Wednesday 3rd January 2018
Vince Cable, Leader of the Liberal Democrats and MP for Twickenham
Not in living memory have politicos gathered for their conferences at such an uncertain time for the country. It becomes clearer by the day that the referendum last year set Britain on a profoundly rocky course. How different the reality has proved from the rosy picture painted by the Leave campaign last year.
Far from leading the Brexit negotiations with muscle, the Government has resorted to feeble position papers which simply hope others will be “flexible and imaginative” in resolving what are inherently insuperable difficulties. The most supple and inventive thinker cannot, for example, avoid the simple truth that coming out of the customs union and single market creates a huge problem on the island of Ireland. Our Government’s response appears to be to ask the European Union to allow an open border into their customs union, just at the same time as the UK seeks to pull up the drawbridge to EU citizens. Their approach is fanciful and damaging in equal measure.
For those Conservatives who still respect Margaret Thatcher, they should remember she exalted the benefits of a European single market economically, and of full membership of the European institutions politically. She told the House of Commons a little over thirty years ago that: “If we were outside the Community with a very powerful group on the continent of Europe, we would be able to feel the draught very clearly.” She was right, and now Britain is beginning to feel the chill.
The Liberal Democrats are, therefore, determined to defend UK membership as crucial to the future of the British economy, and we will continue to campaign for an “exit from Brexit” referendum. The public must be allowed to choose between the reality of ‘the final deal’ – the details of which were never explored during either the referendum or this year’s general election – and remaining a full member of the EU. We argue that not only as an end in itself but because putting Britain at huge economic risk threatens the very public services and housing we need to make Britain a fairer and more equal country.
I grew up in a more egalitarian Britain, where my parents progressed over 20 years from being factory workers living in a terraced house with an outside loo to being part of the professional class living in a detached house. Jarring inequalities, caused in part by an over-heated housing market, and perpetuated by the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ of inherited wealth, make those memories all too distant.
A radical expansion of housebuilding – not relying on the whims of the private sector – is needed if we are to address the vexed question of housing supply. And I want to see a reformed system of wealth taxation which hypothecates all or some of the proceeds to helping young people, whether through Further or Higher Education. It is time to make a reality of ‘parity of esteem’ between these two sectors, recognising that the 60 per cent who do not attend university should be given every opportunity to succeed.
Likewise, it is time to go further in bringing together the different elements of the British labour market. Save for the slow motion Brexit train crash over which she is presiding, addressing executive pay has, perhaps, been the Prime Minister’s most abject failure. Radical measures like placing workers on boards, and annual votes on the pay packages of senior figures, have been placed on ice. Until they are revived, excess will continue to reign in the board room, while low wages remain a feature of the other end of the labour market.
Britain has huge strengths. Culturally rich, economically well placed, and situated on the doorstep of the largest and wealthiest market of consumers in the world, our country could be achieving so much if it were not for the massive distraction and self-harm that the Brexit debate has wreaked. But politics is never about giving in. A brighter future is still possible, and the Liberal Democrats will work with others in all parties and none to secure it.