It is a great honour to have been invited to give this the third Harold Wilson Memorial lecture here at the University of Bradford with which he had such a long and close association.
Little did I know when, as an 11 year-old, I attended a Labour Party rally in Bristol with my father and Harold Wilson gave me a signed photograph – I still have it – that I would find myself here today.
Harold Wilson was a remarkable politician and a great Prime Minister whose Labour governments helped to change the face of our country.
From the Open University to the race relations, sex discrimination and equal pay acts, from the abolition of capital punishment to the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and from comprehensive education to the creation of the Ministry of Overseas Development his administrations reminded us of the power of ideas allied to politics to bring about change.
Some of the challenges we face today he would certainly recognise. He knew all about political parties riven from top to bottom by the issue of Europe. In his day it was the Labour Party. Now it is the Conservatives.
He would also have recognised trying to use a referendum to resolve the problem of our relationship with Europe. After all he called a referendum in 1975 and won.
But I think it is safe to say that he would be troubled by the state of international politics and by some of its leadership today and by the threat this poses, above all, to the values that he held dear.
Who would have thought that 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall Russian forces would have invaded eastern Ukraine?
Or that an American President might call into question the United States’ commitment to NATO or revel in pulling out of international agreements?
Or that 350 years after the Age of Enlightenment dawned an ideology bitterly hostile to other faiths and to the rights of women would rise up and use brutality and terror to conquer and to seek to roll back progress in countries like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Nigeria?
In his speech to the 1975 Labour Party conference Harold Wilson asked his audience whether anyone could name a point in history in which:
“relations with America, with the Soviet Union, with the Commonwealth and with Europe were better than now – and all at the same time?”
Well, the Commonwealth apart, our relations are certainly not better now. And that tells us a great deal about where we have arrived at this moment in history.
Let me speak plainly.
Our country finds itself in a very difficult position.
The British people voted to leave the European Union almost 2 ½ years ago.
I was, and still am, a passionate remainer, not because Europe is perfect but because cooperation with Europe is essential.
I think the decision the country has made is a profound mistake which will have far reaching consequences for Britain’s influence in the world and for our economic future.
But as a democrat, I accepted the result. And that means that we will be leaving the institutions of the European Union in four months’ time.
But as we prepare to do so, it is now clear that those who led us into this position had very little idea of what the practical consequences would be.
To list all of them would be the subject of another lecture all its own. Suffice it to say that no-one thought to mention the damage that Brexit would do to our economy by making us less rich than we would otherwise have been.
Damage that would be even greater if we were to leave with no deal. We are simply not ready for that and the Government is hoping for a pragmatic response from the EU that may not materialise.
Now when these things are pointed out, we are told that we are the harbingers of project fear and that it’s all going to be alright and that the problem of keeping an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is an invented problem.
Well if that is the case, then a lot of very intelligent people have been working very hard for over two years to try and find the solution to a problem that, it is alleged, does not exist.
Well it does.
The need to keep an open border is not only about trade on the island of Ireland. It is about upholding the Good Friday agreement and the peace it has brought.
Anyone who has stood on that border can see people and vehicles moving back and forth as lives are lived and goods are traded, untroubled by the customs posts, the roadblocks, the watchtowers and the killings of the past.
The current stand-off in the negotiation on the Northern Ireland backstop will, I suspect, be resolved but that will involve the UK Government accepting that it cannot have a time limit.
If it is ever called upon – because the future partnership negotiations have not been concluded – then the backstop will have to stay in place unless and until something else comes along that achieves the same result – the maintenance of the border as it is today.
But even agreement on a backstop will not address the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the Government’s Brexit policy.
It has painted itself into a corner from which it cannot escape because of the Prime Minister’s red lines – leaving the customs union, the single market and the ECJ and ending free movement.
I think history will judge these red lines to have been a catastrophic mistake.
They were never on the ballot paper and they have limited the Government’s room for manoeuvre in circumstances in which, rather than holding all the cards as the Environment Secretary absurdly claimed during the referendum campaign, we have very few cards at all.
Astonishingly, the former Secretary of State admitted before our select committee that the Government made no assessment of the costs and the benefits of leaving the customs union and the single market before they announced it as Government policy.
In a country where almost every policy change is subject to rigorous analysis of its economic and fiscal implications, this is extraordinary.
It was a decision that created the border problem in Northern Ireland, because you cannot on the one hand say that we are leaving the customs union and the single market while on the other claiming that you wish to maintain an open border with the Republic.
The two are not compatible.
This refusal to confront reality is why it took two years for a divided Cabinet to come up with a proposal – the Chequers plan – and why the European Union rejected it within two months.
Wishful thinking in the Conservative Party interest rather than the national interest is why ministers have not been open with us about the choices that Brexit requires us to make. And the same wishful thinking was the genesis of that awful phrase – no deal is better than a bad deal.
Let me be clear. No deal is the worst possible deal you could imagine, but to offer some comfort can I say that I do not think the House of Commons would allow the UK to leave the EU with no deal.
And I note that in recent days a variation on this phrase has begun to emerge from Downing Street. Apparently it’s now “A bad deal is better than no deal.”
So while all the effort, understandably, is on getting a Withdrawal Agreement, all this will do is to put off the choices that we as a nation will eventually have to make.
Now I recognise that it does no good to seek to be wise after the event, but we do need to understand how we ended up here as we decide where it is we now wish to go and what we think the UK’s future relationship with the EU and the rest of the world should be in these new circumstances.
And that means understanding the reasons – complex and long in gestation – why 17.4 million people voted in favour of leaving the European Union. Because if we do not, then it will be much harder to heal the bitter divisions that the referendum has created.
And remember, these reasons are not unique to Britain.
Look at France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Sweden, Hungary and Poland. Look at the United States of America. What do we see? A rising tide of populism across our continent and on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. It is not hard to understand why. The global financial crash not only shook our economies; it also shook people’s confidence in our system.
And it was in these circumstances that concerns about immigration, the loss of the familiar and of identity, a wish not to be told by others what to do, stagnant wages, economic inequality, austerity, globalisation and a belief that our country had given up that which had made it great, led 52% of the British people who voted in the referendum to make that decision and to send us a message that they were unhappy about the way things were.
And the message delivered the day after the referendum was simple: “You weren’t listening to us. Well you’re listening now, aren’t you?”
More than anything else I think it was a cry for control in a world in which change is now happening faster than at any other time in human history, but where it sometimes seems, particularly to the older generation who voted heavily to leave, that they have barely any control at all.
It was also a revolt, not against the creation of wealth itself, but against its distribution and the insecurities that the modern economy in some countries seems to be built upon.
How can you save for a mortgage if you are on a zero hours contract?
How can you save for a decent pension?
How can the nearly 12 million people now privately renting offer their family stability when their tenancy is for 12 months only and may not be renewed?
Why is it that in some parts of our country our children will never be able to afford to buy a home in the community in which they were born and brought up?
Our generation, I’m talking about my generation, fears that we are the first for a long time where our children will not enjoy the same life that we have had. What a contrast to the story we told ourselves, particularly in the post war period. A story of onward, upward progress.
And it is because the referendum sent us a message about the lives that many people live that we must commit to change at home.
We need to embrace the advance of technology without creating greater insecurity at work. We need to look after our growing elderly population. We need to invest in homes, health, infrastructure, education, skills, innovation and creativity – the bedrock of our security and the wellspring of our future prosperity.
This is the context in which our nation was shown to be divided almost exactly down the middle two and a half years ago.
One side reveling in victory and possibility; the other dejected by a future they think will be worse.
And the debate that has raged ever since has been about what the referendum result meant.
Well I am clear it meant that we are leaving the institutions of the European Union, but it did not decide the future of our economic and political relationship with our nearest friends and neighbours who will still be our friends and neighbours after we have left.
So, having criticised others for not making a choice, let me now make mine.
Firstly on our economic relationship. I think we should seek EEA membership and remain in a customs union with the European Union. The sooner we are clear about the ultimate destination we seek in the future partnership negotiations, the better it will be for the economy and for businesses.
Because while we all know that a transitional period is essential, all it does is to prolong uncertainty.
Continuing tariff-free and friction-free trade is essential to the British economy and to an open border in Northern Ireland. A Canada-style deal would remove tariffs but it would not give us friction-free trade and it would result in a separate status for Northern Ireland given the backstop. It will not work, which is why the Prime Minister has rejected it.
Remaining in the customs union is what the CBI thinks we should do.
Why? Because 44% of our exports go to our biggest single market – the other member states of the European Union.
A further 17% go to countries with whom we already have trade agreements because they have been negotiated by the EU on behalf of all of us.
And the remaining 19% goes to the country to which we sell more than any other; one, incidentally, with which we do not have a trade agreement at present. It is the United States of America. The idea that somehow the United Kingdom has been prevented from trading with the rest of the world by our membership of the European Union is a nonsense.
Secondly, the single market. It is true that we will start from a position of alignment with the EU, but to what extent will the UK actually want to diverge from those common rules now and in the years ahead?
The truth is that British businesses selling into the single market will have to observe its rules. And if those rules change then what our businesses do will also have to change.
And now that an even longer transition period is being mooted, this alternative approach has a number of advantages.
We would leave the common fisheries policy and the common agricultural policy, we would not be subject to the ECJ in the same way because of the intermediating role of the EFTA court and we would have the opportunity to try to influence new legislation, albeit we would not be in the room when the decision is made.
We could also choose to implement some changes, within the existing rules, in the way in which free movement operates and we would have access to the emergency brake that articles 112 and 113 of the EEA treaty provide for.
It would also solve the problem of the Northern Ireland border and minimise the economic damage that will be done, because it would provide certainty about the way things would work in future.
And that is really important when we recall that we have been the most successful country in Europe, more successful than France and more successful than Germany, in attracting foreign direct investment. A reputation that is now in limbo.
Michel Barnier, President Macron and others have made it clear that if the UK wishes to remain in the customs union and the single market then the EU will facilitate this, but if the Prime Minister continues to insist on all of her red lines then this will inevitably limit the options open to the negotiators for our future partnership.
We have to choose which it is to be, because the EU will not accept a situation in which the UK uses its freedom to gain a competitive advantage.
I hope, and still believe, that there will be a withdrawal agreement reached, but it will only deal with immediate divorce arrangements while leaving us none the wiser about our future relationship which is supposed to be set out in the political declaration.
And the list of things we have to negotiate by December 2020 is very long indeed:
Security and foreign policy co-operation
Information sharing to fight terrorism
The regulation of medicines, aircraft and food safety
The transfer of data
Mutual recognition of qualifications
Our future role in all the trade deals which the EU has negotiated for all our benefit.
So, this is a moment in our history when we need to make a choice; a choice about the kind of future relationship we want with our nearest, largest and most important trading partner – the other 27 member states of the European Union.
And let me also be clear. If a deal comes back without that choice having been made – what is called a blind Brexit – then the Government will find it very difficult to win the support of the House of Commons. Being told that we have to support what is before us because the only alternative is no deal is not a meaningful vote. There are other choices and we must ensure that Parliament is able to give expression to them.
I want now to turn to some of the wider lessons of what has been happening around us.
Although the consensus in Europe is that Britain’s decision has strengthened commitment to the European Union in the other 27 member states, I think the truth is a bit more complex.
Many of those countries know that the forces that gave rise to the referendum result here in Britain are present in their politics too. Populism is on the rise, and some of its manifestations are none too attractive.
The EU is currently facing two member states – Hungary and Poland – where commitment to the essential values of the European Union, which the former Eastern European countries worked so hard to demonstrate after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, is now at the very least questionable.
And the debate about what kind of institution the European Union will be in the years ahead will inevitably intensify.
On the one hand are those who see the departure of perfidious Albion as an opportunity to return to their long-cherished dream of an ever faster, closer, deeper union.
On the other, are those like President Macron who, while arguing for the Eurozone to have a common budget, also recognises that there is a case for a Europe of concentric circles in which countries commit to the degree of integration they feel comfortable with.
Reform of the EU is inevitable, and while in one sense it is no longer our business because we are leaving, I am firmly in the concentric circle camp.
All empires, and I use that term respectfully, need to adapt in order to survive and to prosper.
I also believe that in thinking about what kind of future relationship it wants to have with the United Kingdom, the European Union could look at the negotiation of our future partnership as an opportunity to be created rather than a problem to be disposed of.
A new kind of relationship for countries that want to move closer to the European Union without accepting all of the current terms of membership which would work for other countries as well as for the UK.
And when it comes to tackling the big challenges that the world faces, we absolutely must maintain the closest possible relations with our European neighbours.
The list is long.
The threat of climate change, the consequences of which – if we do not act together to tackle it – will dwarf a hundred-fold, a thousand-fold any other challenge. Make no mistake if drought causes crops to fail or families to go thirsty or if flooding and sea level rise washes people’s homes away, then human beings will do what human beings have done since the dawn of time – they will move somewhere else to find a better life.
The onward march of technology – the white heat of which Harold Wilson spoke in 1963. Smart phones, social media, automation and AI are having a profoundly creative and disruptive effect.
The quantity of information and the blistering speed at which it is produced, shared and digested. The printing press of the modern age can now be held in the palm of a hand and anyone can become a publisher and produce news, fake or otherwise.
The Arab Spring in which people rose up to challenge the old order only to see their democratic hopes dashed and a wave of turmoil and bloody sectarian and religious conflict ensue.
A resurgent Russia seeking respect while wielding an iron fist and chemical weapons in perfume bottles.
The rise of new powers – economic and political. China, India and Brazil, and the sleeping giant that is sub-Saharan Africa.
The struggle between the secular and the religious, and the rise in identity politics – both of which have the capacity to divide as people seek to distinguish themselves from the other.
The search for control, which we see reflected in the cry for self-government, devolution and self-determination whether in northern Iraq, Catalonia, Scotland or the regions of England.
An increasing global population that by the time my three 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 a changing climate or simply seeking the better life that they see others living.
When the story of this century comes to be written, I think it will be defined by this tide of humanity and the way in which we sought to deal with it.
And at the heart of all of this, we can see the two great forces of our age, first identified in what became known as the Atlantic Charter by Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt when they met off Newfoundland in 1941.
The first – the innate thirst for self-determination so that people can shape their own future – the search for control.
And the second – the self-evident truth that nations must work together to secure better economic and social conditions for all, in a world where our problems increasingly pay no heed to national borders at all.
We must balance these two or else we will find it more difficult to see off those populists who seek to exploit the frustration, fear and anger that many people feel by promising a return to a fictitious golden age when, in fact, their inward-looking nationalism is a road to nowhere.
We must stand up against those who have sought to fan the flames of prejudice towards our fellow citizens, undermine a free media and attack the independence of the judiciary – remember the headline ‘Enemies of the people?
After all, history teaches us that at times like these populists prosper by blaming someone else.
The idea that we can somehow at this of all moments in human history shut the doors and close the curtains and wish that everyone and everything would go away is both to deny our shared humanity and deprive ourselves of the very means by which can seek to do something about these problems.
Working together as peoples and nations.
If the last century taught us anything it is that international co-operation is the only way to achieve economic and political security for all.
In Britain’s case it was in the second half of that century that we came to realise that it was far better and far more effective to seek to be a global power through the influence that comes from international cooperation, rather than by holding on to the Empire.
Our future relationship with the EU – an increasingly important pole of influence in the world – will therefore be critically important in these uncertain times, with unpredictability to the east in the Kremlin and to the west in the White House.
We also need to be forthright in defence of internationalism and the rules-based system created out of the ashes and the suffering of the Second World War.
And that is why we must have the closest possible relationship with our European friends and neighbours on defence, security and climate change, international trade and the fight against terrorism.
That is why we must work with others to strengthen the United Nations and its ability to act to prevent threats to peace and security, including the responsibility to protect.
Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”
Article 28 states “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this declaration can be fully realised.”
And yet for millions of people these rights so nobly expressed remain just words on paper.
The refugees from Syria I met in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan three years ago simply said ‘The world has forgotten us’
Now, we know that these ideals are difficult to give expression to in a world in which some are doing their best to undermine the very institutions that we created in order to give meaning to the words “never again”. And even where we find the will, we sometimes lack the means.
But that is not an argument for giving up. It is a reason for pressing on. Why? Because in the end we are all affected.
What is the one word that sums up the human condition at the beginning of the 21st century?
Interdependence. Interdependence. The very definition of what it is to be a human being.
While our earliest ancestors first appeared on earth between five and seven million years ago, it was not until Christmas Eve just 50 years ago that we finally understood what that interdependence means.
It was the moment when, as the opening words of the book of Genesis were heard across space, astronaut William Anders took that photograph from the Apollo capsule as it came back around the moon.
For the very first time we saw our small and fragile planet from a different vantage point in all its white and blue and green beauty floating in the blackness of eternity.
And what that photograph taught us was that we have to learn to live alongside one another in a way that is peaceful and sustainable, that we have to accept our responsibilities to our neighbours, even if we have never met and they live on the other side of the world, and that the we have to do this by working together as nations.
Co-operation and self-determination do not have to be in tension and both can be embraced in a way that fosters solidarity and a sense of national common purpose.
And it is our responsibility to do what needs to be done.
Which brings me to the task in hand and to why I am an optimist despite the problems which we have created for ourselves.
Our great country – our astonishing country – is one of the most successful in human history.
Our islands were the birthplace of the industrial revolution and of the man who created the Internet.
With less than 1% of the world’s population, we are its sixth biggest economy and generate 4% of its GDP.
Our language is spoken by 1.5 billion people worldwide, more than any other.
Our literature, our theatre, our films, our actors are loved the world over.
Our universities attract the brightest and the best.
We have more Nobel laureates per head of population than the United States, Germany or China.
British broadcasters are respected in all four corners of the globe for their impartial reporting, although not necessarily in the West Wing of the White House or the Kremlin.
And we have helped to influence and shape the modern world through the power of our ideas and values.
Our system of governance. Parliamentary democracy. The rule of national and international law. And the belief that every human being has rights that are inalienable.
Ideas that have been a beacon of inspiration to people who enjoy none of these things.
Ideas that have shaped our lives not because we turned our backs on working with others. They came to pass because we embraced others, travelled, traded, built alliances, were open to new ideas, welcomed new people and turned our minds and our politics to how we could make progress.
We want the EU to continue to prosper.
This weekend we will mark the centenary of the armistice – the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – that brought to an end the Great War in 1918.
32 years later, out of the ashes World War II, the Schuman Declaration sought to make a return to war on the continent of Europe not merely “unthinkable but materially impossible”.
It was the best way that Europe could honour the sacrifice of two generations of its citizens who lie beneath those beautifully-tended war graves. We read their names and their ages, and for me the most poignant graves of all are the ones that simply bear the inscription ‘A soldier of the Great War – Known unto God‘ for no one knew then or knows to this day whose brother, son, father or uncle lies there.
This – bringing to an end centuries of conflict on this continent was and still is Europe’s crowning achievement.
And it is why I want us to seek the closest possible relationship with the European Union. This will not to weaken our sovereignty; on the contrary it will give meaning to it. Strengthening the relationships we build with others is how we have influence.
It was Dean Acheson who observed “Great Britain has lost an Empire but not yet found a role.”
Well our challenge today, having lost the EU, is to find a role as we leave it.
So, how can we best advance the British national interest today and in the future?
By continuing to participate in and help lead those very organisations that we helped to create which gave and give us influence.
Influence that can be seen today in so many different ways.
From the European Convention on Human Rights which we helped to draft to the International Criminal Court which we helped to found.
From the UK’s membership of the UN Security Council to our leadership on humanitarian aid – the UN Central Emergency Response Fund was a British idea.
From the first climate change legislation in the world to seeking by negotiation and diplomacy to solve problems. Example? The Iran nuclear deal.
By continuing to argue for a two state solution in the Middle East while waiting and hoping for the sort of courageous political leadership that finally brought peace to Northern Ireland to assert itself in Jerusalem and Ramallah.
By vanquishing disease, cleaning up our oceans and our air, creating the next generation of materials and technologies, exploring the universe and seeking answers to the questions that still perplex and confound.
By doing our bit for the development of all countries. Because every person should be able to grow up safe, get an education, receive healthcare, get a job and raise a family in the land in which they were born if that is what they wish.
Not only is it the moral thing to do; it is also in our self-interest. And as Harold Wilson said: “The Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing”.
And by making the most of our human ingenuity and its astonishing ability to transform the gifts the earth has given us into materials, ideas and institutions that will change our future.
I am at heart an optimist about the future, not least because we can see with our own eyes the progress we have made.
The extraordinary achievement of humankind in halving absolute poverty, increasing literacy rates more than fivefold and seeing global life expectancy rise in the last two centuries from under 30 years of age to over 70.
So if at any time this evening I have given you cause to feel gloomy, remember that if our forebears and our ancestors from 200 years ago returned today and saw what we have built and achieved, they would be astonished.
And the story we would tell them in explanation would be our story of human, social and political development in which the power of ideas has transformed our lives and the lives of others.
I am in politics because I am an optimist; because I believe that when our time is done, we can bequeath something better to our children and our grandchildren and I am sure the same is true of you.
And I want to end where I began with Harold Wilson’s association with this great university.
He was so proud as a Yorkshireman to have been your Chancellor and he enthusiastically supported your huge contribution to our industrial and economic future, but above all he revered your purpose – the education of our young people.
It is the creativity, the potential and the enthusiasm of your students – the next generation who will be shaping our world long after people like me are dust in the ground – that makes me an optimist.
It’s why Harold Wilson said in 1985:
“Education is ….our hope for the future”.
How right he was.
And it’s why I tonight say that provided we harness all that creativity, all that potential and all that enthusiasm, then Britain’s place in the world will be assured, come what may.
First delivered to the University of Bradford at the Harold Wilson Memorial Lecture on the 8th November 2018