Liberal through and through

Monday 4th July 2016


Tom Brake, Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton and Wallington, discusses with Marcus Papadopoulos what drove him to stand as a politician and why he supports British membership of the European Union
Tom Brake, Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton and Wallington, discusses with Marcus Papadopoulos what drove him to stand as a politician and why he supports British membership of the European Union.

The 2015 General Election saw the Liberal Democrats decimated, after having served in coalition government with the Conservatives for five years. Some commentators now argue that the Liberal Democrat Party is a spent force in UK politics. It is too early to tell, however, whether that view is correct or not. However, it is perhaps the case that claiming the Liberal Democrats to be an irrelevant force fails to take into account how historically resilient they are, epitomised by their activities at a local level.

One such Liberal Democrat who encapsulates the party’s endurance and endeavour is Tom Brake.

Today, Tom is the longest serving Liberal Democrat MP, having been elected to the House of Commons at the 1997 General Election to serve the constituency of Carshalton and Wallington. And serve his constituency he has. Tom is widely regarded as one of parliament’s hardest working MPs, as demonstrated by an opinion poll carried out by the Evening Standard, in 2008, which found him to be third hardest working MP in London, after two other then Liberal Democrat MPs, Paul Burstow and Vince Cable.

Instinctively liberal, Tom has forged a respected reputation at Westminster for pursuing issues of transparency and human rights as well as environmental issues. His current Private Member’s Bill is focussed on allowing members of the public to know more about the workings of private companies which are providing public services.

An avid supporter of the UK remaining in the EU, Tom argues, in particular, that the security of the country could be seriously jeopardised in the event of an exit, and he calls on the Brexit campaign to account for why senior military and police people have argued that it is imperative for Britain to keep its membership of the EU.

In this exclusive interview, Tom tells us what drew him to politics, how he rates the performance of the Liberal Democrats when they were in coalition government with the Conservatives, his Private Member’s Bill before the House of Commons, his stance on constitutional convention, what he believes the challenges are to British foreign policy, local issues he is currently working on and why he will vote on 23rd June for Britain to remain in the EU.

Q What drove you to stand as an MP?

A lot of people in my generation during the 1980s were greatly influenced by the then prime minister of the day Margaret Thatcher, who had a very polarising effect on the political scene and this was helped by the Labour Party at that time under the leadership of Michael Foot. So we had two extremes at that point in British politics, where one wanted to nationalise everything, while the other wanted to privatise everything. I became frustrated with what I saw happening at that time in Britain so I became involved with a political party which was pragmatic in its approach to politics – a party which believed in Europe and which was committed to addressing environmental challenges. So, for me, the Liberal Party, as it then was, was the appropriate party to be involved in. And I have been involved with the party ever since.

I was elected as the MP for Carshalton and Wallington at the 1997 General Election and am now the longest-serving Liberal Democrat MP.

Q How will historians regard the performance of the Liberal Democrats in the Coalition Government?

I hope that they will assess our contribution much more positively than the results at last year’s general election would suggest. In 2008, the UK suffered the equivalent of an economic heart attack which left, for instance, the building industry in tatters. For a short period of time after 2008, it looked like Britain would go into a downward spiral as other countries in Europe were going into. So at the 2010 general election, when there was no clear overall winner, I and Liberal Democrats, in general, believed that the correct thing to do was to form a coalition government with the Conservatives in order to provide some stability so as to ensure that the UK could take some very tough decisions which were needed to put the country back on the right track. And I believe that that was achieved by 2015.

Q At parliament, you are sponsoring a Private Member’s Bill – Freedom of Information (Public Interest and Transparency) Bill. What is that bill about?

The bill focusses on an area which I have pursued vigorously for the last ten years or so and it is about extending the remit of freedom of information law. In years gone by, there have been attempts at parliament to restrict freedom of information but I have always wanted to see freedom of information extended. So, for example, in the country as a whole, private companies are today taking over work which previously had been carried out by public authorities, which, of course, are subject to freedom of information. In my view, if a private company is taking over the same work which a public authority had once carried out, the public should be entitled to put in a freedom of information request so that they can see how these companies are being managed and if there are any problems with the way in which they are providing public services. Further to that, I would also like the Ministerial veto to be scrapped so that Ministers cannot overrule the Information Tribunal and Information Commissioner and say that they are still not willing to release information.

Q You have argued that limiting the voting rights of some MPs without a constitutional convention would be a grave mistake. Can you elaborate on that.

In the last few years, there have been major changes which have affected how Parliament works and impacted on our constitution which, I believe, needs to be discussed in a much more holistic way. So, for example, there are demands for sixteen and seventeen year olds to be given the vote – something which the Liberal Democrats wanted in time for the European Union Referendum. Furthermore, we have changes regarding the relationship between the Westminster parliament and the devolved assemblies, and we have city deals whereby cities, such as Manchester, will be responsible for providing health and other public services to their residents. So there are numerous changes taking place, almost piecemeal, without having a discussion about how these changes work in practice and how they interrelate. Constitutional convention has widespread support amongst political parties – with the exception of the Conservatives – and the intention would be to refresh and rejuvenate the relationship between Westminster and the devolved assemblies.

Q As the Liberal Democrats’ Foreign Affairs Spokesperson, what, in your opinion, are the main challenges to British foreign policy?

At present, we have two critical challenges: the debate over Britain’s membership of the EU, and the Syria conflict and all the associated issues around it in terms of the refugee and migrant crisis. I would also cite the greater emphasis which is being placed on UK trade at the expense of human rights, most notably concerning Saudi Arabia and its actions in Yemen and its use of British armaments against Yemeni civilians.

Q You have a strong reputation as a hard-working local MP. What are some of the local issues which you are currently working on?

Unsurprisingly, the health service is a critical issue. Currently, we have a review underway of all of the hospitals in south-west London – being carried out by south London’s Clinical Commissioning Groups – on what health services across south-west London should look like and which hospitals should have services and also what community care should look like, as we move towards a system where people are encouraged to stay at home as long as they can, rather than going into hospital with the associated problems which can often emerge as a result of hospitalisation.

Another problem which we are facing in Carshalton and Wallington concerns transport. We do not have a tube station nor, indeed, does the London Borough of Sutton, as a whole, have a tube station. So to compensate for the relative lack of good transport, we are trying to get the tram extended from Wimbledon to Sutton and, in the longer-term, trying to get the Overground line, which currently comes into West Croydon, extended to Sutton because the general view is that the Overground line is a much more reliable and pleasant service to use than the current service provided by Southern, which is, quite frankly speaking, pretty appalling at the moment.

Finally, in regard to schools, Sutton is a victim of its own success as we have fantastic schools. So demands on the borough for school places are large, hence we are hoping to have a new secondary school built soon with an additional one after this, too, depending, of course, on pupil numbers, taking into account immigration but also migration into the borough from other London boroughs.

Q Finally, how will you be voting in the EU Referendum and why?

I will be voting to stay in because due, in part, to the common market, we have had peace in Europe for the best part of 70 years, which is a result of closer co-operation between countries which had previously fought each other – Britain, Germany, France and Italy. The peace in Europe is not simply due to NATO as while NATO protects the EU’s borders, it does not prevent EU countries from going to war with each other. So closer cooperation within the EU has strengthened relations between members. Also, millions of UK jobs depend on our trade with the EU, and the EU is, by far, the largest market for our exports – 44 per cent compared to just 7 per cent which are exported to the so-called BRIC countries Brazil, Russia, India and China. Furthermore, I want us to stay in because of the opportunities which the EU provides, including allowing a British person to go and live in and work in another EU country without any restrictions – something that over a million Britons have taken advantage of. And finally, I want us to stay in because of our security; those who want us to leave the EU need to explain why it is that five former home secretaries, the current home secretary, Sir Hugh Orde (the former Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland), the leading US commander in Europe and twelve army generals have all argued that the UK is safer staying in the EU as oppose to leaving it. Proponents of a British exit need to prove that what those senior people are saying is wrong. After all, the aforementioned people have defended our country against terrorism and serious and organised crime and protected our borders for decades.

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