This week the House of Commons held its first debate on the implementation of the people’s decision to leave the European Union.
We heard from a great many MPs who backed the campaign to remain in the EU and almost all of them started with a perfunctory acknowledgement of the referendum result and a declaration that they “accept” or will “respect” the result. But they then went on to rehearse all of the same arguments that they had deployed during the referendum campaign: about the vital importance of the Single Market to our economic prosperity, and the disasters that would befall us if we were to leave it and form a new and different trading relationship with our European neighbours. In my speech, my first since leaving the Government, I explained why I don’t believe that is good enough.
As Members of Parliament whose advice was rejected by our constituents – and this applies to 70% of Labour MPs – we all need to try and understand the result, to examine the reasons why people voted to leave and to ask ourselves which other views we hold and positions we promote will need to be adjusted, if we are to represent our constituents properly during the implementation of Brexit. This is what I have been trying to do since 23rd June and it has led me to the following conclusion. Membership of the European Union was a means to an end: we joined, and we stayed in, because we wanted to have free trade with our European neighbours, easy access to their markets in exchange for easy access to ours, and a common approach to some big global issues like terrorism, and the environment.
Now that the British people have voted to leave the European Union, we shouldn’t try and cling on to the institutions and legal arrangements that membership involved. We should work out what our fundamental objectives are as a country, and then try to negotiate a new set of arrangements to help us achieve them.
Leaving the Single Market does not mean that we don’t want to continue trading freely with other European countries. Stopping freedom of movement does not mean that we don’t want to be able to recruit European doctors and nurses for our NHS, or attract European PHD students to British universities.
We will only make a success of Brexit when we move on from the arguments about the pros and cons of particular aspects of the European Union, and ask ourselves how else we can achieve the fundamental things our constituents want.