I have therefore long believed that the nation state on its own is an inadequate mechanism to deal with the challenges we currently face. We are going to have to sacrifice a degree of sovereignty and work together across borders. I therefore strongly supported staying in the EU because I believe that it is perfectly possible to develop effective ways of managing continent wide problems without creating stultifying bureaucracy.
But that doesn't mean that I think the EU is perfect and we can't improve on what it does. It also doesn't mean that there is no point in engaging in the debate about what the remains of the UK should do in the event of exit.
As someone who spent a lot of time campaigning against Brexit I am starting to worry a lot about the approach that many progressive people are taking. The main strategy seems to be to oppose the whole thing, point out every stupidity and hypocrisy and hope that as time goes on more and more of the people who voted for it realise how different the reality is going to be from the promises made by politicians.
It is possible that this will work and that there will be enough of a clamour about how badly we were lied to for a second referendum on the actual deal to be politically unavoidable and winnable by a clear enough margin to prevent any accusations of the establishment over-riding the first vote.
It is also entirely possible that this will not happen and that Brexit will actually take place. Progressives cannot therefore sit back and leave the debate about what kind of Brexit it will be to the extreme right. We need to put forward a platform of positive policies that the UK could adopt after Brexit and create as much pressure as we can for those policies to be adopted.
For example, one of the most important areas of EU legislation has been in agriculture. What approach do we want UK to take if exit happens? There are areas of EU regulation where it would be very wise for us to stay in step with the rest of Europe and press for stronger shared standards. For example when it comes to animal welfare there is not much point in the UK having stronger standards than the EU if that simply means our farmers go out of business and farmers across the border with weaker regulations take our trade. Equally we do not, or at least I hope we don't, want to cut our animal welfare standards so that we can sell to Europe because our animals are farmed more cruelly and more cheaply.
There are, however, other areas where we ought to be able to do a lot better than the EU does at the moment. Agricultural subsidies send a powerful message to farmers about what the public wants to help them to do and what it doesn't. We could offer subsidies in ways that enable large cereal farmers operating giant machinery across huge open fields to collect a lot of public money for being rich enough to own a lot of land. I don't think that is very sensible. Or we could cap the level of subsidy that any one owner, or conglomeration of companies, could collect and direct the subsidies at smaller farmers who are doing useful but unprofitable things with their land. For upland farms this might mean that we stop subsidies for sheep rearing which guarantee that hillsides remain artificially empty of tree cover and result in rainfall running rapidly off the land taking soil and nutrients down the rivers to help flood towns and cities. Instead we could subsidise diverse tree planting and encourage land to be used in ways that encourage the retention of water in the uplands and its slow release over time. We might also wish to subsidise small farmers to invest in diversifying businesses so that they make reasonable profits out of adding value to what they produce. Cheese and yoghurt making at good prices instead of milk sales at low value. We might also wish to subsidise the creation of more tourist accommodation and attractions in farming areas. We might also wish to support farmers with some of the costs associated with avoiding environmentally damaging practices such as using neonicitinoid coated seeds that are known to interfere with bee navigation and which damage creatures living in the soil. I would also wish to see us encouraging farmers to invest in ways of generating energy that have a lighter impact on the environment such as heat exchange, and carefully selected forms of solar, wind and water power.
The point is not whether this list of proposals is one that every reader immediately identifies with and wishes to support. The point is whether we are capable of developing better policies than will be put forward by the Ministry for Brexit or by a Department of Agriculture headed up by a woman who took a lot of persuading that climate change actually existed and spent her time at the Department for Energy and Climate Change scrapping every subsidy for renewable energy that she could find. Are we content to leave the construction of UK policy post Brexit to the extreme right wing whilst we adopt a purist position of saying that people should never have been conned into voting for Brexit? Or do we offer a better alternative policy and press for that to be adopted?
I think that the question answers itself. And the argument applies well beyond the one example. On regional policy, science, investment, education, and economic policy there is going to be a really important shift in the direction that UK policy takes. Are we content to let that policy be developed by Brexit enthusiasts who think the solution to everything is lower taxes and letting market forces decide everything? Or are we going to try and offer clearer, more carefully thought through and more widely popular policy alternatives for the UK after Brexit?