We need a fair and open society – and honest politics

by Hugo Dixon | 02.09.2016

Staying in the European Union is really important. It is worth fighting for, despite the long odds. But it is not the be-all-and-end-all of post-referendum public life. It is even more important that we have a fair and open society – and honest politics.

This is the thinking behind CommonGround, a new political organisation I have helped found. CommonGround has both a long-term vision (a fair and open society) and an immediate goal (to stay in the EU).

The two ideas are joined at the hip. Quitting the EU will leave us poorer and marginalised, with less control not more. No Brexit is a good Brexit – except for the fantasy one promised by the Leave camp. But we will be unlikely to stay in the EU unless we simultaneously show how we can make our society fairer.

The failure to do this was one of the Remain camp’s many errors during the referendum. That, in turn, stemmed from the fact that doing so would have meant attacking David Cameron’s failures – and he was Stronger In’s puppet-master.

As a result, it became all too easy for the Leave camp to use the EU and immigrants as scapegoats for all the ills of our society: for growing inequality, for overcrowded schools, for towns left behind by globalisation, for NHS waiting lists, for how hard it is to get on the housing ladder.

In most cases, the solutions to these problems lie closer to home – with our own politicians. They are responsible for cut-backs in public services, for failing to use the wealth generated by free movement to make sure all communities benefit, for too few homes being built.

If we are to stay in the EU – and it will be tough given the referendum – we will need to make the case for a fairer Britain at the same time.

This means, among other things, investing more in people so they have the skills to succeed in the 21st century. Not just education for children, but also for adults so they stay up-to-date. It also means solving the housing crisis.

Whole communities must not be left behind. That involves investing in infrastructure – and that’s not just high-speed rail links.

And, yes, a fairer society has to address people’s concerns over migration.

The first step should be an honest debate. We need to disentangle the different types of migration which the Leave camp muddled in their devilishly brilliant campaign. Free movement of EU citizens is different from economic migration from outside the EU which, in turn, is different from the refugee crisis in the Middle East.

We then need to be honest about targets. Cameron’s promise to cut net migration to below 100,000 was anything but honest. Michael Gove’s pledge to do the same if we left the EU was snake oil. After all, net migration from non-EU countries alone was 190,000 in the year to the end of March, according to the Office for National Statistics. Net migration from the EU was 180,000. So if we want to cut migration, we need to focus on non-EU countries as much as EU ones.

We should also acknowledge that free movement of EU citizens is good for our country in aggregate. They play a vital role in the NHS and other public services. They pay taxes, they create jobs, they contribute to our dynamic science base and they enrich us culturally. We also benefit from being able to live in 27 other EU countries.

But this is not enough. We have to work harder to make sure that migration works for all – not just in the aggregate. In particular, the government should make good on its commitment to relaunch a migration impact fund – to provide resources for communities facing waves of new migrants so they can invest in schools, surgeries and other social services.

Scrapping the fund launched by Gordon Brown and then failing to reinstate it despite promising to do so in last year’s election manifesto was one of Cameron’s cardinal sins. Theresa May should reverse this error and make sure the new fund is an ambitious one.

We can do a lot ourselves to manage migration better – just as we can do a lot ourselves to manage globalisation better.

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But playing a leading role in the EU would help a lot too. For example, we could create the next generation of jobs through a single market that covers the digital economy and services. We could tackle the causes of mass migration from beyond the EU by working with our allies to stabilise the Middle East through a 21st Century Marshall Plan.

We should help lead Europe, not leave Europe. Cameron’s failure to set out any positive vision about how Britain could do this was another reason we lost the referendum. So, if we are to have a chance to stay in, we will need a vision for Europe as well as one for Britain.

But we also need a fair and open society – and honest politics – whatever happens on Brexit. These are essential goals in themselves. Indeed, if we quit the EU, the poorest will probably be hurt the most. The temptation to pull up the drawbridge and close our country to foreigners will grow. Populist politicians who have got away with saying Turkey is about to join the EU and an extra £350 million a week is going to the NHS will still be here, ready to peddle their lies, half-truths and false promises.

And remember that it wasn’t just the Brexiteers who lied. Cameron said he would stay in Downing Street and immediately trigger Article 50 if he lost the referendum. George Osborne said there would be an emergency budget.

Although post-truth politics went into overdrive during the campaign, the seeds of it had been sown long ago. Generations of politicians have been spinning like Dervishes, eating their words, twisting the truth. Think of how Tony Blair took us into the Iraq war. Or Nick Clegg’s pledge on tuition fees.

Mainstream politicians opened the door to dishonesty that populists have now rushed through with gay abandon. As citizens, we need to fight back and demand more truthfulness from our representatives. Otherwise, the demagoguery will go from bad to worse and our political life will be increasingly polluted. Brexit will not be the only bad decision that flows from that.

So whatever happens with the EU, we need a long-term vision for a better Britain based on fairness, openness and honesty. This is even more important than stopping Brexit.

Hugo Dixon is a director of CommonGround. He is also editor-in-chief of InFacts.org. You can sign up as a supporter to CommonGround here.

This article first appeared in The New European

Categories: Post-Brexit