The EU Referendum was not a vote for a Government, writes Nicolas Webb. While the Leave campaign did attempt to put forward ideas for how a post-Brexit Britain could make decisions. They were simply not in a position to credibly set out a programme for Government.
While it was not their task to do so, the lack of such a plan has allowed people to overlay their own interpretation of what post-Brexit Britain would look like. This allowed voters to develop their own take as to what a Leave outcome would look like. Similarly, many explanations have been put forward by commentators and opponents as to what motivated those who voted Leave to do so. A few have been guilty of simplistic smears suggesting a Leave vote equates with intolerance. In fact, the formal Leave campaign was predominantly run by classical liberals who see a free-market Britain trading with the World and movement of people as part of a globalised World.
The referendum is now behind us. With the initial shock of the result subsiding there still remain a great many questions. Not all of these need to be answered instantly. The date of Brexit is at least two years away. Organisations, including Government, had prepared to deliver business as usual while the negotiation with the EU is carried out.
Where a strong message does need to come forth rapidly is on the broad nature of what post-Brexit Britain will be like.
No serious politician has suggested that EU citizens currently living in the UK will lose their right to do so. Nonetheless, the Prime Minister saw it as necessary to reiterate that there would be no threat to them. He was right to reassure. Between some Leave supporters using the language of xenophobia and a few in the Remain camp seeking to smear the most extreme views of a minority as the collective view of Leave voters, an atmosphere of concern has developed. This has been an ugly campaign which has frequently been considerably removed from the actual matter being voted upon.
What was voted upon was who would make decisions but not what those decisions would be. On the matter of immigration, some will have voted Leave on the basis that they want the overall number of migrants entering the country reduced, some will have had in mind the bias which exists towards EU citizens and against those from elsewhere in the World, others will support current migration levels but simply think that the decision making should be in the UK rather than on an EU-wide basis.
The existing, and unimplementable within the EU, Government policy of a reduction from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands may be achievable post-Brexit, but by no means will it be desirable. What was a bad policy proposed prior to the 2010 General Election, is unlikely to be a good or relevant policy in 2018 or 2019.
Some of those disappointed with the referendum outcome fear that Britain will become an inward looking nation. There is actually very little evidence to suggest this would be the case. Britain’s history of being a globally aware nation dates back far longer than the formation of the EU. This country has an imperfect history of welcoming migrants, but our fast adapting society has made a success of integration. British commitments to Foreign Aid are amongst the strongest of any nation. Our military is deployed with good intention when needed to save lives around the World. There remains much to be improved regarding our treatment of refugees, but the UK’s resettlement programme for those fleeing the Syrian conflict was the best thought through of the major nations at a time when EU refugee policy was failing to be either humane or secure.
Following Brexit, the UK will actually have greater ability to be a global nation than those within the EU. To do that Britain must make the positive decision to pursue such an approach. It would be unrealistic to demand specific policy pledges at a time when we do not know the date of Brexit or who will be the Prime Minister. However, now is the time to reassure the World that Britain is stepping forward, not back. It is the time to repeat our welcome to those who have moved to Britain to contribute to our successful nation. We must start talking about the open-minded, tolerant, welcoming, diplomatically powerful place which we aspire to be. The crass jibe from the campaign was “little Englander”, but all of us, whichever way we voted, now have a part to play in building an even Greater Britain.
Nicolas Webb is a Director of Gorse Cover, a PR and Political Consultancy, and was a 2015 General Election candidate for the Conservative Party in Newport West. He is a trustee of the Welsh Refugee Council and a member of the board of the Gorwel think-tank. He tweets at @ndwebb.