We don’t need a re-run of last year’s referendum in this election campaign. The Prime Minister’s triggering of Article 50 of the EU Treaties, four weeks ago, shifted the British debate from whether to leave the EU on to what future relationship Britain seeks with our nearest neighbours, and how that will shape our future economy and society.
Mrs May’s call for national unity behind her, wherever she now wants to take us, is absurd. We need by June 8 to know the details, the likely impact on different parts of the UK, on industry, farming and finance.
There are fundamental issues at stake. The UK could break up over the next few years, if Scotland and Northern Ireland are dissatisfied with the outcome. London could survive as a low-tax financial services centre offshore to Europe – which seems the Conservative objective – but Yorkshire and the rest of England outside the home counties would suffer severely.
Theresa May is a southern England politician, with little understanding or sympathy for the rest of the country. Behind the media preoccupation with Brexit in recent months, Conservative policy has continued to disadvantage the north of England.
Cuts in central government grants to local authorities have hit northern cities, while prosperous counties like Surrey have been given favourable deals. Schools across Yorkshire are struggling with squeezed resources, while the Prime Minister is proposing to spend money instead on expanding grammar schools in Berkshire and Kent.
Brexit means that Yorkshire, like other less prosperous regions, will lose access to EU regional development funds; but there’s silence from the government about more generous redistribution of UK spending to compensate.
The Northern Powerhouse, George Osborne promised when he launched it, would be underwritten by Chinese investment, not British public expenditure. The government has just announced that it is selling off the Green Investment Bank, a Liberal Democrat initiative under the 2010-15 coalition to fund environmental schemes across the country, to an Australian bank.
So it’s worth noting that in a political and media world dominated by people who grew up in London and Oxbridge, whose views of the issues facing Britain are firmly rooted in the comfortable districts of our capital and its commuter fringes, the Liberal Democrat leader stands out.
Tim Farron grew up in Preston, went to Newcastle University, and was a county councillor in Lancashire before he was elected to Parliament. I can tell you from campaigning with him that he understands the problems of regenerating our former industrial towns, of investing in better transport links outside the south-east, of putting money into schools in poorer areas to give all of our children a better start in life. He’s not as familiar with Islington intellectuals as Jeremy Corbyn; but he is well-rooted in the world in which most of us outside those circles live.
The Conservatives are likely to win this election: that’s why Mrs. May could not resist calling it. She has justified her decision by attacking criticism, from the Commons and the Lords, and asking for a blank cheque for negotiations that have not yet begun, and for which the government has not yet set out its detailed objectives.
So a key question for voters to consider will be who can provide the most intelligent and effective opposition, as the negotiations get under way – to ensure that the government does not sabotage our economy by closing off access to the world’s largest market, to which over 40 per cent of our exports go, to resist right-wingers slipping damaging deregulation and further privatisation into the transitional legislation, and to insist that we stay within the European networks of police and intelligence cooperation that keep us secure.
Labour has so far failed to spell out clear views on this complex, and vital, set of issues. The Liberal Democrats have done our homework, and will hold the Government to account, decision by decision.
In a six-week campaign, the easy slogans of last year’s referendum campaign will have to give way to detailed examination, policy by policy.
It was easy for the Leave campaign to promise to ‘Take Back Control’; but the promise looks different when the pound falls, and foreign investors find it easier and cheaper to buy up British companies. It was easy – and false – to promise additional spending on the NHS; the reality is that the Conservatives are holding down health spending, while EU citizens working in our hospitals are beginning to leave, and the European Medicines Agency (crucial to our pharmaceutical industry and to getting new drugs approved quickly) is about to be moved from Britain to the continent.
It was easy to promise to free the UK from having to cooperate with Germany and France; but Boris Johnson did not then explain that this would mean following Donald Trump wherever he may take us.
Last year, Theresa May was in favour of staying in the EU. When she became Prime Minister, she promised to govern in the interests of all our citizens. Now, pulled to the right by the hard-line ideologues in her party, she is pushing for a hard break from Europe, further cuts in public spending, and tax cuts for the better off.
That’s not an agenda that deserves a vote of confidence. With Labour adrift, we need a strong Liberal Democrat voice in the next Parliament to challenge the hard right.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Lib Dem peer.