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Freedom, Not Fantasy

22/06/2016 11:17 | Updated 22 June 2016

Freedom's fruits may seem a better bet for many voters, than the EU's economic uncertainty.

Britain's referendum campaign has ended as it began, with uncertainties - over the likely result and over what a vote either way will bring.

In these final days the 'Remain' side is keen to ratchet up the economic uncertainty a leave vote could pose, though whether this will pay off is not clear. People throughout the campaign have shown themselves impervious to the tone of menace, taking the threats and dire warnings with a pinch of salt. Even when the chorus of doom reached crescendo during the campaign with the Treasury's gloomy reports being echoed by the IMF and the Bank of England heads, two thirds of those polled foresaw no negative impact on their finances after a Brexit vote. And as late as this week we heard voters confirm on a BBC news progamme that 'no', they did not 'believe' the official analysis. More potent for them may be the picture the EU evokes. High unemployment especially in Spain, Italy and Greece has blighted the lives of millions, with dreadful levels of joblessness hitting the young (c.40-50 percent). More generally, the picture is of political instability, insecurity and extremism casting its shadow westwards across the bloc even the once proud capitals of the EU's founder states.

The real problem for the remain side is not so much that enough people don't believe it. Rather it fails to understand Britain's political culture and the tradition in which remain politicians are themselves participants, one which has emerged over centuries. That identity has been characterised by a perception of freedom - freedom for people to make their own laws, to stand up to and limit arbitrary executive power. Its focus has been parliament, described in recent centuries to be the 'guardian' and symbol of the country's freedoms. As the great labour parliamentarian and former minister, Tony Benn put it in the 1980s, 'through talk, we tamed kings, restrained tyrants, averted revolution'.

By the 19th century that freedom extended to the power to elect MPs and governments and to remove them if necessary from office. No country could boast as lively a popular interest in and knowledge of politics. People and their politicians combined to promote through parliament the great causes of the day such as free trade and parliamentary reform. By then the party politics we know today had emerged. Two main political parties made up of shifting alliances, pursuing shifting interests, exploited events and causes to their party advantage. Great popular political movements shaped politics and economics such as the movement to repeal the Corn Laws in the 1830s and 40s as did its party political aftermath for over a hundred years. Politicians too could make common cause with the people. And, far from bribing the voters with their own money, or scaring them with unproven fears, politicians made political and electoral capital by appealing to the sceptical, pragmatic, side of the voters. That was summed up by two of the last century's most successful prime ministers when they told the voters they would not make them [false] promises of utopia.

It may well be that for a large proportion of Britain's people the idea of the EU being a source of prosperity for Britain belongs to the realms of fantasy. It may be that they, no more than the politicians painting the idyllic scene, simply don't know. However, the likelihood is that many people will vote leave because of one certainty, the certainty that if they do, they will regain the freedom for this country to make its own laws, forge its own destiny through parliament, elect its own rulers and remove them when things go wrong. British people have shown that they use that power wisely to bring change, stability and prosperity at home. They have also empowered their governments to use it to promote co-operation and security abroad. These things are the fruits of freedom, of the parliamentary sovereignty which has allowed the people of Britain to decide how, and by whom, their country is ruled.

Sheila Lawlor is Director of Politeia which this week publishes her Ruling the Ruler: Parliament, the People and Britain's Political Identity.

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