Replace ""

Burnham For Mayor

Friday, 18 March 2016

Roscoe Lecture on the patriotic case for remaining in the EU

My subject for this lecture tonight is the European Referendum and I want to do something that may sound counter-intuitive: I want to make the patriotic case for remaining in the EU.

The way this debate is being presented you might be led to think that the true British patriots are all on the other side. I want to put it to you that it is a vote to Remain that is true to Britain's roots, its traditions, its identity.

Now you may remember that I have given speeches in Liverpool before that have ended up in me being booed and heckled by thousands. 

And I know that, in choosing this topic, I am potentially risking a repeat.

You may take a different view from the one that I am about to express. You may already be fed up of hearing about the EU.
But, to be honest, we need to start talking more about it. We will never cast a more important vote.

That's because it will shape what kind of country Britain is, and how we are seen by the rest of the world, for the remainder of the 21st century.

It is an appropriate topic for a lecture in honour of the great William Roscoe.

He was both a great internationalist and never one to shy away from taking up the controversial topics of the day.

In 1807, in his long polemical poem about the slave trade, "The Wrongs of Africa", Roscoe warns:

"Forget not, Britain, higher still than thee, sits the great Judge of Nations, who can weigh the wrong, and who can repay."

It caused a ferment amongst the angry merchants of Liverpool who, in that year, made £17 million from the slave trade - when you think about it, an obscene amount of money back then.

So, true to that controversial spirit, I want to start by asking you to imagine that it's the evening of Friday 24th June and you are at home watching the reaction to the Referendum result.

Pictures of Boris Johnson hugging Michael Gove are filling our TV screens. I think that entitles you to go and open a bottle of something.

What would you be thinking?

If you work in Liverpool John Moores University or any other academic institution, you might immediately be worrying about the future of your research funding.

If you work for a company that does a lot of business abroad, you might be wondering whether your European customers will be a little distant with you on the phone come Monday morning.

If you are an older person who has a property in Europe, you would instantly feel uncertain about your retirement plans.

If you are a younger person at university, you will begin to wonder how this will affect your career opportunities.

If you are an EU national living here, like my wife, you will probably feel slightly less welcome than you did.

Britain will instantly feel like a different place. More insular, more uncertain.

It's worrying, but it is where we may well be heading.

Why is that? 

In part, I think it is down to the style of the different campaigns.

The Remain campaign is an appeal to the head. 

The Leave campaign is an appeal to the heart.

The Remain campaign has put forward a formidable and unanswerable statistical case setting out the risks to our economy, rightly amplified yesterday by the Chancellor.  It has an appeal to the heart too but it isn't being heard.

It is the messages of the Leave campaignthat hit home more directly.

I think they are getting away with too much. That's why, tonight, I want to take on the Leave campaign on their own turf.

To listen to them, you would think that only they are the torch-bearers for British patriotism. The only true Brits. If you want to save the country, you must vote Brexit.

This, as I will show, is profoundly misleading. 

They a peddling a fraudulent form of British patriotism that does not offer a return to Britain's past but a decisive break from it.

So I want to tell you where true patriotism lies in this debate and St George's Hall seems a pretty apt place to do it.

I'm going to start by saying something that I think people don't hear anything like enough from people on the Left of politics.

I love this country, our country. I feel proud to be British. I don't subscribe to the current fashion of putting more narrow loyalties first - I am British before I am English.

I love what Britain has always stood up for as a country - for the underdog against the bully. I love the fact that our ancestors on this small island managed to punch well above its weight.

And this brings me to the first of my three arguments which form my patriotic case for remaining in Europe. 

If we vote to leave, Britain would be instantly diminished as a nation. We would lose influence on the world stage and in the eyes of other countries. Britain would be a lesser force.

Let me explain why.

In 1948, Winston Churchill gave a speech in Llandudno in which he said Britain drew its strength as a nation from its position at the heart of what he called "three majestic circles": the Commonwealth; the English-speaking world; and a United Europe.

He said: "We are the only country which has a great part in every one of them. We stand, in fact, at the very point of junction, and here in this island at the centre of the seaways and perhaps of the airways also, we have the opportunity of joining them all together."

And we seized that opportunity. We have always been an outward-looking nation, highly-engaged in world affairs. We carved out for ourselves that unique and powerful place in the world that Churchill foresaw - a bridgehead between the US and Europe, explaining Europe to the US and the US back to Europe. 

It is from that crucial strategic position that Britain has drawn great strength and boosted the national interest.

If we vote to leave the EU, we would be surrendering that role. We would be instantly weaker, less influential. Why would any true patriot vote for that?

In the inevitable disputes that would follow divorce, the US would be left in an awkward position. They would have to choose between siding with their old friend out of sympathy or not falling out of favour with the powerful partner.

This wouldn't just diminish Britain, it would destabilise the world. The strong alliance between Europe and the US, the shared values and outlook, helps keep our world steady and broadly sane. Any cracks that appeared in it would be exploited by our enemies.

This brings me to my second argument as to why I think that it would be unpatriotic to vote for Britain to leave the EU: it would leave Britain more vulnerable to external aggression and attack.

To make my point, I pose a simple question: who would be happier if we left the EU - President Obama or President Putin? 

I don't think there's any doubt about it: there would be weeping in the White House and whooping in the Kremlin.

That feels to me like a clinching argument for Remain on its own.

All of a sudden, Russia would be next door to a weaker EU but an even weaker Britain.

In recent times, Russia has been making incursions into UK airspace on a regular basis. If we left the EU, would that provocation be likely to get better or worse?

The truth is that the EU has shown itself capable of standing up to Russian aggression.

In the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea, sanctions were imposed that have had a real impact. 

And that's the point - the economic sanctions that the world's largest market can impose don't just protect each Member State from external aggression, they have the potential to be so feared that they make military action less likely to be needed. And that in turn makes the world safer.

If Britain was to leave the collective protection of the EU, the economic sanctions we could muster alone would have much less impact, which in turn would mean that military measures would be turned to more frequentlyThat wouldn't make us or the world safer.

And how would isolation from Europe help in the fight against the greatest and most urgent threat we face - international terrorism?

The simple answer is it wouldn't. It would make it more difficult. 

I can remember vividly being in the Home Office on 7/7 as the bombs went off in London and on 21/7 when there was a failed bombing attempt. It was a frightening time.

I can remember Home Office officials coming in to my office and telling me that they thought one of the failed bombers had left the country through the Eurostar terminal at Waterloo. Intelligence suggested he was in Italy. They asked me to approve an urgent application for one of the new European Arrest Warrants.

Within a matter of weeks, he was back in Britain to face justice. 

The former Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Keir Starmer, has told me that, if we had still had the old system, we would be lucky if he was touching down about now.

One of the things that I find interesting in this debate is the change in the attitude of the Home Secretary, Theresa May.

When she took office in 2010, she began by striking a decidedly Eurosceptic note and opted out of a huge number of measures on European cooperation. She cast doubt on the need for the European Arrest Warrant.

But look at what has happened since. She has slowly but surely been opting back into many EU measures, most recently on the sharing of fingerprint and vehicle registration data.

Confronted with the reality of the office she holds, she has seen how European cooperation speeds things up and makes us safer.

Her political journey is itself a powerful advert to stay in and evidence that a vote to leave would weaken our national defences. Again, I ask, how could any true patriot vote for that?

But the third argument in this patriotic case to remain is arguably the most powerful: Brexit would not prefigure a return to Britain's past but would signal a break from it. It would be a denial of who we are.  It would make us a different country to the one we have been.

Let me explain.

It didn't surprise me when Boris Johnson and Michael Gove signed up for Brexit. I'm tempted to say it's because they have never understood the value and power of unions.

But, thankfully, unlike them, Britain always has.

Perhaps because of our geography and size, Brits have always been bridge-builders, not isolationists.

We have spent centuries painstakingly building unions between countries, not breaking them up.

We started by putting our own house in order.

For centuries, England and Scotland were at each other throats. 
Then came the Act of Union in 1707 and, in the three hundred years since, the only thing that got broken were the goalposts at Wembley.

From that stability at home, Britain sought to build its influence aboard. The British Empire may leave people with decidedly mixed feelings to say the least but by 1949 it had developed into a union of 53 free and equal States called the Commonwealth with the aim of spreading human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

In the post-war period, we were the instigators of those powerful unions that still persist today - NATO and the United Nations.

But here's the point that I think clinches my argument: the person who most people would look to as the father of our own nation was also the founding father of the European Union.

On 19 September 1946, Winston Churchill made an extraordinary speech called the Tragedy of Europe at the University of Zurich.

Let me quote from it.

"If Europe were once united in the sharing of its common inheritance, there would be no limit to the happiness, prosperity and glory which its 300 million or 400 million people would enjoy. Yet it is from Europe that has sprung a series of frightful nationalistic quarrels which in this 20th century wreck the peace and mar the prospects of all mankind.

"Yet all the while there is a remedy which would as by a miracle transform the whole scene and would in a few years make all Europe, or the greater part of it, as free and happy as Switzerland is today. What is this sovereign remedy? It is to recreate the European fabric and to provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, safety and freedom. We must build a kind of United States of Europe. In this way only will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living."

Churchill's incredible and inspiring vision came to pass and freed the ordinary people of Europe from conflict.
The EU isn't some alien anti-British creation, as Boris Johnson claimed this week, but a British achievement - even, dare I say it, a Conservative success story.

It is what our country has been about. It is what we have built.

What true patriot would turn his or her back on all that and deny our past?

Whatever our frustrations with it - and, yes, I have many - the European Union has spectacularly achieved the goals that Churchill set for it - peace and prosperity.

And this is the point about Brexit.

It is to start down a road that doesn't end with leaving Europe.

It would create a domino effect that could end up knocking over those other unions that Britain has spent 300 years patiently building.

This week, the Head of the United StatesArmy Europe, Lt-Gen Ben Hodges, said that a British vote to leave the EU could have a negative impact on the NATO alliance. "The UK is such an important member of the alliance. It is a leader of the alliance. It is a leader in Europe. If the EU begins to unravel, there can't help but be a knock-on effect for the alliance also."

And let's be clear - Brexit would threaten the future of our own 300 year Union.

The First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon has openly said that a vote to leave would "almost certainly" trigger a second independence referendum.

If there is a feeling that England has dragged Scotland out of the EU against its will, then it would surely follow that the likelihood of a vote for independence would be greatly increased.

So the unions start to fall like dominos, one by one - built by Britain over centuries but broken in an instant.

And where would this leave us?

On a one-way ticket to inglorious isolation for England.

This is why I say the Brexiters are peddling a fraudulent form of British patriotism.

In fact, if they get their way, it won't be patriotism but nationalism that wins the day.

Brexit would boost the nascent nationalism that we see here and across Europe.

Patriotism is to love who we are and what we have been as a country. Nationalism is to think we are better than everyone else. 

And that in the end is what I think the Leave campaign is about.

Far from being about patriotism, Brexit is in fact a recipe for nationalism.

This brings me to a final more personal reflection.

The idea for this lecture grew out of a visit I made to Ypres with my children during the February half-term. 

We visited the trenches, the farmland that was once the battlegrounds. We went to the main museum and saw the display of the recruitment posters used by the British Army.
What was so striking about them was the appeal they made to the volunteers - not a call to arms to defend Britain, but to help Belgium.

Doesn't that say something truly marvellous about us? 

Such an inspiring internationalist spirit feels a far cry from the narrow, nationalistic mood of our times.

But I also have to say that the immaculately-kept cemeteries and the sounding of the Last Post at the Menin Gate every single day says something marvellous about the Belgian people too.

These are our friends and neighbours, not our enemies. We have been through a lot together. With the 21st Century looking increasingly unstable and unpredictable, why choose now to go it alone?

One of the reasons for the visit was because I want my own children to know their own history.

My great-grandfather, Edmund Burke was a Private in the King's Liverpool Regiment. He was descended from Irish immigrants who came to this city to work on the docks and lived less than a mile from here on Commercial Road.
I am very proud to say he was an early Evertonian. My grandmother's only memory of him was him coming home from Goodison Park on his last visit home from the Western Front and performing Irish dancing for him with her sisters.

That was 100 years ago this year. He returned to the Front and, in September 1916, was taken a prisoner of war at the battle of Guillemont. He died in a concentration camp on October 28 1918 - two weeks before the end of the war.

I want to read a passage from his last letter home to his brother Walter. 

"Well Walter I am in touch with Irish Division, Dublin & Connaughts and I had a good talk over Old Ireland. Walter, there's thousands of Irish boys here and I may tell you it is God help the Boche if they come across them and then they say Ireland is not doing her share in this war."

Ned’s words are a reminder that so many of us Brits have immigrant roots.  

If he were alive today I wonder what he would say to me – apart from go and have a few Guinesses to celebrate Paddy’s day.

He would undoubtedly have been worried that a vote to leave would separate usmore from Ireland.  And I'm certain he would have hated that.

But the main thing he would say to me would surely be not to forget the lessons of his past - and not to let the history of the last century repeat itself in this.

Peace in Europe seems now to be taken for granted. It is asserted there will never be a return to the tension and the conflict of the past. But how can we be so sure?

Breaking away from any group is always a recipe for confrontation and conflict. It never makes you safer.

If Ned was fighting for anything, it was against nationalistic aggression and for peace in Europe.

In the first half of the last century, Europe was wracked by conflict and war. In the second half of the 20th century, Europe became peaceful, stable, prosperous.

That was Britain’s momentous achievement.

If I think now about how I honour my great-grandfather's sacrifice, I am in no doubt it is to carry on fighting for a more united, less nationalistic Europe.

But I am worried that I am letting him down. I am worried that we are going down without a fight.

You may remember how a former colleague of mine, Jim Murphy, took to the streets to make the case for Scotland staying in Britain. 

The Remain campaign needs a bit of the same spirit and that is why I intend to start a tour of my own street meetings in the month after the local elections.

Now is the time to stand up and be counted.

Your country could be about to be taken off you.

I realise that not everyone will feel the same way as I do. And, to those who don't, I thank you for giving me the courtesy of letting me make my argument tonight.

But, to those of you who do, I say this - let's take this fight on.

And I say in particular to the young people here, this debate should be yours, take hold of it, don’t let an older generation who have enjoyed all the benefits of post-war Europe deny them to you.
I say to everyone - don't diminish this great country of ours.

Don't let them define how we are seen by the rest of the world.

Don't let them make us something we're not and have never been - a country which turns it back.

Let's fight them on the beaches of what it means to be British and reclaim that ground.

Let's be true to what we've always stood for and always should.

Let's honour the memory of those who fought to bring peace to Europe.

Vote IN for the Britain we know and love.