Even by the low standards of the last couple of years, this has been a pretty grim week to be a liberal in Britain. Not content with embracing an economically destructive hard Brexit agenda, it seems that reducing immigration has become the overriding, obsessive objective of this government. Fresh restrictions on ‘foreign’ workers, students and academics are being advanced, that bring to mind the 1930’s. All this is pursed not only at huge cost to our economy, but our social and moral fabric.
A lot of nonsense was spun about May’s speech reaching out to the centre ground. Populist rhetoric hinting at (though not outlining) knee-jerk market interventions may make Ed Miliband look economically credible, but that is not my idea of centrist politics. Peel back the veneer of English suburbia, and May is offering an ugly hybrid of Gaullism and Peronism.
Then to top it off, UKIP MEPs – the political group given the largest mandate from the British electorate in 2014 – moved from verbal aggression to physical. Just imagine how this is perceived by our European partners. The same people we are about to embark on a testy negotiation with, while holding a transparently very weak hand.
And meanwhile single party nationalism remains rampant in Scotland, offered the Brexit gift of a reasonable case for another referendum on separation…
And yet, as a Lib Dem, I sense an opportunity here. For over 25 years, the liberal wings of the Labour and Tory party grand coalitions has been in the ascendancy of one or both of them. Not anymore. English nationalism now dominates the Tories, with Osborne & Co banished, business maligned and advocates of the single market silenced.
Whatever you say about Jeremy Corbyn’s (lack of) leadership skills, he now has an overwhelming party membership mandate to pursue a socialist (aka economically illiberal) agenda. I’m convinced that would be as bad for the economy as Brexit and the British electorate shows no signs of reversing its historical aversion to it. Meanwhile, Labour is incoherent and split on the nationalism/liberalism axis that is now dominating British political debate. The so-called moderate – sometimes, but sadly not always, liberal – side of the party has been comprehensively defeated this side of a general election.
It’s all too easy to over-interpret the referendum result as an expression of intense anger with, and a coherent rejection of, liberalism. I’m not convinced. It gave a small majority of people an apparently cost free opportunity to express discontent with the EU status quo (an issue that was low on most priority lists) without them being given a realistic account of what the alternative looks like. There are difficult debates ahead about the right balance between controlling immigration and economic growth, but let’s not pretend we have had an honest, conclusive one.
Liberals shouldn’t throw in the towel on Brexit, or indeed on the broader direction of the country. But we need to recognise we are in a tough fight against nationalism and regroup for that fight. And this time, the Lib Dems are the only party that will offer an economically and socially liberal alternative. I just hope liberals in other parties will join us, improve us, strengthen us and help us win this fight together.