We must speak clearly about what kind of country we want to be, writes Pat McFadden

The pound down 10 per cent against the dollar. Global stock markets jittery. Scotland threatening a second referendum on independence. Leadership elections in both main British political parties. An increase in attacks on immigrants.

The shockwaves from the United Kingdom’s referendum decision to leave the European Union have reverberated economically and politically.

The referendum was not a one-off vote: it was a seismic change in Britain’s position in the world which will dominate British politics for years to come. It represents the biggest victory ever enjoyed by the nationalist right in the UK and illustrates in the starkest terms an enduring political fact – losing is not a costless exercise.

The prime minister’s gamble of putting the country’s future at stake to try to resolve a decades-old quarrel within the Conservative party backfired spectacularly. Having pulled us out of one union and put in danger the unity of the UK itself, there is no doubt he had to resign.

The result leaves a country divided. Many Leavers are delighted and looking forward to a new dawn of sovereignty and control. Some are regretful and wondering if they made the right decision. And many Remainers are despairing about where this leaves our country and fearful about the consequences for the future.

From the outside, Britain appears rudderless, scrambling to adjust to the vote and ill-prepared for the magnitude of the decisions now to be taken. A special Europe Unit in the Cabinet Office headed by Oliver Letwin somehow does not quite meet the moment of the biggest change in the UK’s place in the world in the postwar era. This is a moment when we need leadership, and the best leadership will be that which adjusts fastest and with the most imagination to the changed political environment that the referendum brings about.

Economically, the key question will be: on what basis will the UK trade with Europe and indeed the rest of the world in the future? The early list of demands floated by Boris Johnson in his Telegraph column had included no free movement of people (but continued free movement for British people elsewhere in Europe), no financial contribution to the EU and continued full access to the single market. A few days later he was resiling, blaming tiredness for the list. The transition from a series of slogans to a coherent plan for Britain’s future is exposed by the chaos and mutually competing demands of the Leave camp.

The basic equation on European trade is this: does Britain go for minimum economic disruption or maximum control of immigration? The tenor of the referendum campaign would point to the latter, meaning a more distant economic relationship with Europe and probably greater barriers to trade. But as the process goes on, is there space for a calmer and more informative discussion of this with the public than was possible during the referendum campaign? And what do the Leavers really want on immigration? They did their best to scare voters with a list of EU accession countries threatening to send millions more people to the UK but some of their leading spokespeople say immigration may not fall at all.

Then there is the trading position with the rest of the world. Simon Fraser, former permanent secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, estimates there are about 20 British civil servants with any meaningful knowledge or experience of conducting trade deals given that the UK’s global trade negotiations have taken place through the EU for decades. The Leave campaign told us all this would be easy and done quickly, and that in short order we would have a series of new UK-specific global trade deals. We will see.

One thing is for certain: although the Tories are in power these questions cannot be left to them. Labour has a huge role to play if we can adapt to the new situation quickly and address the key issues that arise from the referendum result.

First, we should speak clearly about what kind of country we want to be – one that is still home to people from throughout the world and where we are the principle defenders of pluralism and coexistence. There is a huge vacuum here as the Tories morph into the Brexit party.

Second, we should reach out to all those concerned by the result and assure them that we will speak for jobs, for investment and for an economy open to the world. We will not sacrifice people’s jobs or Britain’s position as a good place to invest and create wealth on the altar of narrow nationalism. And we will fight to oppose a bonfire of workers’ rights such as paid leave, protection for women in the workplace and the rights of part-time workers as the Tory right seeks to make good on its pledge to get rid of what it sees as EU red tape.

Third, we have to address the constitutional consequences of the result and try to find a way to keep the country together. Both Scottish frustration and Irish concern are understandable. And, despite Labour’s weak Scottish position, we must still be the party that speaks for the whole UK and is responsible about the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

And, fourth, we must reach out to those who voted Leave who felt disenfranchised from our national story. We know that the referendum was an outlet for years of frustration in many communities around the country. We have to offer a better future and a better answer to those who have felt left out of how Britain has changed.

The referendum has thrown our politics into flux. It is certainly not the result most Labour people wanted. But if we face up properly to the questions raised by the result and hold the Leave campaign to account for the contradictory promises they have made, there is the potential for us to be heard.


Pat McFadden MP is a former shadow minister for Europe