We opted to be part of the European revival, not its disintegration
Colum Eastwood MLA, Leader of the SDLP
Thank you for your welcome. It is a privilege to speak here at MacGill and to speak alongside this panel. Over the years MacGill has embedded itself both as a national forum of reflection and as a forum which endeavours to stimulate political renewal. It is said that timing is everything in politics and once more MacGill’s has proved impeccable. The momentous events of the last few months are desperately in need of reflection and equally in need of a spirit and a determination to generate political renewal. No better place to begin than Glenties.
The cultural core of the Brexit vote
There is no easy starting point in attempting to explore the huge question as to whether the European project now faces disintegration or revival. The most familiar and frequent comment of recent weeks has been that there are many more questions than there are answers. That is undoubtedly true. However political leaders like myself must attempt to shape the circumstances of our present and future no matter how heavy the fog of uncertainty.
Before dealing with the aftermath and the continuing aftershocks of the Brexit referendum result here in Ireland, I’d like to speak initially about the broader lessons of the campaign’s content and its culture. If we are to succeed in reviving the European community and its connection with our peoples, it is vital that we face up to its recent limitations. We should not be drawn into the complacency of believing that the detachment and disaffection which led to last month’s result is solely an English problem. It is not.
The uncomfortable truth is that the loss of purpose and passion for the European project and its ideals is a phenomenon which has engraved itself right across the European continent. There was a moment of particular clarity during the night of the Brexit referendum result which I think gave insight into why there was such a drastic failure to passionately project and connect with the positive story and substance of the EU. At ten o’clock on the 23rd of June, as the bells of Big Ben rang out over Parliament Square, the British establishment was collectively breathing a massive sigh of relief. They were of the firm belief that a narrow vote to remain in the EU had been achieved. However, their confidence did not stem from a comprehensive exit poll, compiled across polling stations in every corner of the country. As shown by the BBC coverage, the swagger came instead from the City of London. Sterling rose in value and worldwide stock markets were buoyant.
The markets were happy.
With votes still in their ballot boxes, they were betting that there was indeed a slim vote to Remain. All was well in the world. Fast forward to 2am. As the results came rolling in from Sunderland and Stoke, and even in prosperous Southampton, things had changed and changed utterly. Yet again, the coverage did not seek initial reaction in the form of political comment. A human voice was not to be the first port of call. Instead attention was again drawn to the FTSE 100 and to the currency exchanges. The graphs were plummeting downward; the confidence of only a few hours beforehand had been shattered.
The markets had again spoken. An English majority had voted to drag the UK out of the EU.
Distant barometers of real life
Those moments of media coverage that night are, I believe, a microcosm for the reasons behind the existential crisis being faced by all of us in political life. Is it any wonder that we face a growing alienation from the political mainstream when the barometers we use to measure political and economic health are so alien to the majority of peoples’ lived experience? GDP growth, bond yields or market fluctuations must not become the sole sphere through which we engage with political ideas and ideals. They must not take precedence over a broader and deeper political analysis as they did on the BBC that night. I am not disputing their importance to our market economy. I am merely questioning subservience to their absolute authority.
Man does not live on macro-economics alone. Those moments on the BBC showed us how far politics has allowed itself to stray. Far too often it has become abstract to the lives we lead. The voice of our politics must be about more than mere managerialism, be it economic or otherwise. It must speak to and for the quality of our lives and our expectations. It must be rooted in the rawness of reality. The failure of the Remain campaign was a failure to grasp these essential points. Too much of the European campaign in England, mainly led by the former Chancellor George Osborne, was based on a bombardment of high-level economic information. It was an arid and remote vision of Europe. It was detached and distant from peoples’ lives.
It has to be said that this mirrored the very same failings of the European institutions themselves that have in recent years struggled to find and articulate a positive relevance in the minds of its citizens. So, whether emanating from reasons, real or paranoid, the Brexit referendum result centred and hinged not on the supposed rationality of markets and economics, but on the feelings and sentiment of the electorate. The Remain campaign largely failed to extend to those feelings and sentiments. This gaping vacuity at the heart of the British Government’s campaign allowed the Leave side to manufacture a campaign that bore as little relation to truth as it did to reality.
It is obvious that many of these reasons were entirely unrelated to the European institutions themselves. Many voted Leave because of the fabricated promise of a New Jerusalem. Ironically this vote from many working class areas of England and Wales was in lament to the demise of the satanic mills of industrialisation of which William Blake had written all those years before. That deindustrialisation was much more a product of globalisation than it was related to the European Union. On a more sinister level, some undoubtedly voted Leave for reasons marinated by a mixture of fear and blame. As so often happened before, immigrants and refugees once more served as their scapegoats. A confluence of all these factors led to the Leave vote we now all face. It also left the British establishment shaken to its core on the 24th of June. It is still struggling to recover. What they once thought unimaginable has come to pass.
Broader Lessons for Revival
There are broader lessons here for those of us committed to the revival of a European sentiment that again engenders meaning and carries relevance with its citizens. As I said before, alienation of the mainstream political offer exists across the continent and is not simply contained within England. We would be foolish to ignore that on these shores some of the same culture has pervaded. I think the CSO did us all an inadvertent favour last week in releasing their revised growth rate of 26 percent. The absurdity of those figures made us all sit up for a moment and realise that statistical facts do not necessarily correspond with reality. Sometimes ridicule manifests the most lasting realisations. As the great Brian Friel once said, the fact is a fiction.
If we are to reignite the European project we must escape from the culture of a distant centralism that has ceaselessly enveloped modern political thinking. The dominant belief after the fall of the Berlin Wall was that Communism had ultimately been defeated because of its inherent inhumanity and its inability to give freedom to the human spirit. However, what has become known as neo-liberalism and its promotion of unregulated markets and its support for the insecurities of globalised labour, has equally proven to run against the grain of our humanity. A renewal of the European vison is therefore badly needed.
A politics which once more gives voice to values
That must begin by reasserting the confidence of a middle ground grown weary from the constant and visceral attacks of the extremes. There has been much talk about the disintegration of the centre ground. It is not so much that the centre cannot hold; rather that we have lacked the courage to define what that centre now represents. We must build a European vision which again gives voice to values. Rather than the dry vision as played out month after month in Britain, we must instead return to the narratives which originality built and inspired European co-operation. Those values have paved the way of progress for the last 50 years. They have maintained the longest period of peace on this continent. They asserted the rights of small nations in a world previously dominated by imperialism.
They have spread and redistributed wealth and resource through investments in infrastructure, education, science and agriculture. These values have embedded and embraced the rights of workers, the rights of women and the rights of minorities. They have ensured freedom of expression, religion and dissent. They have underpinned the pillars of our democracy. They have recognised and respected the importance of national identity and defended the right of self-determination. There is no arid vision to be found in these values. A return to those living ideals provides a rainforest of resource. John Hume taught us best how to reap the rewards of that harvest. It is what Europe once was and can be again.
Consent means Consent
In the North of this island we now face a battle to remain in that Europe. Last Friday, the new British Prime Minister went to Edinburgh and stated that she is willing to listen to options on Scotland’s future, including as part of the EU. What applies in Scotland would obviously have to apply to the North too. Fifty-six percent of our people voted to remain, unionists and nationalists alike. However, the following Monday, the new Northern Secretary of State for Northern Ireland flew in to say that ‘it is difficult to see how Northern Ireland would stay in’ and that we now need to move on.
It appears obvious that message discipline isn’t a strong point in the early days of this British Government. I am on record as saying that the SDLP will use every parliamentary and diplomatic tool available to prevent Northern Ireland from being dragged out of the EU against its will. The future chosen by the English people is not the future chosen by the Irish people, North or South.
We have democratically chosen to remain as part of the European Union. No matter how often Theresa May repeats that Brexit means Brexit, we must strongly reply that consent means consent. We have not given our consent to change the constitutional make-up of the North and, therefore, our membership of Europe should not be altered. That is the principle enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement. It must be upheld and respected. In the North we opt to be part of the European revival, not part of its disintegration.
Shaping a New Ireland
That revival may very well lead to significant change in the future. Much of the headline talk at MacGill this week has focused on the prospect of a further constitutional change through the calling of a border poll. This is a natural and welcome development. If the last few months have taught us anything it is that political life can no longer afford to presume the permanence of anything. The SDLP, as a party, continues to believe that the reunification of Ireland is the biggest and the best idea around. However, if the Brexit result and the demise of David Cameron has taught us anything, it is that we should make sure to fight referenda that we are confident of winning.
Scottish independence campaigners produced a 670-page document outlining the path to independent nationhood and how it would operate. It was credible and detailed. Irish nationalism now needs to start on its page 1. Making reunification possible also requires the development of a progressive nationalism which has the maturity to understand that a credible vision for unity will not be made in the image of any one political party. Irish nationalism must also no longer be an idea to which we are merely born into. It must be about belief, not birth. It must be based on the practical, not the pre-determined. It is a nationalism that believes that nationhood and identity is strengthened through co-operation and partnership. It is a nationalism, confident and comfortable in its own skin, open to offering identity and belonging to all.
From now on, that is what each Irish passport with its European stamp must represent. Each and every one will be a symbol of the nationalism chosen by this island and rejected by the Brexiteers. It is that nationalism, and that nationalism alone, which is capable of building the broad consensus needed to shape the New Ireland before us. If we choose that future and those values, I am confident that we can spark revival and integration on this island and across Europe.