Despite being drawn from different political parties, all of us campaigned proudly and passionately for Britain to remain in the European Union. The result was not the one we wanted, but of course we respect the democratically expressed verdict of the British people.
The UK may have voted to leave the EU, but the certainty ends there. What does Brexit actually mean? Europe will continue to be our biggest trading partner and a pivotal ally in a range of areas, from national security to climate change. The negotiations to leave will be long and complex with unprecedented stakes, not least maintaining the Union. All of us who value our United Kingdom must be vigilant against the result being used as a catalyst to break it up.
Those of us on the centre ground cannot afford to leave others to answer the many fundamental questions now being asked. For some the referendum result represents an outright and permanent rejection of globalisation and a return to another era by pulling up the drawbridge. Others see it is a chance to dismantle the drawbridge altogether and cut loose in the global marketplace through mass deregulation. For a few, anti-immigration populism is more than a temporary political strategy.
For us, none of these interpretations is right. Nostalgia is not a strategy. Internationalism and interdependence are perpetual and essential for prosperity and security and it is now more important than ever that we champion and protect an open society.
If we interpret the referendum result as a vote for a more insular and less inclusive country, or one in which the only way to advance working people’s living standards is to turn our face against the world, we will have converted a defeat into a tragedy. The challenge now is to renew the case for Open Britain.
We do not believe that a vote to leave the EU was a vote for a closed Britain. We believe we are at our best when we are open — open-minded, open for business, open to trade and investment, open to talent and hard work, open to Europe and to the world. That is what we are campaigning for.
However, we must learn lessons. June 23 was a moment of change. The strength of feeling is clear. Free movement of people cannot continue as it has done. It has to be reformed. This was not an expression of prejudice but rather a desire for managed migration and concern that rapid immigration can put pressure on public services and local communities. Britain must be open to talent, but with more ability to act if excessive competition in labour markets hurts our economy.
For too long we have ducked an open debate over immigration. That was true in the referendum campaign but it is also true of all the major political parties in the past decade or more. As a result, untruths have been allowed to prosper and a balanced debate never materialised, leading many to feel that legitimate concerns were being dismissed. This must change. Calls for reform must sit with a positive argument about the benefits that immigration brings.
Concern about immigration is part of a wider view that the global economy doesn’t work for all. However, focusing on immigration alone will not answer people’s genuine grievances about lack of opportunity, low-paid jobs and the barriers that stand in the way of a fairer, more equal society.
Those who rejected economic warnings in the referendum campaign did so because they themselves felt rejected by the political mainstream and faced an economy that was failing to spread opportunity. Inequalities in growth and living standards have been laid bare but, in our view, people didn’t reject the global economy — their vote was a call to share more equally in it.
There is no path to prosperity that does not include competing with other major economies, integrating into global supply chains, attracting international investment and ideas or developing new sectors. Post June 23, we know that an argument for a global economy must acknowledge the limits of free trade alone to deliver higher living standards for all. An open economy must be coupled with a national strategy to deliver more equitable economic gains through regional regeneration, investment in infrastructure and far wider educational opportunities.
For an Open Britain to be a fairer Britain we must reject false choices, whether between being open to the world and remaining in the EU’s single market; whether between a competitive economy and protections for workers and consumers; between being open to talent and having greater control over immigration; or between embracing change and valuing tradition.
In this new context Open Britain, which will be launching this week, will be a cross-party grassroots campaign for Britain to have the best possible relationship with Europe in the future now that the country has voted to leave. This means working closely on trade, security, workers’ rights and environmental protection.
We will want to shape the debate in parliament but, more importantly, in the country as well and will be organising campaigning activity in all regions. We want to be for the 100%, not just the 48% who voted “remain”, because while division may have characterised the result on June 23, we refuse to accept that we have to be a divided country.
Anna Soubry MP is a former Conservative business minister.
Pat McFadden MP is a former Labour business minister.
Norman Lamb MP is a former Liberal Democrat health minister
Sign-up at: http://www.open-britain.co.uk/