As I struggled to buy calamine lotion last week to treat a toddler with chickenpox, the political silence about what effect leaving the European Union is having on medicine supply chains hit hard.
This experience is not unique. Whether it is businesses overwhelmed with red tape, care homes missing staff or rising food prices, the public are asking why such difficulties keep happening – and finding that MPs are avoiding giving an honest answer, let alone a solution. To fix something, you first must name it. And that means getting over the myth that talking about Europe is code for re-running referendums.
For fear of saying the wrong thing, many in Labour claim it is better to say nothing at all about Brexit. But such reticence does not honour those who voted Leave – or Remain. Each wanted their vote to mean something better than chaos at the borders or businesses in peril. Post-Brexit, there are many ways forward for the UK and the EU – and most don’t end in a trade war as a distraction from a prime minister’s personal misconduct.
Silence also means Boris Johnson gets to define what – if any – future relationship Britain can have with Europe. Indeed, the more Labour shies away, the easier it is to misrepresent us as wearing blue berets with gold stars on, singing Ode to Joy and pleading with the EU to take us back.
In 2010, Labour chose not to talk about what Gordon Brown did to avert the financial crisis. In 2022, voters still believe Labour “maxed out” the credit card. The notion we were fiscally irresponsible became part of British political folklore. Thus George Osborne’s austerity wasn’t confronted until it was too late. Without action now, any future Labour government will be hamstrung by the dogma that “European” means “anti-British” – and our ability to achieve social progress will be stunted as a result.
Labour cannot wait until it wins an election to show how a confident nation can deliver for British interests by working with our neighbours, not shouting at them. As the appalling situation in Ukraine shows, the world moves quickly. Ukraine’s application to join the EU also reflects how Johnson’s isolationism makes even less sense now.
Europe has been a useful bogeyman in British politics for generations – including on the left. The paralysis of this government in grappling with the Northern Ireland protocol shows why this cannot be Labour’s default option. Johnson’s approach is costing us all. His government claims the impact of leaving the EU on food distribution and prices is negligible. Farmers, retailers and families all know the grim reality. We can’t solve the cost of living crisis without revisiting what leaving the single market and customs union has done to grocery shopping. Economic growth has fallen 4% on the 2016 trend – every percentage point representing £9bn in lost revenues for vital public services.
How can it be fair that our constituents are now paying more to feed their families, small businesses are struggling to import or export and our children are missing opportunities, all while a political elite still claim to be “taking back control” – just not yet.
Aneurin Bevan once argued that “silent pain evokes no response”. The same is true of silent politics. It will damage our national interest for generations if hostility about the UK working with the EU seeps into public life without dissent. To be able to do business with the biggest trading block in the world, stand shoulder to shoulder against Russian aggression and tackle climate change, terrorism and social injustice, Britain needs us to speak up now. Keeping stumm is not in anyone’s interest except Johnson’s.
Stella Creasy is the Labour MP for Walthamstow and chair of the Labour Movement for Europe