Engaging with Voters in the 21st Century

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In October 2007 Jeremy launched the Toolkit for New Politicians developed by the UK-South East Europe Forum project run by the British Council, in which he had been a participant, in Sofia in Bulgaria. His speech was entitled Engaging with Voters in the 21st Century.

Good morning. My name is Jeremy Hargreaves and I was one of the participants in the UK-South East Europe Forum. I had the pleasure to come here to a seminar here in Sofia in February 2005, and it’s a great pleasure to be here again.

At that seminar we spent a very stimulating and productive weekend talking about how we can engage people more widely – party members, and also the wider public – in policy-making. It was fascinating to exchange experiences and views with other participants from right across Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Croatia and Macedonia, and I learnt a lot from it.

Many of those kinds of ideas about political engagement are exactly the kinds of issues highlighted in The New Politician’s Toolkit, put together by James Graham of the New Politics Network, now renamed as Unlock Democracy.

The principles and techniques that it sets out are very useful for showing politicians how to engage the public successfully.

The challenges to engagement in the 21st century

And in the twenty-first century, politicians do find themselves with a range of challenges in engaging the electorate. Across many parts of Europe, turnouts in elections are falling – increasingly, many people are simply not bothering to vote.

The reasons for this are different in different countries and different political cultures. But a few of the reasons put forward are these. Read more…

Cracks in the Ice?

Next year it will be twenty years since Margaret Thatcher made her famous ‘Bruges speech’ . That event definitively marked the shift of first herself and then very soon afterwards the British public, away from being friendly to the European Community – in the wake of the 1975 referendum in which she played a leading part in the yes campaign – to the hostility to anything emerging from Brussels, to which we have become so used ever since.

And the following year it will be twenty years since the Berlin wall came down and the countries of eastern and southern Europe began their slow march towards membership of the EU which finally ended for most of them with accession in 2004 or at the start of this year.

Those two events have been the cornerstones of both the development of the EU, and Britain’s response to it, over those last twenty years.

Ever since the late 1980s there has been a general perception, strongly reinforced by the ambitions for the EU of the President of the European Commission 1985-1995, Jacques Delors, that the European Union is gathering ever more powers unto itself, in promotion of ‘ever closer union’ (even though, like many of history’s best remembered lines, that phrase in the Treaty of Rome meant something somewhat different). A series of inter-governmental conferences (IGCs) which generated a new treaties reinforced this perception – helped by the fact that much of their substance concerned fairly technical and incomprehensible process matters, taken by many in Britain as proof that there must be something rum afoot. The perception of growing power of the EU was further reinforced by the former communist countries’ determination to join it.

At a few times this perception of growing power was real – the most obvious example being the creation of the Euro, and associated architecture of monetary management such as the European Central Bank – but often it was simply a perception. No matter, however, the citizens of the EU, and of Britain in particular, believed it was growing.

The response of the British public, and in particular the media, has been unambiguous. In popular imagination the European Union became synonymous with an image of anonymous if rather corpulent Belgians, sitting in a drab grey office block somewhere in Brussels, paid a lot of money just to sit there all day long identifying further areas in which they could impose their socialist control over Britain, and roll back the freedoms handed down from generation unto generation through a thousand years of British history.

My favourite illustration of the British public’s view of the EU is the story of the public meeting some time in the early 2000s which was held to debate the upcoming referendum on the European Constitution, and turned to the issue of the difficulty of framing a neutral and fair question for the referendum. “I think”, said one tweedy lady who stood up, “that a fair question would be ‘Do you want this country to be run by the Germans?’”, and sat down to great applause. Read more…

The Liberal Democrats and Europe

This article outlining the Liberal Democrats’ approach to Europe was written by Jeremy for a Portuguese magazine, Focus, during the 2005 General Election campaign.

No issue has played a more consistent role, or caused more trouble, in British post-war politics, than the question of Britain’s relationship with our continental neighbours. Every few years it bursts on to the stage to split political parties and help bring down governments, on both sides of the political divide. In large part, this is because the two dominant parties, the right-wing Conservatives, and traditionally left-wing Labour party, have been very confused about what to think about the development of the European Union. Indeed over the last twenty years or so, they have essentially swapped their positions around on Europe: through the process of British accession and the first period of membership of the EU, it was the Conservatives who were pro-European, and Labour who were against. But in an extraordinary switch, since the mid-1980s the right has moved towards its present position of being divided between those who want to ‘repatriate’ some of the EU powers and those who want to leave the EU entirely, and the Labour party has been broadly supportive of the general development of the EU.

But through all this changing around, the centre Liberal Democrats have been consistent in our support for the development of what is now the European Union – with the UK playing a leading part in it. When the origins of the EU were being laid down by the founding six nations in the 1950s, the Liberal party saw that this represented the best chance for the peaceful future development of our continent, and supported Britain being part of it. Liberals played a central part in the referendum on membership of the EEC in 1975, and their successor Liberal Democrats remain the strongest voice for Britain’s positive engagement with the EU today. Read more…

The European Constitution is good for Britain

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This speech was given by Jeremy at the Liberal Democrat Conference in Bournemouth on 20 September 2004, proposing a motion supporting the European Constitution.

Some people think that everything that comes from the EU should be welcomed, uncritically.

If a proposal arrives with a Brussels postmark, then it must be good.

Well, I don’t think that. And, fortunately, as a party the Liberal Democrats don’t think that either.

If a proposal from the EU will improve the lives of the citizens of Britain and of Europe – will improve their security, improve their prosperity, will make their lives better – then we support it.

But if it doesn’t – if it’s unnecessary, if it breaks the important Liberal Democrat principle that decisions should be taken as close as possible to the people they affect – then we will reject it. Read more…

Why I believe in Europe

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The European Union exists in order to improve the quality of the lives of its citizens, and to help them tackle the challenges they face in life.

Since it was created, it has been hugely successful in doing this – whether through preventing war in western Europe (the longest period of peace in a thousand years), or by helping all our prosperity through closer working together, or by making our day to day lives easier when travelling in the EU or in buying European food or wine. Being part of the European Union has been very good for us.

And it has achieved this by effectively replacing conflict in Europe with the rule of law between countries. Of course Europeans still disagree – what’s wrong with that? – the difference is that we now hammer out our differences around a conference table rather than on a battlefield. This is the great achievement of the European Union.

Of course the European Union is not perfect – far from it. It is too often undemocratic, unclear in its working, and above all remote from its citizens. But these are not reasons not to be part of it – any more than disagreeing with the British Government is a reason to leave Britain. It is a reason to fight for these principles in Europe.

The process of the European Convention and the Inter-Governmental Conference following it is a tremendous opportunity to tackle many of these problems in Europe. For the first time, representatives of all the Governments in Europe, the Parliaments, and the European Parliament, are getting together to try to find a solution.

I want to see a Europe which is united under the rule of democracy and law, from the Atlantic to the borders of Russia.

I want to see the European Union under proper democratic control, with the voters choosing the people and policies to run Europe in the European elections every five years.

I want to see Europe working together to tackle criminals, who don’t stop at borders.

I want to see the European Union keeping out of areas where the member countries want to do things in different ways, and there is nothing to be gained by harmonisation.

And I want to see Europe finally making its voice heard powerfully on the world stage, by speaking together.

I want to see a strong Britain, leading a strong Europe.

The 21st Century Challenge is to make European Politics Normal

For many years – both before and after the referendum in 1975 – the challenge to pro-Europeans in Britain was to win the battle over British membership of the European Community. Those who believe that Britain’s interests are best served by a peaceful and prosperous and united Europe, with the UK playing a leading role in it, had a titanic task in continually having to fight for the public’s support. Against them was ranged a mixed alliance including among others those who had never got beyond 1945 and the firm view that the best way of dealing with some of our continental neighbours was fighting them, those with long memories and lingering fantasies of Imperial Isolation, and those who believed that we would be much better throwing in our lot wholeheartedly with the Yanks.

It’s a battle we must continue not to neglect. One glance at the coverage of almost any even vaguely European-related issue in almost in any newspaper, is enough to remind us, if we needed it, of the sheer bile and vitriol constantly poured on the European project. Pro-Europeans have a continuing and constant duty to combat this, and continue to remind the public why it is that Britain’s interests are best served by being inside the EU.

But the need to do this should not blind us from the fact that in 2004 pro-Europeans find themselves in a somewhat unfamiliar situation. Read more…

Why Enlarging the EU is in Britain’s Interest

The European Union is in the process of carrying out the biggest ‘Enlargement’ in its history, bringing in ten new member states to its east and south, to take it up to 25 member states in all. Read more…