‘A chance, not a  grievance’

We need to talk about globalisation, Pat McFadden tells Richard Angell and Adam Harrison

Within weeks of the appointment of Pat McFadden as shadow minister for Europe, a succession of events and anniversaries would serve as stark reminders of the weight of history that bears down on the continent today: wrangles in the House of Commons over the European arrest warrant; the quartercentenary of the fall of the Berlin Wall; Catalans’ vote to secede from Spain; the marking of Armistice Day in the 100th year since the start of the first world war.

All this would be more than enough to daunt any politician assigned the task of forging a Europe policy from the benches of opposition, not least in a country that itself nearly fell foul of secessionist forces a matter of weeks earlier. But McFadden, a Scot representing an English seat, leaps on the chance to illustrate the interconnected nature of domestic, European and international politics, a theme he returns to often: ‘[The European arrest warrant] might have the word “European” in it … [but] there is a strong overlap now between issues that may stem from the European Union … and what happens at home. We shouldn’t regard this as foreign policy.’ He thus begins to sketch out a path forward not just for a politician tasked with fulfilling a role, but for a country which is trying to make sense of its place in the world. In doing so the former political secretary to Tony Blair echoes the sentiments expressed by his Downing Street colleague Jonathan Powell who argued in his book The New Machiavelli that the continued location of European matters in the Foreign Office means they are treated as ‘over there’.

In terms of the global situation today, the member of parliament for Wolverhampton South-east since 2005 goes beyond simply presenting an analysis to paint a picture. ‘In the last 20 or 30 years the world has become closer together … It’s not frozen as it was in the cold war, there’s a lot of change, and there’s a lot of movement and it is [movement of] people, capital and ideas.’ The word ‘leadership’ peppers his discussion of this volatility. ‘The big leadership question is: how do you respond to all this change?’ So how should Labour respond? The answer, he says, is to ‘set rules at all levels to govern a globalised but unstable world and which provides people with the opportunity to make the most of it. This is not a conversation we can have within the borders of Britain alone.

‘To think that you can relate to that world just through a national debate is a mistake … You do need some global rules to govern this world, and we’ve seen the response to the financial crisis try to develop those … It’s got to be a world with rules.’

The risk of an inward-looking debate has recently sharpened as the Scottish National party and the United Kingdom Independence party make the case for new borders with longstanding neighbours – the direct opposite of McFadden’s belief in facing the world as it is and making the most of its opportunities. He brackets the two parties together: ‘The SNP and Ukip … both believe that divorcing from your neighbours is the answer to your problems, they believe that pulling away from connections is the future rather than making those connections work better.’

The terrain they are cultivating is fertile, however. There is a ‘huge sense of loss’, he reflects, which is felt very deeply by many in the UK, and it is this which feeds the impulse to shrink from the outside world. But the solution to allaying fears of a globalised world lies in giving people the tools to reap the benefits of that world. ‘Our response has to be to make this connected world work better for people. And we really have a choice: you can feed on people’s grievances or you can give people a chance. And I think our policies should be around giving people a chance, not a grievance. That’s not a nationalist response, it’s a progressive response.’

The role of progressive politics, he argues, is to make the new world he has sketched out work better for people, without ignoring their concerns. ‘When you have a lot more movement you have effects that are literally disruptive, sometimes that can cause unease, sometimes people say, “Is this too much, too quickly?” And we shouldn’t dismiss these questions, they’re important. And so we should respond to them in a way that helps with the change and helps to make it work better.’

Such analysis is close to that adopted during Labour’s time in power as the world globalised and borders melted away. It is perhaps this that leads the shadow minister for Europe to reflect on that time and what might have been done differently: ‘One of the things I would look at is [that] we did a certain amount to challenge underperformance in education, and we made some progress on that and progress that we should be proud of … Did we make as much change in expanding educational opportunity for everyone as we could have? Were there interests where we should have worked harder to get over that were stopping that? I’m not sure that was always the case.’ He presses his point home with quite some fervour: ‘Are there still parts of the country where the family or the economic circumstances you were born in still dictate too much the opportunity you will get? Yes there are. For a party of the centre-left that should be a cause that we take up with a passion, because the best response to globalisation is to give people the opportunity to succeed in it, whatever their background.’

The rise of Ukip makes this even more important, not least when it comes to immigration, and his urgent tone returns as soon as we broach the issue. ‘We’ve been talking about immigration as though it’s some kind of disease that needs to be treated, rather than a fact of life that has to be coped with. So there is an important difference between the rules around which a more global world operates, and trying to opt out of it. The thing for a progressive, centre-left party not to do is to cross the line into trying to opt out of these changes.’

‘The fundamental difference between the Blair-led government and the current government,’ McFadden goes on, ‘is that when we argued the case in the EU – and you always win some battles and lose some battles – we did it as a country that was trying to exert a leading influence within the EU. That means you work with others where you share a common interest and you try to get the best outcome. There is a difference between that and continually threatening to leave. This is important because the Tories set out a case that continually threatening to leave means you get the best deal.’ He is scathing in his assessment of David Cameron – the prime minister’s behaviour has been slipshod rather than deliberate, and as a consequence is deeply negligent: ‘It is bad enough to have led Britain closer to the exit door if that was a thought-out strategy from the prime minister. You know, “Brexit by design” would be one option. It wouldn’t be an option I support, but it would be one option. But “Brexit by default” through a strategy of throwing bones to your backbenchers, or trying to fend off a nationalist threat in the form of Ukip, is a bigger abdication of leadership than “Brexit by design”.’

The UK could now be slipping down a dangerous path with its prime minister not in control of events. ‘There’s been a view that we can just flirt with exit from the European Union as though this is costless, but it isn’t costless … Senior figures in the European Union are beginning to now lose patience with [Cameron]. They’re beginning to wonder if their efforts to keep Britain in the EU are worth the candle and I think that’s a dangerous moment for Britain’.

McFadden speaks with genuine passion and refers to himself as a political ‘optimist’, clearly enjoying the new role bestowed upon him by the Labour leader. With a clearmindedness about his role and a willingness to talk to Labour voters about a brighter tomorrow, there are few better fits for this role. The main thing missing is his seat at the shadow cabinet table. But his former colleague Powell provides an answer: ‘a prudent prime minister would move [Europe] to the Cabinet Office headed by a cabinet-level minister for Europe.’ Fingers crossed that Miliband is that prime minister.

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