Hilary recently gave a speech as part of the Speaker's Lecture Series 2017 on the Future of Brexit. Read the full transcript below.
I am very grateful to you Mr Speaker for inviting me to talk this evening about what is the defining British political decision of our generation.
On 23 June 2016, the country divided. It divided into leavers and remainers, and since the result was declared, we have become it seems to me a nation of optimists and pessimists respectively.
The optimists see nothing but benefit and opportunity from the UK’s departure from the European Union. An optimism perhaps unkindly described by Ken Clarke in his speech on the second reading of the Article 50 Bill thus:
“apparently, when we follow the rabbit down the hole, we will emerge in a wonderland”
The pessimists on the other hand see nothing but gloom and economic decline, and fear that having turned our back on our European neighbours and our largest market, we will become dependent on the willingness of other countries, some led by people we don’t much care for, to offer us trade deals.
And while around the world there are bright spots - the advance of democracy and the extraordinary progress humankind has made in reducing absolute poverty - the watchwords of our age are turmoil and uncertainty.
The continuing and bloody echoes of the Arab spring.
The struggle between the secular and the religious.
A resurgent Russia seeking to receive the velvet glove of respect while wielding an iron fist.
The inexorable dawning of a changing climate.
A rising global population that by the time my two grandchildren reach my age will be more than three times greater than when I was born.
And the relentless movement of people across the globe, whether they be fleeing conflict, escaping the consequences of that change in climate or simply seeking the better life that they see others living.
And for us, in western societies, this question hangs in the air: has the tale we have told ourselves for at least three generations - a story of optimism, onwards, upwards, better - reached its final page?
It is not hard to see why there is so much uncertainty. The global financial crash not only shook our economies; it also shook people’s confidence in our system.
I am of the generation that looks at what we have and is not entirely sure that the lives of our children will be as good as that which we have enjoyed, whether it be their chances of finding a decent and secure job, saving for a pension, being able to afford a home of their own, or living in a world where peace rather than conflict is the natural order of things.
And it was in these circumstances that concerns about immigration and change, the loss of what had been familiar, a wish not to be told by others what to do, stagnant wages, economic inequality, austerity, globalisation, a sense of powerlessness, a loss of identity, and a belief that somehow our country had given up that which had made it great – all these things led 52% of those who came out to vote on that Thursday to send us a message using the power of the ballot box.
It wasn’t so much about facts or even just about the EU. It was about the state of their lives and our politics, as experience, emotion and identity found a way of expressing themselves.
And if those of my constituents who resisted all of my arguments as to why they should vote remain were here today they would probably look us in the eye and say “You weren't listening to us. Well you’re listening now, aren’t you?”
And I say all that, not to make Michael’s argument in response for him, but simply to seek to understand why we are here now.
And we must also understand that the 48% too feel fear, and loss, and uncertainty and worry about a future they think will be worse because the progress and freedoms that the EU has brought will now be taken from them.
And that is why some of them were so angry about the passing of the Article 50 Bill in the House of Commons, even though it was a democratic necessity for which many of us voted.
So if we are to unite our divided nation we have to answer the central political question posed by the referendum.
How do we reconcile the two great forces of our age, reflected in the principles set out side by side by Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt in the Atlantic Charter of 1941?
The first; the self-evident truth that nations must work together to secure better economic and social conditions for all, as we deal with the great challenges we face as a world that pay no heed to national borders.
And the second, the innate thirst for self-determination so that people can shape their own future and have control in a world in which sometimes it seems that we have barely any control at all.
Understanding and responding to these forces is urgent and important work if we are to see off those populists who seek to exploit the frustration, fear and anger that people feel by promising a return to a fictitious golden age when their inward-looking nationalism is in fact a road to nowhere.
And the way in which some of them have sought to fan the flames of prejudice towards our fellow citizens, attack the independence of the judiciary and undermine a free media represents a threat to our way of life.
If the past century has taught us anything it is that international co-operation is at the heart of Britain’s economic and political security, and it was in the second half of that century that we came to realise that it was far better and more effective to be a global power that achieved its goals through the influence that comes from working with others, rather than by conquest.
Our future relationship with the EU – one of the poles of influence in our world – will therefore be critically important in our dangerous and uncertain times, with unpredictability to the east and to the west in the Kremlin and the White House.
So even though we are leaving the EU, we must preserve Europe’s influence and our voice within it, alongside the influence we retain through our membership of the UN Security Council, the Commonwealth and NATO.
And this means that in the negotiations to come we must seek the strongest possible continued cooperation on foreign policy, defence, security and the fight against terrorism with the other 27 member states.
Article 21 of the Lisbon Treaty makes clear that the EU:
“shall seek to develop relations and build partnerships with third countries, and international, regional or global organisations which share… [its] principles”.
We should draw on this commitment and our existing relationship to create such a partnership – what I call a ‘European Common Foreign Policy Area’.
There are a range of ways in which this could be done – with goodwill - from informal arrangements to formal structures.
Professor Richard Whitman has proposed that the UK could still take part in EU foreign and security policy-making in the form of an EU+1 arrangement. This would allow UK ministers to attend the Foreign Affairs Council for relevant agenda items and, with the precedent set for participation by the US Secretary of State and the UN Secretary General, in the work of the Political and Security Committee and its working groups. This would allow us to align our foreign policy with that of our neighbours, where we wish to do so.
The UK could also seek to remain within the Common Security and Defence Policy - described by some as a ‘reverse Denmark’.
The European Council has always operated on the basis of unanimity on foreign and security policy, and that will of course continue.
But having the UK there also - being at the table in meetings, ideally as an active participant - would be in everyone's interests.
So the Government should make this a central goal in the Brexit negotiations from the start because we know from experience that by working shoulder-to-shoulder with our European neighbours - whether on standing up to Russia through sanctions, or countering piracy off the East Coast of Africa or helping to secure the Iran nuclear deal - we have kept our citizens safer than they would otherwise have been.
And even in the case of Syria’s refugees, for all the difficulties and the failures, imagine what it would have been like with no European Union seeking to find a way of managing the crisis.
We need to be forthright in defence of internationalism - and the rules-based system created out of the ashes of the Second World War - especially in the face of the resurgent climate change deniers, the aid cutters and the isolationists who would have us turn away from our responsibilities one to another. If they ever succeeded, far from taking back control, they would lessen our power.
This is no time to be retreating from what helps to give us security and influence in the world. And Europe's collective voice is stronger when it includes the UK's voice too.
In an increasingly interdependent world, true patriots cannot be parochial.
But we must also commit to change at home.
The older I get, the more I have come to see that life and politics is a question of balance, just as climate change has taught us how the balance of nature can be profoundly altered by the smallest rise in temperature. And when things get out of kilter, they stop working quite as well.
The message sent by the referendum was, in part, a cry for a different kind of balance, and it is one I have a lot of sympathy for, although I did not think it should have been at the price of leaving the European Union.
I would much prefer Europe to have got the message that things weren't working. You may recall that some three weeks before polling day Jean-Claude Juncker – the President of the Commission – made a speech in which he said: “instead of getting on people’s nerves by arguing about all kinds of trivialities, I think it would be better if we dealt with the major issues in Europe instead of sticking our nose into all aspects of people’s lives.”
Many would agree with him, but there are those in Europe who look at the referendum result and declare: “Well, now that perfidious Albion is going we can pursue the goal of ever faster, closer, deeper union.” I would just observe that these voices don’t, in my view, really understand what is happening.
The much bigger and more urgent question for the European Union is this. How did the EU come to lose one of its most important and influential member states and why are some of the same political forces that we saw in the UK also present in their own domestic politics?
In many parts of our country people feel that things are not working for them, their families, and their community. This crisis of confidence is not only expressing itself in anger at our governance, but also in alienation from mainstream politics itself, and the risk is that people will look for easy answers that are not there.
And so we need to do something about this winter of political discontent by addressing its causes. If we do not do so, then it is not just Europe that is at risk of division, but also our United Kingdom. The EU referendum showed that we are split down the middle; another Scottish referendum could threaten to break it up altogether.
The last time I was in this room listening to a lecture - and a wonderful one it was given by my friend and colleague Gordon Marsden - the subject was Clem Attlee. He was a great internationalist Prime Minister, but he was also a national patriot.
He understood that these two things - co-operation and self-determination - did not have to be in tension and could both be embraced in a way that fostered solidarity and created a sense of national common purpose.
He would have recognised the practical tasks we face at this moment in our history, which are not only about Brexit.
The need to tackle the crisis affecting the way in which we care for the elderly; our grandparents and our mums and dads, remembering that it will be our turn next. This is the greatest social challenge we face and it needs money, time, energy and commitment, because the system is failing and our NHS is creaking as a consequence.
The need to play to our economic strengths and not to undermine them - a point I shall return to in a moment. Our language is spoken by 1.5 billion people across the world. Our universities attract the brightest and best. We have more Nobel laureates per head of population than the United States, Germany or China. Our literature, our theatre, our film and our creativity are admired the world over.
The need to think about how we will manage the next wave of automation and changing forms of employment in a way that simply does not lead to more insecurity, more zero hours contracts, and more young people completely unable to save for a pension. For too long, we have been too content to let this happen.
The need to build and to invest for the long term instead of just thinking about the short term which, as we know to our cost was the cause of the global economic crash that still echoes through our lives.
Nowhere is this long-term investment more important than in education and in skills where business should be training their future workforce rather than expecting some other country to do it for them, as we draw up a new immigration policy to replace free movement.
The need to build homes for our children and grandchildren, which they can afford to live in. Let us give communities both the responsibility to provide the homes and the tools to do it so that they can determine what gets built where and who gets one.
And, most important of all, the need to sustain a strong economy and secure the public finances that will make all these things possible; which brings me to the task in hand.
Our responsibility in Parliament, in all this, is not to fall prey to either mindless optimism or gloomy pessimism, but instead to work out what on earth we are going to do to secure our future as we leave the EU.
So we need to be clear about some things.
Never before have we entered into such important and complex negotiations with so little information, so many unanswered questions and so much uncertainty about the eventual outcome.
What we will be able to secure will depend, yes, on what we ask for, but much more importantly on what the other 27 member states are prepared to agree.
Do not forget that Brexit is also a crisis for them. A big hole in the EU budget. The fear of contagion. Elections looming.
They may well decide that the unity of the Union is more important than particular national economic interests, so giving the impression that we will get everything that we want is not a good way to start or to build goodwill.
Can we really hope to negotiate both the divorce settlement and a new relationship, including on trade, between the beginning of April this year and October of next?
I have met very few people who think this is possible, so transitional arrangements will be fundamental to our prospects of success.
The spirit in which the UK Government has approached its hugely difficult task thus far - at every stage having to be prodded and pushed and cajoled into engaging with Parliament - will have to change.
As Clem Attlee, when Prime Minister, said:
“The inspiring vigour of Parliament, with its free and open criticism, is the source of strength of this Government, as of all British Governments”.
It is time ministers recognised that Parliament intends to be a participant and not a bystander, not least because there would be a deep irony if those who claimed that the referendum was all about the importance of Parliamentary sovereignty were now to lose their enthusiasm for it at this critical moment.
And the reason why there must be a vote with meaning at the end of the negotiations, whether we have a draft deal or no deal at all, is because that is Parliament's job. It’s what we’re here for.
It would be much better to go into the negotiations with the full hearted participation and support of Parliament given that this is, without question, the greatest challenge we have faced as a nation since the end of the Second World War. And better still to have a sense of national purpose about the best deal for Britain that we are trying to achieve.
What does the best deal mean?
Above all else, it must be an agreement that will bring us economic stability by maintaining tariff and barrier free trade with our largest market.
We know - because many witnesses that have appeared before the select committee have told us - that an end to frictionless, tariff free trade with our largest market would have a damaging impact on our economy.
If we fall out onto WTO terms it would mean not just a return to tariffs, but the reappearance of non-tariff barriers – the time, paperwork and costs needed to clear border checks and comply with bureaucratic requirements on rules of origin and EU standards. For many businesses in advanced economies like ours these can be far more costly than the actual tariff itself.
So, the scale, and the scope and the number of new trade deals we would have to strike if we left the customs union would have to be sizeable just to compensate for the impact that doing so would have on our economy.
And not only that, the deals would have to be secured very quickly given the timescales involved.
Ministers say that this is a priority, but they are seeking in effect to be both in and out of the customs union; staying in the customs union for the things we like and leaving the common commercial policy and common external tariff to be able to negotiate our own trade deals.
Of course, this would represent the best deal, but the big question is whether the other member states will agree to it? What if they say “I’m afraid this looks to us like you’re trying to have your cake and eat it?”
If this deal turns out not to be possible, then the UK will be forced to choose between remaining fully in the customs union or leaving it altogether. In those circumstances, there will be a big choice to make and it cannot be one that the Government makes alone.
In my view, based on the evidence I have seen, the only sensible choice would be to remain in the customs union.
Now, there are many other issues that we will have to address, including:
- What exactly does no longer being a member of the single market mean?
- How quickly can we offer certainty to EU citizens here and Brits abroad that they can stay, bearing in mind that documenting 3 million Europeans in the UK will be no easy task.
- How do we design an immigration system that commands the confidence of the public and secures our economic prosperity?
- What will be our relationship with a whole host of European bodies dealing with matters as varied as medicines, banking regulation, aviation safety and patents in the future?
- Will we be able to remain in Europol and have access to the Schengen information system to help us identify people we might need to be worried about?
- How can we ensure that our universities can continue to participate in collaborative research and have access to the funding that makes this possible, while enabling the continuing free flow of people and their ideas?
- What will replace the European structural funds that some of our regions rely so much on?
- What will our new agriculture policy look like?
- Will the UK tech sector get a Data Adequacy Decision from the Commission?
Now tempting as it is to try and answer these and many, many other questions - the more I look the more I find - I fear that would be the subject of a whole series of others lecture entirely.
So, Mr Speaker, I will conclude by returning to where I began – our nation of optimists and pessimists.
I was a passionate Remainer. I still am.
But I am also a democrat and I accept the result of the referendum.
And as a nation of democrats, however we classify ourselves - optimists or pessimists - we must all do all that we can to make a success of Brexit.
I say that because I am otherwise an optimist, and I think we will find a way through.
But to do that we have to accept something.
It’s time to move beyond seeing every question in the negotiations henceforth through the prism of leave or remain.
It’s time to stop re-fighting the referendum as if it wasn’t over.
Doing this is unhelpful, it’s wearisome and it doesn’t assist us with the task we face.
But we also have to accept something else.
The referendum decided one thing. We are leaving the institutions of the European Union. It did not decide how we leave or what kind of new relationship we will forge in the process.
The answer to those questions will be up to us and our 27 neighbours - who will still be our neighbours in the years ahead - to determine as we find a new way of living alongside each other.
There is nothing pre-ordained about our economic future as a country or our place in the world. As we know from our history, both will be what we make of them.
Whether we like it or not, this is a significant moment.
This is a turning point in our history.
And nothing will be more important than hard-headed British realism and a gritty determination to see things through.
Because we are going to need a lot of that in the months and the years that lie ahead.
Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP
21st February 2017
Hilary recently gave a speech as part of the Speaker's Lecture Series 2017 on the Future of Brexit. Read the full transcript below.