It was 2 September 1939, a turning point in British history and its relations with continental Europe. Nazi troops were advancing through Poland, and prime minister Neville Chamberlain was making a somewhat vacillating statement in the House of Commons, which appeared to be giving himself wriggle room to dodge his commitment to the Poles.
Two MPs were sick. Standing in for the opposition leader, Labour’s Arthur Greenwood rose to reply amidst the uproar when he was interrupted by an appeal from halfway up the government benches. It was from the veteran Tory, Leo Amery, who shouted: “Speak for England, Arthur!”
The phrase virtually guaranteed that Chamberlain did, after all, stand by his Polish commitment, and Amery played the key role seven months later in Chamberlain’s downfall.
It was one of those short sentences which carried within it a wealth of meanings which are not immediately obvious. The word ‘England’ does not imply something parochial, but an admonition to speak from the best of us and the best of our history and for all of us.
Amery was the crustiest of imperialist of Tories, yet he recognised that we had made commitments of honour to continental Europe, based both on morality and self-interest, which must be kept.
I thought of that exchange yesterday as the two main political parties which have dominated post-war life in the UK accelerated their collapse. You can interpret the referendum result in terms of either or both of them unravelling.
All the assumptions of that postwar world have been flung away. We now need someone, in that different sense, to speak for England – and beyond the current, very obvious divisions.
I believe that we have to take the referendum result seriously. We can’t just finesse it or constitutionalise it away. We also need to shape a narrative that interprets it in the most liberal way we can. In fact, history may belong to whoever can do that most convincingly.
Now I have my own biases, as a Lib Dem. But, say what you like about my own party, it is one political force which may be united enough to do that. Yet – perhaps for understandable reasons – it spent the first few days of Brexit claiming to speak only for the 48 per cent who voted to Remain.
I’m not of course advocating that the Lib Dems should abandon the cause, or to back off their fundamental internationalism. But the nation looks to any political force now capable of uniting them, and that means treating the other side with enough respect to lead them beyond the current impasse.
So this article is rather a public plea to one man. Tim Farron. Tim, history demands that you step into the breach and speak for England – in the sense that Amery meant it – and not just on behalf of the losing side either, but the winning one too.
The Lib Dems campaigned almost wholeheartedly for Remain – the one political force that stayed united during the brutal referendum. But that doesn’t put the other side, now rudderless, outside meaningful dialogue. So this is what Tim should do.
Take this opportunity to articulate the Liberal roots of at least part of the revolt against the EU (see the interviews with Brexit voters in the Guardian) http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/25/meet-10-britons-who-voted-to-leave-the-eu - the rage at the banks, the commitment to local democracy and self-determination. It is no coincidence that former Liberal heartlands voted overwhelmingly to leave (Cornwall, Burnley, Torbay, Pendle, Isle of Wight). Because sometimes, for Liberal-minded people, localism trumps Napoleonic international structures, and that doesn’t make them in any sense racist.
But don’t let the only people who are speaking for them, and interpreting their votes, be Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen.
I know Farron is in Brussels today, speaking to Liberal leaders from across Europe, which gives him the opportunity to speak beyond and above national interests.
He needs to look ahead to a new political division, when the great divide emerging is between Nationalists and Liberals, and where the division will not be 48:52. It is too early for coherent plans, but not too early to speak for the nation as a whole and at its best. For its fundamental tolerance, even on the Brexit side. For its outward-looking focus and its moral commitment to Europe, even from outside the European Union – and, if necessary, our commitment to work for a reformed, flexible EU, even from outside it.
Because what we need now is a clear voice, not from one side or the other, but from the leader of a united party – who understands what the nation is, fundamentally, and says so, clearly and courageously.
Get it wrong, and Liberalism will go down the same plughole as everything else. Get it right, provide the real Liberal narrative of the Brexit protest, and we could just build a new nation.
See my book on the Southern Railways disaster too, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).
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Maybe we'd be better off if politicians just shut up for a while.
They only ever seem to make things worse.
I think this is one of the best oieces I have read since Brexit. I hope Tim Farron will listen to thes profound Liberal ideas and act on them. George Monbiot also had some very good ideas in his Guardian piece/ Maybe you can get together. Anyway thanks for this very wise blog.
Sorry about typos in my Comment.
Actually it's the best piece I've read. But Monbiot is good too.
No, no, Hell no fracking no.
Everybody in politics but Boris needs to shut the hell up.
Dell Boy-Farage has killed your cred yesterday.
Boris for MP. He got us here. He sorts it out.
When children have a fit and throws all their toys out of the IKEA box, you make them put them back in and leave them to clean up their own mess. Otherwise, they never learn the consequences of their actions and become these narcissists idiots who have no feelings for anything else than their own selfish needs and desires.
Hubris hurts, it is suppose to.
I would have taken Lucille to Boris 'knees a long time ago.
This is the time to say : show me what you got Big Boy.
Boris just has Winston's girth, that's about it.
Excessive immigration is just one of the reasons I voted to leave Europe, and I'm fed up with all the accusations of racism, Nazism, xenophobia and every other kind of insult.
I don't "hate" anyone, but I do care about my country, my people and our long-established way of life.
It's not racist to object to having our culture destroyed by floods of immigrants who refuse to integrate, instead demanding that WE adopt THEIR ways.
It's not racist to be concerned about reports of organised mass rapes and general criminality, especially in Germany and Sweden, but also here in Britain.
It's not racist to care about one's own people first and others second.
Independence from Europe isn't something new. I'm old enough to remember life in Britain before we joined, and the adverse effect Europe has had on every aspect of our lives since then. It's not the end of the world, but has the potential to become the start of something better - if only the politicians will let it happen.
I understand, locals in Ibiza, Costa Del Sol, Torremolinos, even Gers want their country back too.
We live in a complicated and interconnected world, a tad more than 40 years ago.
You voted Leave, how do you feel about their selling points, the £350 mil for the NHS, the VIP migrants, and the non free movement of people that were lies.
How do you feel that the Leave Camp is backed by a foreigner - Murdoch, or the complicated consequences of the exit?
Will you leave it to the politicians to sort out this mess, the same politicians ( Boris / Gove & Wife) that have sold working class jobs to cheaper shores and made Financial Services the only thing the UK is good at ( as well as Tax evasion) ?
Do you know of their plan, beside fake-leaking an email so Gove can look Trusthworthy - since Boris is Shyster in chief?
The Footsie is back up, so Armageddon has been avoided, we are good I am told.
Oh la la - I'm not quite sure what you're getting at. It's true that the world is a different place to what it was before we joined the EU, but that's primarily due to a succession of corrupt governments selling us out to their "New World Order" fantasy.
You state, correctly, that the people of every European nation "want their country back". What's wrong with that? This is our country, not the property of a bunch of politicians, most of whom don't even live here.
We've never had even the semblance of a true democracy in Britain. Politicians make decisions and to hell with anyone who objects.
Regarding criminal behaviour, it's not only immigrants committing crimes, though many of them do seem to regard our laws, and Nature's "laws" of common decency with contempt. We're perfectly capable of producing criminals of our own though, and things continue to get worse, primarily as a result of decades of misguided (malicious?) government policy.
In my day, school teachers made excessive use of the cane, that was administered with such force as to make a "swishing" sound. NO adult should be given the "right" to inflict that kind of pain on a child, but things have gone too far the other way, until now even a "wrong word" can result in legal proceedings, and there's often talk of banning parents from administering so much as a disciplinary slap.
EVERYONE except the traditional British person is now a member of a "protected group" with rights far in excess of ours. The slightest "offence" to one of these groups, favoured over our own people, can result in a court appearance on "hate" charges.
Whatever happened to "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me"?
We Brits put up with insults all our lives, from our own people, from "our own" government and from these "protected" groups thanks to political "correctness", which couldn't be less correct if it tried. PC is nothing but an Orwellian form of censorship imported directly from the Communist Manifesto.
We need to make a lot of changes before we can call this "our" country again, and "Brexit" is just the first tiny step in the right direction, though what's really needed is an end to the "money as debt" SCAM perpetrated with government collusion by the privately-owned Bank "of England".
Clarification. When I said "most" politicians don't live here, I was referring to the EU rather than British MPs.
You did not answer my questions.
Gove will sort everything out, looks like he like the cane too.
Boris could not control his relief at the Press Conference as he will not clean his mess.
Liberals - progressives, get your shit together please.
Let's have a laugh, we need it.
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