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Former Tory leader: Why I’m quitting party over Brexit

'Brexit is a mistake - and I don't want any part of it!'

15 February, 2017 — By Councillor Andrew Marshall

Councillor Andrew Marshall, who has served at Camden Council for 24 years, explains why he has decided to leave the Conservatives

After 40 years, I’ve resigned from the Conservative Party. Brexit is a huge economic and foreign policy mistake, reversing the Conservative Party’s settled position from 1961 onwards, and I don’t want any part of it.

Even five years ago, the idea that a Conservative government – a Conservative government! – would be taking us out of Europe would rightly have been thought absurd. It’s possible that the referendum has made Brexit inevitable.

But the form it takes is not pre-determined. The government has been cowed by the anti-Europeans into a harsh approach that does not prioritise Single Market membership (despite the 2015 manifesto), and seems careless about our relationships with our closest neighbours. “Brexit means Brexit” is a meaningless phrase that is all about party management.

Much has happened in the eight months since the referendum. Who knows what the next two years will bring before the UK leaves (an argument for parliamentary democracy rather than occasional referenda)?

The unprecedented instability that Trump’s election creates for the western alliance should have been reason enough for the government to pause before plunging ahead.

Instead, the UK has become a supplicant to the new US admin­istration, desperate for fragments of good news, rather than seeking a grown-up relationship alongside our European allies. The backdrop matters. The Conservative Party bears great responsibility (sins of commission and omission) for the growing Eurosceptic tide from the 1990s.

Conservative leaders compromised too much with the hardliners, and failed to put forward consistently the case for British engagement in Europe. Ultimately this meant Cameron could only defend his deal on an unappealing, transactional basis. Perhaps history dictated that the UK was bound to be a semi-detached, querulous member of the EU.

But I don’t buy Marxist inevitability. We’re now heading to a position where we will have fewer institutional ties to the EU than Norway, Iceland or Turkey, with our great goal now being to secure a relationship with Europe similar to that which Canada enjoys.

Brexit appears so irrelevant to the big issues we face in the world: nuclear proliferation, climate change, conflict and extremism, technological transformation.

Like many, perhaps most people in Camden, I consider myself both British and European (and Scottish/Orcadian). Nation states are powerful sources of identity, but in 2017 the idea that the nation state is the answer to everything is just as outmoded as it was in 1957 when the EEC was formed. I’m struck by the number of Brexit supporters for whom it is axiomatic that in any political discussion “we” refers to the British, rather than we Europeans or indeed mankind.

We share one planet; the EU for all its difficulties represents one of the most advanced and successful forms of international cooperation. It’s a canard that the EU is anything other than an exemplar for deeper collaboration around the world. Self-evidently, the referendum revealed unhappiness on a range of issues, bound up around globalisation, economic change, widening inequality and large-scale immigration.

Political parties of centre-right and centre-left the world over are struggling with this. All I am sure about is that the glib answers are wrong. Parties are coalitions, and it’s always easy to say that one should stay and fight. A fair number of Conservatives I know have drifted away, but I make no criticism of others staying in the party.

Although I admire Ken Clarke, I do not especially criticise MPs who voted for Article 50. If you are an MP, you have legislative responsibilities, the referendum result needs to weigh in your thinking, and you will have opportunities to influence policy if things look different by 2019. Like most people, my views have evolved over the years (even if I’m accused of unchanging dogmatism on the EU). I have always considered myself a One Nation, liberal Conservative.

But I simply don’t feel comfortable any more in a party where most are genuinely enthusiastic, even triumphalist, about Brexit, while many of the rest have capitulated and call for unity as they stare at the Emperor’s new clothes.

It’s not really accurate to say the Conservatives have moved to the right. It’s more tolerant and inclusive on many issues than in the past, and is trying to grapple with the social divisions we face. To me, though, it has become less serious and consistent in government (policemen are also looking younger). Brexit is encouraging some of the worst tendencies in Tory ranks. The Brexit White Paper was largely detail-free – mentioning the UK’s permanent Security Council seat, and patronising references to cultivating “old friends” hardly amount to a plan.

I wish my council colleagues well. As an independent councillor, I will continue to represent to the best of my ability, alongside my two excellent ward colleagues, my constituents in Swiss Cottage (including more than 1,500 EU citizens who have had the right to vote locally for two decades).

Local government has its challenges: opposition is often futile, financial constraints on councils make real policy choices hard, and the electoral system skews the way parties campaign locally. I do know I hear 100 resident complaints about services for every one about council tax levels.

Whether the new phalanx of Conservative local candidates, many enthusiastic for Brexit and involved in Andrea Leadsom’s leadership campaign, will find north-west Camden fertile territory, time will tell. I have no idea how the next couple of years will go. It’s quite possible that we’ll have a longish period of Conservative hegemony – I do not assume that the difficulties of Brexit will instantly shift opinion.

The potential collapse of Labour as a centre-left party of government should worry us all. If it is not too perverse for me to say so at this juncture, I encourage people, especially the young, to get involved in political parties.

Andrew Marshall was first elected to Camden Council in 1990 and was deputy leader of the council from 2006-2010. He stood for both the House of Commons and the European Parliament in the 1990s.

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