Since the referendum in 2016, I have knocked on thousands of doors speaking to voters in South Cambridgeshire. In my experience on the doorstep, “it’s a mess” and “utter madness” are two of the most common refrains in relation to Brexit, along with expressions of deep concern for the future of friends and colleagues who are EU nationals. It was no surprise when, in elections for the European Parliament in May, the Liberal Democrats and our clear “Stop Brexit” message, secured nearly 40% of the vote in South Cambs.
In 2016 the country voted by narrow majority to leave the EU. Many options for how this feat could be achieved were discussed during the campaign, but the vote to leave came with no instruction manual and it was rightly the government’s responsibility to interpret the result – to shape and negotiate a deal with the EU.
But, as with any government business, it was also right that any deal should be subject to proper democratic scrutiny. The Liberal Democrats advocated from the outset that the best form of democratic scrutiny for any deal would be a referendum, and we have remained consistent on that, using the democratic means of a free and fair society to make our case: in parliament, in local councils and on the street in peaceful protest.
Contrast this approach with the Conservatives’ attempts to avoid democratic scrutiny: being taken to court over the right to trigger Article 50, opposing amendments granting a meaningful vote, and culminating in the suspension of parliament against its will.
And it is becoming increasingly clear that the government is actively and knowingly pursuing the most damaging form of Brexit. Whether it is the slimming down of the negotiating team, the lack of concrete proposals being brought forward, or Amber Rudd’s revelations on resigning from the government last weekend, there is little evidence that the Prime Minister is serious about getting a deal with the EU. Wasting time investigating ways to avoid complying with the law passed by Parliament to request an extension reveals a near despotic desire for a no-deal Brexit.
But where in the government’s own planning assumptions for a no-deal outcome, is the defence of the vulnerable in society? The family already struggling to put food on the table, when we have food shortages? The elderly in our already stretched social care system, when providers can’t find staff? The people of Northern Ireland, when the Good Friday Agreement is undermined? The patients who will suffer when there are medicine shortages?
When I moved to Grantchester with my wife and baby son in 2012, my concerns were those shared by many new parents: that my family had a safe and secure home; that my son would have access to a good education and healthcare; that he would grow up in a world of opportunity and not one blighted by the effects of climate change. Housing, education, the NHS, climate change – they remain concerns for us all. But in the last 4 years Brexit has crowded out meaningful progress on any of these issues, wasting time, effort and money on Conservative attempts to appease Nigel Farage.
I demand better for South Cambridgeshire. Our area deserves better than a Conservative education policy that has seen our schools cut teaching hours and ask parents for contributions to the basics of schooling; better than the inadequate social care and GP availability in our villages that puts pressure on Addenbrookes; better than the unsustainable, unaffordable housing development and poor public transport provision around the constituency; better than the dismissal of those trying to raise awareness of climate change.
We need to see education as an investment, reversing the cuts and implementing a system that allows teachers to teach, not simply coach students through continual high stakes testing and inspections. We need to give the NHS and social care services the cash they need right now to improve service and limit the amount the elderly pay for social care. We need to develop more sustainable housing, for more sustainable communities, with a high quality, green public transport network for the area. We need to restore support for solar and onshore wind generation and accelerate the phasing out of petrol and diesel cars to ensure we meet our targets for carbon emissions.
I want to move on from Brexit and tackle these issues and more. But let’s not pretend that if Brexit happens we will be able to do so – it will merely fire the starting pistol on more years of negotiation, more wrangling over the nature of our relationship with the EU and others.
The alternative, the only way to move on now, is to act on the message given by voters in South Cambs in May and stop Brexit. When the next election comes, it’s what I’ll be campaigning for.
This piece was published in the Cambridge Independent on September 23 2019