In 1830 the American politician Daniel Webster cried “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable”. It was a gallant cry. A cry of energy and hope.
On Thursday 23 June, the British people will decide whether to remain in the European Union or to leave. It is a choice that will have a huge impact on Britain’s future and our place in the world, our security and our influence.
I won’t be voting to remain because I think the EU is perfect – I don’t. But with so much instability around the world, I don’t want us to leave one of the most successful peace projects in history. The EU has helped keep the peace among its 28 member states with 503 million citizens for decades. Anyone who has visited the battlefields of Europe and seen the graves of those who died in the First and Second World Wars will know how significant that achievement is. We must never return to a time when we are at war with our neighbours.
I’ll be voting yes first and foremost because I want to remain part of a group of nations working together, committed to peace, security and democracy. A group of nations committed to challenging fundamentalism in all its forms. France and Belgium have faced attacks on their society with unimaginable dignity in recent months. They are not giving into a culture of hate. The best way of resisting is to be part of something greater than ourselves: Europe offers strength in unity.
I believe it is in Britain’s best interests to ensure we continue to have a strong voice at the top table. Yes, like all big institutions, the EU requires reform. But why would we want to lose our influence? It’s clear that so many of the issues we face today, from terrorism to the need to tackle climate change, transcend our nation’s borders. Through working with our neighbours to solve these problems, we can achieve so much more than by cutting ourselves off.
We must stay in Europe if we are ever to get a financial transaction tax and challenge widespread tax evasion; if we are to respond appropriately to the challenge of climate change; and if we are to collectively help tackle the biggest humanitarian refugee crisis since the Second World War.
The Vote Leave campaign seek to scaremonger about migration but Britain has been a melting pot of ‘foreign-ness’ since the Romans arrived and handed out Roman citizenship to any Brit who wanted it. Tacitus, a Senator living through those ancient times, describes in his testimony how the Roman rulers in Britain were delighted to share their culture with the British. Instead of jealously guarding their privileges, they were eager to share them. They understood that if their way of life was to be stable and endure, then it needed to be inclusive.
To our credit we have been doing the same ever since: absorbing the language and cultures of all who have settled in our “green and pleasant land”. Britishness to me is not about colour of skin or where your grandmother was born. It is about attitude. Scepticism, irreverence – yes, but also gentility, tolerance, respect.
One constituent emailed me to say: “Like many others, being Jewish, I would not be alive today if the UK had shirked its responsibility just a few decades ago”. Britain didn’t shirk then. And it shouldn’t shirk now.
Besides, if we leave, Britain will still have to follow EU rules if we want to access the single market – we just won’t have any say in making the rules anymore. That’s been Norway’s experience. Why would we want to lose our place at the top table?
This decision isn’t just about our security and our global influence, though both benefit from staying in Europe. I also want us to continue enjoying the social charter rights that our EU membership has provided, the millions of jobs that are linked to British trade with Europe, and the investment and growth that being part of the world’s largest single market of 500 million people brings.
Every day, working people rely on rights that Britain’s EU membership has granted. Rights to minimum paid leave, rights for agency workers, paid maternity and paternity leave, equal pay, anti-discrimination laws and protection for the workforce when companies change ownership. The list goes on.
Labour fought for those rights and Labour in partnership with trade unions stopped the Tories from attempting to diminish them in their recent EU negotiations. Over the last five years I have seen the way the Tories have attacked disabled and vulnerable people by removing essential support. I fear how quickly some of these basic workplace rights would be torn up if Cameron and the Tories had their way.
No, the European Union is not perfect. But we are stronger, safer and better off together. The choice is not exit or surrender but how we remain and transform Europe from within.
As Daniel Webster, the American Senator who fought for the Northern and Southern states of America to live as one, said:
“I have not allowed myself, sir, to look beyond the Union, to see what might be hidden in the dark recess behind.
“I have not coolly weighed the chances of preserving liberty when the bonds that unite us together shall be broken asunder.
“I have not accustomed myself to hang over the precipice of disunion, to see whether, with my short sight I can fathom the depth of the abyss below….
“While the Union lasts, we have high, exciting, gratifying prospects spread out before us, for us and our children. Beyond that I seek not to penetrate the veil.”