David Cameron has, against all the odds, transformed our country for the better in many ways, and achieved a great deal of the things he set out to do in 2005. Yet he has been defeated by that age-old Tory problem, Britain’s relationship with the EU; and it looks as if that is what is going to define his place in history.
Those transformational policies and approaches delivered in Government over the past six years are, however, the foundation on which our future can be built. We have it within our power to choose whether the One Nation Cameron approach is remembered as one which set Britain up for success or one which was rejected in favour of managed decline.
Our national decision has been and will probably continue to be hugely destabilising for our country – indeed, one of my most sad observations is that, at least in the near and medium term, the people who are most at risk from this instability are those who stood to benefit most from the policies of the Prime Minister.
But, to quote one of my most-used phrases, we are where we are. So how should we think about our future? We must, must, must not retreat into ourselves. We must not pull up the drawbridge, shut ourselves away, and look backwards. We have to look forward. We live, in that horrible phrase, in a global world; today’s sovereignty is completely different to what is was 50, 100, 200 years ago; and our choices in the coming months will define our future in a way that very little has done for years. What should guide our choices? What does ‘taking control’ actually mean?
One of the most deep-seated problems that this ‘taking control’ is going to have to confront is that the promises made by the Leave campaigns are largely meaningless. Many of them have already started to be walked back. We don’t have £350 million a week (or even £100 million) extra to spend on the NHS as a result of this. We – surely – are not going to kick out all the EU nationals who live, work and love here. We are going to have to work incredibly hard to persuade all those big and small employers that they can continue to have confidence in our future, and they can keep jobs and investment here. We have some big choices to make about how we continue to cooperate with other nations to protect ourselves, to work together, and to prosper in the future.
So as a nation, and as a party, we have some big strategic calls to make, which really, really matter. We have to answer to and deliver for the majority of people in our country who supported those ‘take control’ messages. I am so sad that that number of our fellow citizens felt that they had so little to lose that such a wholesale change is necessary. We have to find a way forward for our – now imperilled – national Union. We have to find a way to navigate the headwinds around the world, and set ourselves on a path that will be more than just ‘fine’ and will bring us thriving success and a bright future.
I don’t pretend to have answers to all of this. But there are a few things I do think we can do to take control of our future in a meaningful way. First, it is time to recognise that our nation has been existentially changed by this vote and that that is the context we are now in. There is no point in talking about what could have been – we are changed. But it’s complicated. Our self-perception, identity and how we think of ourselves matters – are we a nation that says yes or one that says no?
Second, we need to deal with reality and not misconceptions. We need to find ways of responding to worries before they become so insurmountable that people take a risk of this magnitude. That may well include changes to our democratic representation, and certainly includes better ways for individuals to affect, understand, and engage in national life. We have to find ways to repair trust in experts, in politicians, in leaders.
Finally, despite our concerns, we have to face the future with confidence – in our people, our businesses, our skills, our creativity – and let those flourish; we must be a nation that wants to lead, not one that has decided to close off. So we need to find more ways to do more of what we’re good at, stop doing things that aren’t useful and productive, and make the case for us as world beaters. We can choose to go big or we can settle. I know which I choose.
We are a resilient, resourceful, creative nation with a huge capacity to lead. We must live up to those characteristics and enable more of our fellow citizens to do the same. It is not enough to say no to what we don’t want – we must have the confidence to say yes to a world in which openness, liberal values and innovation define success; and ensure that all of our fellow citizens are able to reap the benefits.
In the coming months, we in the Conservative Party will be having a leadership election. How we conduct that, what our potential leaders say, and what we members tell them we want from our next leader is going to make the difference in how we as a nation move into the future. If you are not already a member of the Conservative Party then you can join here (do it quickly as there’s a 3 month qualifying period before you can vote in leadership elections) and actually take control in a way that is confident, meaningful and of benefit to our nation.
Fiona Melville is a TRG board member and writes here in a personal capacity