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A letter to my MP, the Honourable Ben Howlett, member for Bath

28 June 2016 No Comment

The Honourable Ben Howlett MP
Member for Bath
House of Commons, United Kingdom

Dear Ben,

I need to come clean at the beginning of this letter. I did not vote for you in the general election. I am unlikely to vote for you or any member of your party in the future. We come from different political, and I would imagine cultural backgrounds. Nonetheless we were on the same side of the debate for the referendum. This as I will return to, offers me some hope for repairing the damage that has been done.

I write without the ability to offer any answers but with the hope that some of my perspectives might be useful in helping you reach the difficult decisions you will have to make on how to vote in parliament over the next few months. I am an immigrant of Australian birth and a UK citizen. I am a researcher, but one that holds a post in a foreign university, and a small business owner, and a resident of your constituency. Because a substantial proportion of my income comes from overseas the referendum, and its outcome, has made me substantially better off in the short term, just as it makes the UK a substantially less attractive place to do my work in the longer term. This is an irony that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

As you consider your position on key votes over the next few months I would ask you to consider the following three issues as central to the argument of how we proceed together:

First, the platform the referendum was fought on was a farce. We are rapidly heading to a situation where no-one will get what they thought they were voting for. Those of us who voted to remain are told it is impossible because the referendum fell the other way by a 2% margin. Those who voted to leave so as to repatriate funds paid to the EU were the first to be told they were lied to. Those that voted to leave due to concerns over immigration were the next to be disappointed. As we go into negotiations and it becomes clear that we will retain the vast majority of EU regulations and requirements so as to retain access to the single market those who voted for less regulation will the last group to discover that no element of the Leave platform will actually be delivered in practice. Referenda are blunt instruments at the best of times.

The result is also a demographic tragedy. It has already been suggested that by the time negotiations are concluded a re-run referendum could deliver a majority to remain in the EU, even if no-one changed their minds[1, 2, 3], simply due to the divergence in the proportion of young and old voters voting Leave and Remain. The combination of a lack of a clear plan of action, demographics and the inevitable delay for negotiation, and the divide in the community the referendum has created means that there is no mandate, democratic or otherwise, for a specific course of action or negotiation.

I ask you to consider how a consensus can be created for a course of action that has a demonstrable democratic mandate as parliament moves towards a decision on whether to make an Article 50 notification to the European Council.

Secondly, I ask you to consider the form of leadership we need as you consider your choice in electing a new leader of the Conservative Party. I will not offer a direct opinion as my own political bias clouds my view of many of your colleagues. I have been reminded recently of Nolan’s seven Principles of Public Life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership[4]. That these seem terribly old-fashioned, even naive, should be a concern. I am more than happy to work with those I disagree with, the best decisions come from arguing an issue out from multiple perspectives. But these qualities, qualities that underpin constructive discussion and resolution of difficult issues, have been notably missing from public life in recent weeks. We desperately need more than political gamesmanship to resolve these issues. We need leadership focussed on building consensus.

I ask you to consider in your choice of vote for leader of the parliamentary conservative party the qualities of leadership that will deliver consensus for the whole country, or failing that the courage to call a general election to deliver a democratic mandate for action.

And this brings me to my third point. Many people voted in this referendum for Leave for different reasons. Many of those reasons are deeply rooted in anger and disenfranchisement as a consequence of changes in the world. That areas with some of the most EU funding voted most strongly to leave, that the slogan of “take back control” resonated at so many different levels[5], that level of education so strongly correlated with voting intention[3], means we have a problem. Not a problem that can be dealt with by telling people they are wrong, or by explaining that the rising tide of the free market floats all boats, nor a problem that can be dealt with by simple leftist re-distribution. I can easily imagine being sick of being told that you’re wrong, failing to see this rising tide, and resenting being seen as a charity case (or indeed the political punching bag for a right vs left fight). We have a fractured society, in which our economic and political systems have failed to distribute the gains that immigration and globalization have created. The likely centrist fudge which will be made to resolve our current issues will completely fail to address the underlying issues that led to the referendum result. And we ignore those issues at our peril.

The country is split: whether North-South, over 50-under 50, city-rural, Labour voting-Tory voting, Remain-Leave. Those hard dichotomies are the result of two-party political system that is no longer fit for purpose, a polarised and politicised mass media, an increasing divide between rich and poor and between those with opportunities and those without, and are reinforced by the filter bubbles of social media (and the perhaps much greater bubble caused by the exclusion of the 25% of residents who’ve never used the internet). It is those hard splits, the binary decision making, more than any specific treaty or referendum that will kill us. The false choice of this or that; in or out, Labour or Tory, rather than finding new ways to reach consensus, to listen and understand the concerns of those who are disenfranchised. I don’t doubt that you and I would have different ideas about how to work to resolve those issues but that is a strength, not a weakness. Chances are we’re both wrong, but ideally in different and complementary ways.

And this is where I return to the point of hope. We may come from different political traditions. But we were on the same side of the referendum, arguing against many of our “natural” political allies. What this shows more than anything else is that there isn’t really a “natural” political landscape. The Punch and Judy, zero-sum game, in which there has to be a winning and losing side is something we need to be working towards consigning to the past. I don’t have any real answers on how, just a sense that we need to listen more the grievances that people have and work, somehow, towards a collective demonstrable consensus on what happens next.

Because if someone “wins” the argument over if and how we leave the EU then we will all have lost.

Yours truly,

Cameron Neylon


  1. https://twitter.com/gemmaklowe/status/747172162491023365/photo/1
  2. https://twitter.com/WillBrambley/status/747450027518398464
  3. http://lordashcroftpolls.com/2016/06/how-the-united-kingdom-voted-and-why
  4. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-7-principles-of-public-life
  5. http://www.perc.org.uk/project_posts/thoughts-on-the-sociology-of-brexit/

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