We need to stop talking about Brexit and start talking about creating a vision of a new Britain without Brexit.
It is now more than two years since the EU referendum. Many people who voted to leave the European Union, I am sure, expected that the UK would have left by now and that the future for our country would have been clear. They hoped that they would start to see improvements in their lives – such as through more money for the NHS – as was promised by the Leave campaigners. Tragically, those hopes now lie in tatters, as those promises have been found to be empty. A devalued pound and a stalling economy are already wiping out any imagined financial “benefits” from exiting the EU.
All that is now on offer from those responsible for interpreting the referendum result is a damage limitation exercise. Talk is growing of a “People’s Vote” – an opportunity for the people of the UK to review the results of the Government’s Brexit negotiations and then to take an informed decision, through a referendum, about whether it is still, in their opinion, the best course for the country. The people may well conclude that, having seen a glimpse through the keyhole into a post-Brexit Britain, they do not like what they see.
Many of the people of Yorkshire that we in Leeds for Europe meet are showing distinct signs of frustration with the whole shoddy business and just want it over with. Neither the Remainers nor the Leavers are offering much hope that things will get better after March 29, 2019, when the UK is scheduled to leave the EU. This needs to change – and fast.
This is why Leeds for Europe have organised a major conference, to take place in our fine city this Saturday. The Great Northern Stop Brexit Conference will bring together a wide range of politicians, campaigners, academics and journalists to examine the causes of the Brexit vote and – crucially – to identify solutions to those problems. We will be discussing the North-South divide, immigration, reaching the “left behind” and much else. We will be joined by Leeds North West MP Alex Sobel, former Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett, Lord Adonis, journalist Will Hutton and many more of the country’s leading thinkers on the state of our nation and its relationships with the rest of Europe.
Our objective is radical. We want nothing less than to redefine the debate around Brexit and the direction our country is taking. We must recognise that in two wasted years since the referendum virtually nothing has been done by our government to tackle the deep-seated problems our country faces – including inequality, lack of investment (particularly outside London and the South-East), crumbling and neglected public services and a weakening economy. The reality is that Brexit is diverting almost all our government’s time and energy away from where it is truly needed.
We, in Leeds for Europe, propose that we cancel Brexit – but not just to rewind the clock back to how it was before the referendum. On the contrary, the cancellation of Brexit must be seen as an opportunity to launch a bold programme of reform in our country. There are many good reasons why people voted for Brexit in such large numbers. We must not ignore and neglect these concerns any longer. Among other things, we need to: close the North-South economic gap; invest in Northern transport, jobs and housing; give real powers, subject to democratic control, to England’s regions; reform our creaking constitution; and re-engage with a renewed energy and positivity with our European neighbours and friends, to our mutual benefit.
Britain is a European country and Yorkshire is a great part of the European story. Yorkshire and the Humber is one of the regions of the UK with the highest level of exports to the EU. Our universities attract students from across Europe owing to the high standard of learning provided. Tourism is booming as Europeans discover the wonders of our region through events such as the Tour de Yorkshire. Young workers from across the continent keep our farms, factories, hospitals, care homes and many more essential businesses alive. And much of the vibrancy of our major towns and cities comes from the wonderful contribution of EU citizens who have chosen to make their lives here.
There is so much to celebrate about Britain’s place in the EU. Let’s keep it – and let us seize the opportunities that would open up to a reformed and confident UK in the great fellowship of nations that is the EU.
Richard Wilson is the chairman of Leeds for Europe