We need to create a new post-Brexit nation story

Fresh leadership has to tackle the underlying reasons why people voted to leave the EU - without losing Britain's reputation for openness and tolerance.

by Steve Moore
Last Updated: 06 Jul 2016

Thirty-two years ago, I embarked on my first trip into Europe. Six of us left Belfast, money belts dangling from our waists laden with passports, traveller's cheques and brown Interrail cards that allowed you to take any train on the Continent. Europe was for us a vast adventure playground full of beautiful girls and cheap cold beer. For each of the next six years, I took a month out of my life, bought an Interrail ticket and travelled across Europe. By the time I was 25, I had visited nearly every European country.

It was only after the referendum result that I fully appreciated how I belonged to the first generation of people from my background who could afford to travel so freely. For working class kids, nights spent on sleeper trains coursing across the Continent was a perfect expression not just of a new found freedom but also vital aspiration. In the 30 years since, I have worked in Europe, secured funds for the UK from the EU and chaired pan-EU policy partnerships.

So going into the referendum, I had both a romantic and practical perception of the EU. When asked my view on the institution, I mostly rolled out the stock dictum of my peers; 'it's not perfect but we are better in than out'. The Remain campaign I supported ultimately left me feeling dismayed. Our side of the debate seemed to be in danger of turning the open Europe of my youth into a prison that we were locked into for our own good, with referendum day the only chance of escape. We underestimated that for the socially conservative white working class, EU free movement of labour had concreted into a proxy for their indignation at a whole gamut of socio-economic changes over the past 20 years.

This was a lesson hard learned; mass migration, so often exulted as the vital lifeblood of liberal economies could it seems, if it goes unchecked, become a threat to our liberalism. In the last couple of weeks, I started re-reading Ferdinand Mount's Mind the Gap. Mount's elegant, sorrowful prose evokes a bleak sense of foreboding about the consequences of widening class divides in Britain. That it was published in 2005, just as a new wave of Eastern European immigrants arrived in the UK - after the Blair government made a decision not to put in place transition arrangements for freedom of movement for A8 accession states - only adds to its resonance 11 years on.

I spent the days following 24 June's psephological earthquake debating the consequences with friends. I found some of the risible attempts by supporters of Remain to challenge the outcome of the vote embarrassing. Plainly the exact nature and timescale of our Brexit is still unclear. My feeling is that it will require not just a new prime minister, but a general election mandate, before serious negotiations can commence.

But regardless of the outcome some things are clear. For the economy there are immediate short-term consequences. Policy will now need to focus on stability, avoidance of widespread contagion of the economy and clarity regarding when we trigger Article 50 and begin negotiations with the EU.

Moving forward, there seem to be four priorities that businesses should use their power of influence to support:

• Firstly, that we emphatically counter the notion, that some of the Leave campaign exploited, that we can retreat from the world. The consequences of doing so would be catastrophic. Alongside Brexit negotiations, it is imperative to show that we can make new trade deals with the globe's fastest-growing regions.

•  Secondly, we need to very clearly articulate what 'controlling immigration' means in practice. Work on designing a UK points-based system which reinforces the importance of sensible migration for our future economy must be undertaken urgently. The outcome needs to be communicated without the coy tentativeness that has, disastrously, characterised political pronouncements on migration for generations. This settlement will need broad public support and business needs to be intimately engaged both throughout the process and as a powerful advocate for new arrangements as they emerge. 

•  Thirdly, there needs to be a massive public investment programme, particularly housebuilding, to deal with the parlous state of our infrastructure as our population rises. More imaginative policy ideas around the integration of migrants should also be implemented. 

• Finally, booster rockets need to be applied to devolution of power to the English regions and local authorities. We have allowed too many of our people and communities to atrophy into a sense of powerlessness, for too long. Business should be at the forefront of this new surge of power to the regions and localities. 

Our new leadership must now embrace a double challenge; to appreciate, acknowledge and respond to the howl of rage that exists out in the country without losing our cherished reputation for openness, creativity and tolerance.

On 24 June, many of us discovered that the country we thought we lived in does not exist. We need to create a new nation story, one that allows for the romantic wanderlust of my 'Interrail generation' but recognises that for others continuity, community and tradition are more important values. A leader who can best weave together these deeply ingrained traits of human nature into that new nation story is what we are now crying out for. Is there anyone out there?

Steve Moore is director of policy innovation hub VolteFace. Follow him on Twitter @steve4good

Credit: Flickr/TomekNacho


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