Labour’s case can be progressive and patriotic
A progressive, centre-left campaign to remain in the European Union must appeal to people’s sense of patriotism. Our membership makes our country stronger, more modern and better equipped to deal with the challenges that we face now and in the future. Eurosceptics have always tried to claim the mantle of patriotism but leaving the EU would make Britain weaker, more backward-looking, isolated and less prosperous.
The majority of Britons are patriotic. According to a recent social attitudes survey, only 10 per cent of British people say they are not proud to be British. There is significant trust in the institutions that bind us together – such as the monarchy, our armed forces and the BBC – and Britons like to feel that we are punching above our weight in the world. The Labour case for our EU membership should tap into that sense of British identity and pride.
The progressive, patriotic argument must go beyond the dry facts. Of course, we should highlight the jobs and investment that our EU membership brings. We trade more with other countries in the EU than the rest of the world. Being a gateway to the internal market is vital to attracting overseas investment. Indian-owned Jaguar Land Rover has recently built a multimillion-pound engine factory on the outskirts of my own constituency in Wolverhampton, creating thousands of jobs. In other parts of the country, the automotive industry and other key industries are sustaining our manufacturing base and bringing prosperity and jobs to local people. The City of London’s pre-eminence in financial services is bolstered, not weakened, by our EU membership.
But our economic message must strike a chord with the patriotic vision of Britain that we share. Our country has for centuries been a trading nation – open, outward-looking and international. Napoleon called us a nation of shopkeepers. He meant it as an insult but we have a proud history of buying and selling goods across the world.
And our EU membership not only attracts jobs and investment, but also means that we can lead in Europe. Norway is in an unenviable position. It has access to the single market, pays into the EU budget and has to abide by the rules without having a seat at the negotiating table. We do not want to be reduced to that. A more ambitious prime minister would aim to shape the European agenda, not just react to it. As Gordon Brown recently wrote, ‘the true patriotic course for Britain is not just to engage but to lead in Europe – with progressive British values to the fore.’
It is those progressive British values of fairness, solidarity and social justice that underpin ‘social Europe’. The last Labour government signed up to the social chapter which promotes and protects workers’ rights across the EU. The Labour movement is united in strongly opposing any attempt by David Cameron to weaken those rights. But there are no circumstances in which we should campaign for British exit. If we want to protect workers’ rights the answer is not to leave the EU, but to win the EU referendum and get rid of this Tory government so that we can start to lead in Europe again.
In the postwar period, British prime ministers from both major political parties provided that leadership. They were a driving force in establishing international organisations. Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin were instrumental in setting up Nato. Winston Churchill pioneered the idea of the Council of Europe. Edward Heath took us into the then European Economic Community and Harold Wilson led the campaign which persuaded the British people that our membership was in our national interest.
The judgement of our postwar leaders was that Britain is stronger and more resilient in meeting the challenges that we face as a member of these international institutions. The world looks very different today. But it is still the case that cooperation and collectivism make us better able to tackle the challenges we face now and in the future; from increased global migration to climate change, cross-border crime and terrorism, and energy insecurity. Europe’s leaders have so far failed to provide a solution to the refugee crisis. But this is a failure of leadership rather than an institutional failure. If we did not have the forum of the EU, we would be in an even worse situation.
We must not concede the mantle of patriotism to the Eurosceptics on the left or the right. An isolated Britain would be weaker, more inward-looking and less able to deal with the big issues of our times. Theirs is not a patriotic, but a deeply pessimistic, vision of our country. Pro-Europeans must project a stronger and optimistic Britain, standing tall in the world and better able to deal with the challenges that we face. To win the referendum, Labour must offer this progressive and patriotic case. We must go beyond the technical facts and figures. Only then will our arguments resonate with people’s sense of British identity and pride.
Emma Reynolds MP is a former shadow minister for Europe
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