Vince Cable: The people must have the final say on any Brexit deal
Lib Dem leader Sir Vince Cable writes for Holyrood on Brexit, his party's conference and the future of the Lib Dems
Image credit: PA
It’s about 400 miles between Dunfermline and Brighton, as the crow flies, closer to 500 miles when driving.
But while our Scottish and national annual conferences were at opposite ends of the country, the message was the same – a party united in its campaign to stop Brexit – and, unlike the Conservatives and Labour, the lack of internal rows over this great threat means we have the intellectual freedom to develop the radical ideas needed to tackle the many other challenges we face.
The next few months mark the crunch time if we are to steer the country away from the Conservatives’ chaotic Brexit plans and secure what has become known as the ‘People’s Vote’. Emerging evidence shows the 2016 EU referendum was tainted by external influences; the country’s demographics have changed rapidly with around 1.5m more young people, who will mostly be Remainers, now eligible to vote. The people must have the final say on any Brexit deal. Two years ago, we couldn’t possibly know what Brexit would really look like from a slogan on the side of a bus or a truly loathsome advertisement suggesting an invasion of tens of millions of Turks were we to stay in the EU.
The Liberal Democrats have ploughed a lonely furrow, arguing for this public vote for some time, pointing out that Brexit was not inevitable. But brave moderate Labour MPs, and even some Conservatives, are now part of the wider People’s Vote campaign that includes non-political figures like Emma Currie and Gary Lineker.
But we need more support to win. That is why our Scottish leader, Willie Rennie, has been arguing that the SNP should stop teasing support for a People’s Vote, but do the right thing and actually commit to doing so.
It is why he used his conference speech to call out Jeremy Corbyn, who has spent much of his leadership ignoring the overwhelming party majority who support a People’s Vote and the nine in 10 members who back staying in the single market and customs union.
Unlike John McDonnell’s spending plans, I have not plucked those numbers from a variant of his magic money tree, but [from] an authoritative study from Queen Mary’s University published at the start of the year – given the momentum behind our campaign, it is likely those figures are even more pro-European today.
As Willie told the Scottish conference: “Corbyn can barely hide his enthusiasm for Brexit,” and that he hasn’t been “fighting a hard Brexit, he’s a hard-left cheerleader for it.”
Or as I told delegates on the south coast of England: “Corbyn is currently letting down the many people in Labour’s heartland who now see Brexit for what it is – a Tory project, pursued for Tory ends, of which working people will be the main victims.”
Willie also rightly warned Nicola Sturgeon that she must drop talk of another independence referendum if she wants our support for the Scottish Government’s budget.
The case against independence is even stronger than in 2014. In their Growth Commission, the SNP have admitted that Scotland’s economy and finances would take a hit. Brexit also shows that breaking up is hard to do and risks the economy and the country’s finances. Why would we compound the chaos of the spectre of Brexit with the chaos of independence?
They are only interested in calculating how to get independence out of the mess rather than stopping the mess. But Scotland does not need a repeat vote on independence because the Nats set out a 670-page white paper in 2014 setting out the best case – but they decisively lost a vote they said was “once in a generation”.
Dunfermline also saw an emergency motion on Russia and the attack on the Skripals in Salisbury, led by my excellent parliamentary colleague Christine Jardine, that called for media organisations identified as agents and propaganda tools of Putin’s regime to have their UK broadcasting licence removed.
As part of that motion, Scottish Liberal Democrat elected representatives should refuse any request to appear or have any form of commercial relationship with such media organisations. This is a position that all Scottish, indeed UK, elected politicians should take.
This builds on Willie’s excellent work as Scottish Leader. Even with only five MSPs he has successfully persuaded the Scottish Government to take action on early years education, bring in a pupil premium and boost mental health, even though the SNP resisted each at first.
South of the border, we passed motions to create a £100bn sovereign wealth fund out of wealth taxation reforms, to replace the hated business rates with a more sensible levy on land, and to create a fairer immigration system that would put an end to the hostile environment and close eight out of 10 asylum-seeker detention centres.
I also kicked off a consultation about the future of our party, potentially creating a new supporters’ scheme and a reform that would see us no longer block non-MPs from standing for the leadership.
Learning from our Canadian sister party, this could open up the Liberal Democrats to become a radical movement more battle-ready to take on the Conservative and Labour parties that are drifting to their ideological extremes.
In Scotland and nationally, then, conference season showed the Liberal Democrats are fizzing with big ideas and are on the right side of the argument on the biggest issue of this generation.
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