On Tuesday 29th November, European Movement UK hosted ‘The Battle for the Soul of our Country: In Conversation with the Big 4’. 150 of our members and esteemed guests joined us at The Magic Circle, London, along with around 1,000 more joining virtually to hear from Lord Michael Heseltine, Sir Vince Cable, Caroline Lucas MP and Former MEP for London, Seb Dance. Hosting the evening was LBC’s esteemed Sangita Myska.
The event promised an exploration of everything from Brexit to human rights, the economy to climate change, the progress we’ve made and the challenges we must still overcome, and it did not disappoint. The discussion ranged from immigration to the government's stance on Brexit, the relationship between still European and climate change with the cost-of-living crisis taking centre stage.
The event was a celebration of European Movement UKs cross-party relationships, to demonstrate that, despite four of Britain’s most senior and respected politicians having differing views on a plethora of issues, they are all united in the view that Brexit isn’t working and that only together can we reverse the calamity of Brexit and win the Battle for the Soul of our Country.
Sangita started the evening by quoting the opening lines to Charles Dicken’s ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, using this to outline the lay of the land and discuss the worsening and terrible conditions facing people and families up and down the country with growing numbers having to turn to food banks and choosing between “heating and eating”.
Sangita turned first to Michael Heseltine, asking whether we are living through the worst of times, or if the outlook for British people had been as bad during any other time during his career.
Heseltine spoke about the winter of discontent, his confrontation with the miners and other frightening times in British history that occurred even before he started his time, but he stated that he’d never “seen anything like this”. Finishing by stating however that “It’s irrelevant to compare, what is worse or better, but that we must focus on what we do with our present predicament”.
The conversation moved on to the general distrust amongst the public for politicians in the current climate. Sangita then asked if it’s a new phenomenon that politicians are seen as deceptive and untruthful. Lord Heseltine went on to say that this is nothing new and that politicians have always in some ways been despised.
“We have a lonely job,” Heseltine said, “someone must make the decisions, we do the best we can, and we don’t always get it right, but the idea that there is something special about this day and age is simply not the case.”
He then went onto say that in his experience politicians haven’t just been regarded with discontent but that “throughout history, if people are feeling hard pressed,” he continued, “they will desire change and, of course, this is where the Brexit disaster was born. People were fed up, frustrated, living standards had dropped, the future was uncertain, so people wanted to find an enemy in Brussels to get control of our country.”
The conversation then honed in on the question of Europe, with Sangita asking Vince if our current economic problems can all be blamed on the referendum. Vince stated that we have seen four major events occur over the last decade or so, citing “the financial crisis, the war in Ukraine, the Covid-19 Pandemic and Brexit”, and detailing how these events have put us in a “very bad place as a country both economically and psychologically, and that the country is rather lost with no obvious way forward” and (when it comes to Brexit) “we are a European country, but we are trying to pretend not to be”.
Right now, Vince continued, “we must rely on our current politicians to stop it and to turn back the time but the stance from the opposition is to keep stum, they believe that in target seats there are a significant amount of Brexit voters who are uptight on the subject, who will be offended if we start talking about Europe again so there is a great reluctance from the opposition to talk about Europe despite the fact that polls are telling us that the public are moving quite heavily to regard Brexit as a big mistake”.
This, somewhat unsurprisingly, brought the conversation towards Seb as a member of the opposition, with Sangita stating that Kier Starmer has pretty much ruled out rejoining the EU, a customs union and the single market, finishing by saying “he’s boxed himself in and he’ll come to regret that”.
Seb said that the reason Labour are staying so quiet on Brexit is because “if you fight an election on something that looks as if it’s an old battle then you’re not on very good territory”.
However, he did go onto say that, if you look at the trends in opinion polls, Brexit isn’t following the trajectory that people may have expected. Brexit isn’t simply “melting away” and “people haven’t just moved on”, and the reason this isn’t happening is because "Brexit is not a success, at every single turn, it is obvious now that there is something holding us back as a country and each walk of life that something is Brexit”.
Seb finished with some optimistic words, stating “my strong advice to the European Movement is that politics is reactive, and politicians often react to the situation they find themselves in. So, keep going because you’re actually winning the argument in places where people talk about these things, online, in the supermarket, on the school run, people are beginning to have this conversation so keep going and I promise the politics will follow”.
The conversation then turned to Caroline, with Sangita stating that as long as we have Rishi Sunak, a very committed Brexiteer, as PM and the opposition ruling out any idea that we may rejoin then it means the conversation may never happen.
But Caroline reassured our audience that if the conversation is happening amongst the general public, then politicians will have to talk about it. She stated her utter disappointment that the leader of the opposition is trying to make Brexit work, proclaiming that it is “fundamentally dishonest, you cannot make Brexit work, you might be able to make it slightly less bad around the edges but the idea that you’re going to make it work is dishonest”.
With the conversation having moved around the guests, it came back to Heseltine, who believes that Kier Starmer has made a huge mistake.
Heseltine said that the opposition needs to remain in opposition, that “they should never overtly proclaim any policies, because if you have any good policies the government will pinch them and if you have policies that are bad, the government will have a field day at exposing them and diverting away from their own problems.”
“What can we do,” he continued, echoing Seb, “is keep banging on. We didn’t need to be here tonight, but here we are, we must articulate, we must use every opportunity, we must try to lead people to do the same thing.”
Heseltine finished by agreeing with Vince, Seb and Caroline, that the mood is changing but outlining to the audience why he can understand why the two major parties don’t want to raise the issue of Brexit. “The Conservatives are frightened that Brexit in the red wall seats of the north will be seen as going back to something they resented,” he commented, “but on the other hand, if you don’t do something about Brexit in the southern parts of the country you risk that the Lib Dems will come.”
Vince was quick to respond to Heseltine, stating that the way we need to approach this is with a new mindset by saying “we are pro-Europe, we need to state all the things we identify with that are European, common values, common standards but we also need to outline that we are operating in a new different world, in a new environment.”
“People like Nigel Farage,” Vince continued, “said the worst thing about Europe is that they were going to drag us into having a common defense policy, proclaiming that this is our ultimate loss of sovereignty but of course that is what we are now doing in the context of the Ukraine war.”
He concluded that “To argue the pro-European case, we need to recognise we are a new country, that Europe is changing, what we are going to join is something different but still fundamentally important.”
Finishing on this somewhat optimistic note, and with a vision for the future from Vince, Sangita moved onto questions from our members and then from some members of the press.