“We are not a rejoin party, but we are a very pro-European party.” Such was the befuddlement that began Ed Davey’s interview with Andrew Marr last weekend. Predictably, it launched the latest episode of internal party drama, with many members leaving outright, and many others teetering on the edge of doing so. Davey was forced to put out a statement clarifying his remarks, though the party is so proud of the interview that it has uploaded it to its own YouTube channel.
There is clearly an ongoing dispute within the party as to how we deal with the political legacy of Brexit. It is one of the issues where the argument seems to be between the higher echelons of the party and the grassroots. Senior party figures seem convinced that our Brexit policy was one of the reasons why we imploded during the 2019 election campaign, and so are keen to downplay our pro-Europeanism at every turn now, while many grassroots members think now is precisely the time to be pro-rejoin, at a moment when Labour have ceded that ground.
The product of the dispute was a classic fudge motion at Autumn Conference in 2020, committing us to the ‘long-term goal’ of rejoining. This satisfied the pro-Europeans, but there was enough latitude in there to allow the leadership to downplay the significance of this commitment. Even I didn’t expect Davey to go quite so far as to expressly deny that we are a rejoin party, however.
As an aside, this episode teaches us an important lesson – a lesson which ordinary members in this party always hate to hear. It is that who we elect as leader matters: they have the room to manoeuvre within the text of our policy motions, and can spin party policy to fit their own personal narratives. Here, what many members will have thought was a rejoin motion has been converted somehow into a position of non-rejoining. (Separately, it astonished me how little Brexit came up during the 2020 leadership election.)
In light of Davey’s interview, though, I have to ask this: who are we kidding? What on earth do we think we can accomplish by this? I am extremely sympathetic to those concerned that militant, single-issue Europeanism is a bad position for our party. But that is a matter of issue prioritisation and communication strategy, not to be remedied by compromising on a core value. If we had a referendum tomorrow on whether to rejoin the EU, I guarantee that a thumping majority of Liberal Democrat members would vote “yes” in a heartbeat. So why not own that? It is clearly in keeping with our internationalist values that we think we should be part of the EU, and it would clearly be better for our economy, for our justice system, for small business owners, and for the ordinary consumer to go back in. More than that – we are Europeans to our blood, believing in the common ties of history and family which span across the spidery borders of our continent. Europeanism isn’t simply a passing fancy for Liberal Democrats to be adopted or discarded on a political whim – it is a fundamental question of identity and emotion.
So this move is yet another example of Daveyan mush – of stripping away from the party anything distinctive or in the least bit controversial, presumably in preparation for an overture to soft Conservatives at the next general election. As to that, see my previous column – this short term target can be achieved without rendering us as hollow shells. Soon, there will be nothing distinctive left of us: we will simply be Labour analogues, ready to perform our function as the not-Conservative button in a few seats, barely more than a handful of voters supporting us for our distinctive, liberal policy goals.
Even for those sceptical of the rejoin policy, this must be absurd. The practical reality is that our party does have a policy to rejoin. So what do we achieve by cutting this course? Nobody genuinely believes we have suddenly become Eurosceptic. No hardcore Leave voter will turn around and think we’re miraculously cured of being a pro-European party. All that happens is that we shed pro-European voters who supported us last time. We get rid of our ability to distinguish ourselves when Brexit proves to be troublesome for the country. And we once again renege on a value which we professed to be central to our belief system, and appear to the general public to be a party who doesn’t put much stock in principle.
With one hand, we are trying to beckon to Leave voters, waving at them to come back to the fold because we have dropped the pro-Europeanism – we’re sensible now, we say; we’ll be whatever you want us to be again. With the other, behind our back, we clutch onto a pro-rejoin policy passed by the membership at a party conference and gesture at the pro-European membership to keep quiet and stay back, all in the knowledge that we will continue to call for further EU integration at every opportunity anyway.
It is a damning example of the knot of moderation-for-its-own-sake that we have tied ourselves into. It is failing utterly – we are stagnant in England, on the verge of losing all devolved representation in Wales, and barely an afterthought in Scotland. We are acting out of fear, not out of principle. For our own sake, we must realise that we are fooling absolutely nobody, and get back to the values-led politics which won us a wave of support when we finally let ourselves do it two years ago.
Gracchus is a new columnist for The Torch, writing under a pseudonym. They hold a minor position within the Liberal Democrats.