Should We Really Choose Isolationism? Open Letter To MPs

02/09/2016 14:34 | Updated 02 September 2016

Dear Member of Parliament,

We are living in turbulent times. After a long period of largely positive globalisation, characterised by progressive international collaboration and economic and political alignment, the global economy is stagnating. Mass migration, particularly caused by the Syrian conflict and ISIS, is placing severe strain on Europe and the wider international community. Racial tensions are exacerbating cultural and ethnic divisions. Terrorism is an ever-present and increasingly insidious threat. As a result of all this, nationalism is once again on the rise. Nowhere is all of this more keenly felt than in Europe.

On Monday, 5th September, Parliament will hold a debate on whether to hold a second EU referendum.

The referendum result has placed the UK at a crossroads. Where the UK goes from here will not only determine the future of the UK, but will have a big impact on the EU as well, and by extension the international community.

I urge you to attend the debate, and to engage in the discussion openly and constructively.

In doing so, there are two key things which I ask you to please consider.

The first of these is what we understand by democracy.

As I and others have already argued, democracy does not begin or end with a referendum. Democracy in this country - the result of many centuries of historical antecedents - requires Parliament to pronounce itself before a law is passed and binding decisions are made.

You will agree that MPs are elected to Parliament to discuss, debate and vote on matters of national significance in accordance with their best judgement and with their conscience. In doing so, they are called upon to act in the best interests of the country, not just their constituents, particularly on matters of great national and international importance.

It would be simpler, in some ways, to consider the EU referendum result final and refuse to question it, as some have indeed done. That, however, is not what democracy demands. From a democratic and constitutional perspective, the legal consensus is clear: Parliament must speak before decisions affecting this country's future are made. And you, as a Member of Parliament, have a crucial role to play in what happens next. The UK, as a country which respects and is governed by the rule of law, must not, whether deliberately or inadvertently, subvert the democratic process for the sake of political expediency.

The second, and equally important, issue, is what this means for the very fabric of British society.

Already we have seen a sharp increase in hate crime, which some have described as an increasing "normalisation" of xenophobia, and which has directly resulted from the EU referendum. This has been roundly and rightly condemned by MPs across nearly all political lines. But this violence and prejudice is the mark of a nation which has already begun withdrawing within itself. A toxic belief system centred around notions of national purity and national superiority, once confined to the shadows, has now reared its head again, and it will increasingly influence and shape British society the further the UK drifts towards isolationism.

Those who wish to leave the EU at all costs do so from a purely ideological perspective - and though they might not admit it, that ideology is intrinsically and unmistakably isolationist.

Economically, isolationism in an increasingly interconnected world is retrograde at best, crazy at worst. Socially and culturally, it breeds ignorance, prejudice and intolerance.

Some have sought to play down the risks of isolationism by arguing that we can somehow be out of the EU but still remain as much a part of "Europe" as ever, indeed so much so that we will hardly notice the difference. This "halfway house" view ignores the fact that today, to all effects and purposes, Europe is the EU. There is no "Europe" outside the EU except from a purely geographical, and therefore entirely academic, perspective. The EU is the countries of Europe, and it will be what the countries of Europe, its Member States, wish it to be. There is no separate, alternative or meaningful relationship with an alternative "Europe" that does not involve the EU.

Moreover, the very thin majority which returned the result on 23rd June is at best dubious today, now that the implications of leaving the EU - economically, politically, and more broadly for our own society - have become clearer, and now that the public debate is no longer dominated by the outright lies and the ugly and divisive rhetoric which we heard throughout the referendum campaign. It is far from clear that the same referendum would produce the same outcome were it held today - in fact the opposite is more likely.

In summary:

The issue of Brexit, and the debate which will take place on 5th September, is about much more than trade deals or even simply leaving the EU itself.

This is a debate about the meaning of democracy, and the role of Parliament in a democratic country governed by the rule of law.

It is about what kind of society we want to live in, and our children to grow up in.

And it is about whether isolationism is the vision that we share for the future of the UK.

Brexit is not a done deal. Isolationism is not the inevitable path that we must now begrudgingly follow despite our better instincts.

Do not fear the angry voices which only wish you to rubberstamp the EU referendum result, regardless of its many flaws and whatever the consequences for the nation and indeed the Union. Refuse to be shouted down by those whose eagerness to "leave the EU" overrides their concern for the best interests of our nation and all of its people, and blinds them to the very real dangers of pursuing an isolationist path. These are not the people who should be determining the country's future for all of us.

Do not let a sense of obligation towards a referendum result as flawed as this one and on something as far-reaching as this lead you to endorse an outcome which you know is wrong for our country, wrong for our continent and contrary to the principles which most of us hold dear.

Above all, reject and stand up to isolationism. Do not let the politics of fear subdue this country's great tradition of democracy by imposing a "tyranny of the majority", which many political thinkers from Plato through to the prominent Utilitarian John Stuart Mill warned against. Doing so would do as great a disservice to democracy itself as to the people of this country.

Consider instead what kind of country we want to collectively build, what role we want our nation to play in the modern world, and let the values of a confident, progressive-minded and outward-looking nation guide this discussion.

One things is for certain: none of this will be achieved by cutting ourselves loose and building a wall around ourselves.