The Conservative Party as a whole ‘owns’ Brexit – whether many Conservatives inside or outside of Parliament like it or not. Gove is almost alone in the Cabinet in making any sort of effort to set out a vision for a post Brexit Britain in a way that can persuade people to be confident about what is now happening. Brexit will affect every area of our national life, every area of our daily lives. We need similar initiatives across government – defence, foreign affairs, education, justice, local government, and all the rest.
There is a void where a vision of a Post Brexit Britain should aim to be. A vision that sets out how our economic and social system should evolve, what are aims are in world affairs, how we want our society to develop, what kind of a country we want to be. Unsought by many, voted for by the majority, Brexit is an opportunity for Britain to chart a new course, to be re-invigorated, to raise our sights, and to be challenged once again to embrace new horizons.