A good crowd of around 50 active citizens from across the North of England came to The Wharf pub/restaurant in Manchester’s Castlefield canal basin area on a delightful summer’s evening, to attend the joint Best for Britain/Hannah Mitchell Foundation event “Uniting the North against Brexit”.
They heard from three excellent speakers before contributing to a very high quality question & answer session, ably chaired by Best for Britain’s Northern campaign manager, Charles Gibson. The speakers were Eloise Todd, Chief Executive of Best for Britain; Natalie Bennett, former leader of the Green Party, and Sheffield Green Party super-activist; and Professor Paul Salveson, General Secretary of the Hannah Mitchell Foundation, the campaign for democratic devolution for the North of England.
Eloise Todd spoke first. She explained Best for Britain’s role as a non-party political campaign dedicated solely to making sure that Britain gets a democratic vote on the final Brexit deal, in which ‘remain in the EU’ is an option on the ballot paper. It does not campaign to accept a soft Brexit, and it has no hidden additional political agenda – for example, relating to seizing control of existing political parties or setting up new ones. Eloise, who is from Hull, has pressed pause on her career in the development charity sector to save the North of England that she loves, and Britain as a whole, from the disaster of Brexit.
Best for Britain is working both at the grassroots, including across the North, and at the Westminster parliamentary/London national media level. Eloise is working across party divides at Westminster, including with the Tory remain rebels, to win important votes in parliament. Highlights have included the crucial vote in November 2017 that ensured a meaningful parliamentary vote on the final Brexit deal, and the near-miss in July 2018 on remaining in the customs union.
Eloise Todd’s key message was that we have no more than the two months of August and September to change the game on Brexit. We need to ensure that the British public understands that Britain still has the option to remain in the EU on the same advantageous terms we already enjoy, and that this is by far the best option for Britain in the current situation. This would be done by revoking or withdrawing our Lisbon Treaty Article 50 notification that we intend to leave the EU. However, this option expires on 31 March 2019. After that date, Britain’s negotiating position becomes even weaker than it already is, whether we go through with Brexit, or try to rejoin the EU.
During the autumn of 2018, Brexit preparations by private businesses and government will go past the point of no return, and Brexit will be too late to stop. Therefore it is essential that every person attending the meetings acts quickly to spread the word. The public debate must be brought to a head at the time of the ‘party conference season’ in the second half of September.
Eloise made a number of excellent other points, and one of the most interesting was the observation that although everybody says with good reason that Theresa May’s Government is in a state of continuous crisis, in fact the No.10 Downing Street media spin machine is doing one thing quite well: it is doing a good job of preparing the ground to frame Autumn 2018’s debate as being between Theresa May’s Brexit and a chaotic No Deal Brexit. By ramping up concern over the chaos that would accompany a no-deal Brexit, it is preparing the British public for a wave of relief when some – any – kind of exit deal with the EU is reached. The plan is to spin the deal as delivering the people’s will to have Brexit, and as a great success compared to the disaster that would have struck had there been no deal. The fact that the deal will be a very poor one compared to the deal we already have as members of the EU, will be glossed over. The Tories’ key aim is to make the British public believe that the ‘revoke Article 50’ option, to remain in the EU on our existing terms, does not exist, despite the fact that EU politicians continuously say that they would welcome us with open arms if Britain changed its mind and decided to stay in.
Natalie Bennett then spoke. Few Westminster politicians make the sheer number of public appearances and stump speeches that Natalie makes, in every corner of UK, and she proves that the greatest political vitality in this country lies away from Westminster. She has also become a highly expert public speaker, and is one of the most thoughtful and interesting speakers active on the British political scene. Never content to give the people only what they wanted to hear – and could have guessed beforehand what she would say – she always makes the effort to go one step further and challenge her audience to think about some new and sometimes uncomfortable ideas as well.
An Australian by birth, an agricultural scientist by training, and formerly a journalist by career (including as editor of The Guardian Weekly), on stepping down as leader of the Green Party of England & Wales in 2015, she made the positive decision to become a Northerner, moving from London to Sheffield because it is a better place to live, and be politically active.
Natalie campaigned hard for Remain in 2016, and with her Green Party colleagues was among the few that made the positive case for EU membership, which the official Remain campaign chose to avoid. EU citizenship is an incredible plus for British people, not just for its economic benefits, but for the freedom, opportunities and security that it offers. She made the memorable point that freedom of movement and residence is a two-way deal: as an example, it means that any young British person can move to Rome, try life in a beautiful and historic city, get involved in a relationship with someone unsuitable, have fun and grow.
She is the first to say that the EU as an institution is very far from perfect, not least in terms of the democratic deficit, but she is a believer in reforming and improving what we have already got – ‘Another Europe is Possible’. And it must never be forgotten that, even in its existing flawed state, the EU offers British people environmental, workplace and human rights protections better than anything we get from Westminster alone. ‘Take back control’ was the slogan that resonated strongly across the North – but the North must take back control from the highly democratically-flawed Westminster system.
Natalie’s key point was to underline the issue of urgency. Theresa May’s government needs to be defeated. Theresa May is not going to change her mind on offering a referendum, and therefore she needs to be removed. Only MPs can do this, and it needs to happen in October, which means the public pressure needs to be built in the next two months. Natalie said that things can happen fast in politics when there is a need for it, and nothing is impossible.
Paul Salveson spoke third. Paul introduced himself and the Hannah Mitchell Foundation (HMF), the campaign for democratic devolution for the North. HMF was set up to press for a progressive regionalism, very much part of the concept of “a Europe of the regions”.
Hannah Mitchell herself was a socialist and feminist. She was brought up on a remote farm in the High Peak, and ran away to become a dressmaker in Bolton, and ended up becoming one of the first female councillors in the country, representing Newton Heath for the Independent Labour party on Manchester City Council. Hannah Mitchell was a staunch internationalist and was part of the women’s international league against that war. So she would have been an EU remainer. Also relevant to the current fight, she was also always happy to work across party boundaries (she observed in her autobiography that she had sometimes found it easier to get support from Conservative members of Manchester Corporation for her projects to improve the lives of women and families in Manchester than it was to get support her male Labour Party colleagues).
Paul agreed with all Eloise’s and Natalie’s points and also noted the issue that Brexit endangered the peace in Northern Ireland.
Paul’s key point was that Brexit is gearing up to be a disaster for the North of England in particular. The Government’s own Brexit impact studies say so. All the North of England’s manufacturing and service industries will be hammered. There is a paradox that the people and places which voted most strongly for Brexit will the places worst hit by it. This risks very ugly outcomes. The only way out of this mess is radical reform to bring power closer to the people both at the regional and neighbourhood level, backed up by major investment in all the North’s places and communities.
The Question & Answer session from the floor followed, which allowed the speakers to go deeper into the points they had covered in their speeches, and brought in new ones that they had not.
Overall the meeting reinforced a strong sense of the urgency of the situation. The people attending who are already active in their local areas on Brexit left with a strong resolve to redouble their efforts in the coming months, and the many of the people from HMF left with the strong idea in their minds to focus their activism on stopping Brexit for the period of what is in effect a national emergency.
One outcome of the meeting is the formation of the ‘Best for Bolton’ group, to fight the cause in a town that voted for Brexit, and there will be more on this in a future post.