Our relationship with Europe continues to divide communities and generations. Many people see the relationship in terms of Europe’s economic value to us; some see it as a way of putting to rest forever the terrible wars that divided Europe for centuries, while for others it is a bulwark against oppressive regimes and it is a protection of citizens’ rights. Yet others see membership of the EU as a threat to national sovereignty and identity.
In the 1975 referendum, the British people voted to stay in Europe, with 62.7% voting yes. The referendum split the country and the then Labour Cabinet, and did not settle the question: almost immediately afterwards, anti-marketeers began their campaign to overturn the result. In the 2016 referendum, the people voted to leave Europe by a smaller margin; in my constituency, 53.2% voted to remain, compared with 46.8% who voted to leave.
I conducted a survey of constituents shortly after that vote, and I have just conducted another poll to see how people feel two years on. I sent out surveys to 4,500 households; 71% replied that they now feel that the people should have the final say on the Brexit deal, while 72% said that remaining in the EU should be an option in another referendum. The young were much more pro-Europe than older people: 83% of 25 to 49-year-olds said that there should be an option to remain, compared with 50% of those aged 64-plus. Of those who voted to leave, approximately a fifth either would now vote to remain or are undecided, with those in the 25-to-49 age bracket being most likely to have changed their mind.
The issue of sovereignty and what it means to be British, which was so important in 1975, continued as a strong thread in the replies to my 2016 and 2018 surveys. The latest survey contained many opposing views. For example, on respondent said:
“As a sovereign nation, I want the UK to remain in a community and work together to share information and provide mutual support”.
Conversely, another respondent said:
“We want our country back, our sovereignty, our laws.”
I voted to stay in Europe in 1975, partly for economic reasons. The economy—as probably no one present will recall—was in a very bad state, but my overriding reason was that as a young person I saw belonging to Europe as a break from the past, with the possibility of a better future. As a child, I was brought up in the shadow of the war because of the traumatic experiences of my parents and grandparents. Peace in Europe was an overwhelming prize for our generation. I wanted us to be a nation that took our place alongside other countries and contributed to the responsibility that the international community has to resolve some very challenging issues, such as climate change and migration.
Clearly, it was always going to be difficult to get support for the deal that the Prime Minister has brought back. Indeed, it is difficult to think of any deal that could win overwhelming support, because we all want very different outcomes. It is not very satisfactory for any option to be the majority view of the House by a handful of votes, which is why I believe that having another vote by the public on whatever option the House supports, together with the option to remain, is the only way forward. I do not think that another public vote will settle the issue of what our relationship with Europe should be; communities and generations will continue to be divided.
I believe that the younger generation will, in time, have a more settled view of what its relationship with Europe should be. It is only when that happens that this issue will be resolved. The only long-term solution to the issue of identity is time. However, in a public vote, people would be voting this time on proper, detailed options for the way forward, with the full knowledge of what a deal with the EU would look like, and with the option of voting to remain in the EU if that appeared a better option. Perhaps that could put back into the debate a space for rational consideration, which would be welcomed by many members of the public.