A controversial statement from a Liberal Democrat I admit, but the past few days has had me reflected on my attitude towards the European Union and the way I will vote in the upcoming referendum in 2016/2017. At the moment, I plan to abstain from the vote. Why, you ask? Firstly because I know little about the benefits of staying in the EU and even less about the consequences of leaving, but most importantly because there are aspects about the EU I like, and there are aspects of it that I dislike.
I love the idea of free movement of people. I think it’s fantastic that we have open borders to those who come to our country (and others) seeking to improve their life. I will never buy into Farage’s fear-mongering statements about health and benefit tourism or immigrants suppressing British wages; I just don’t believe it’s true. We need to offer people who come here seeking to better their lives a fair chance of doing so; as long as they are prepared to work and pay into our system then they should be welcomed with open arms. I am proud of Britain’s multi-culturalism. I am not outraged when I hear the small group of Polish children playing outside my flat in Selby, I am proud of the fact that their families chose our great nation to come to settle and make a better life for themselves. I have worked with a large number of EU migrants, all of whom worked hard and contributed positively to British society. Europe is a land of pluralism and it should be embraced. The twentieth century saw two world wars which pitted Europe against each other; our grandparents and great grandparents fought to eliminate the hostilities between the powers of Europe, to undo that would be an enormous shame.
Then of course there is the free market agreement of the European Union. For those of you who know me well, I’m no economist and so I won’t endeavour to embarrass myself by attempting to explain why this is a good thing. It’s something to do with taxes and imports/exports – but that really is the extent to my knowledge on the economics of Europe. But hey! When I’m Prime Minister, I’ll have a Chancellor to make the decisions about money, that’s what he/she is there for, right?
Up until recently, I understood very little about local government. I admit my knowledge is still certainly patchy but what I have learned from the brilliant ALDC (Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors) Kickstart training event, is that the Lib Dem focus is very much on the importance of local authorities making decisions that affect local people. The Lib Dem fight back – as it’s come to be known – really does start with winning council seats and making a difference at a local level. Thanks to Edward Davey’s chapter in The Orange Book, I have recently come to understand that the decentralisation of government from Whitehall to Town Hall is a key part of Liberal Democrat policy – and quite rightly too!
The Scottish National Party has spent recent years making the case for independence, complaining about the fact that the balance of power rests in Westminster some 400 miles away from the centre of Scottish government. I share their discontent. Selby is a two hour train journey from London, so what do the MPs sat in the Commons really know about how best to govern locally? The Conservative MP for Selby, Nigel Adams, does not represent me in Westminster; I did not vote for him. Councillors are the real heroes of government; they’re the ones who sort out the issues that affect people’s everyday lives from those pesky potholes to the piles of dog poo. Local government is a key part of British politics and councils should be given more power to enable them to help local people more so than already happens.
So, what does this have to do with the EU? Well, given the Liberal Democrats’ commitment to local government, how can it be that as a party, our stance on Europe is that of unwavering support, seemingly prescribing ourselves to the rhetoric of pro-Europeans without even a hint of carefully analysing what it is we’re actually involved with? That being the largest scale example of centralised government, perhaps in the world.
That last part may seem a bit strong, but as I posted an opinion poll on a Lib Dem policy debating group on Facebook today, I was told that I could not be a member of the Lib Dems if I didn’t sign up to the European hype. What utter bollocks. I hate the fact that a lot of Britain’s legislative and policy-making powers have been sold away to Brussels. How is it conceivable that MEPs from around Europe can have direct influence on matters that affect countries they don’t even live in and have probably never visited?! If Scotland make the same argument about Westminster and the Liberal Democrats make the same argument about local governments, how can we be expected to accept that Brussels have overall say as to what happens across the continent? It seems like double-standards to me.
People may call me illiberal for not signing up to the pro-European rhetoric, but I am committed to delivering more power to local governments, not signing it away to Brussels. I like certain aspects of Europe, I really do, but unless someone can provide me with hard evidence as to why I should buy into a federal system of government, I can’t fall down on either side of the EU argument.
I’m open to be educated on Europe and I’m open to have my mind changed, either way. But one thing’s for sure; our relationship with Europe needs to change and both sides of the referendum campaign will need to provide compelling evidence to support their arguments, instead of the usual “oh it’s good for jobs”, “oh bloody immigrants”, “we’re better off together” malarkey.
I want to be convinced either way. So, convince me.