I am a Liberal Democrat to the core. I believe that the rights we hold are universal and that people and nations always achieve more working together in harmony than they do apart.
So why have I come to believe that Britain should leave the European Union? Why would I challenge the sacred cow that is meant to bind together all those in my party?
Quite simply – because I am a liberal, a democrat and an internationalist. And what the European Union has become, contrary to the dreams of those of us who fought for our membership in the 1970s, is none of these things.
At the core of our principles lies the belief that power should be held as close as possible to individuals and their communities and that those who wield that power should be accountable to it.
In the European Union, true power is held behind closed doors in the Council of Ministers, who make decisions away from the cameras and above the heads of voters. How can I continually advocate the devolution of power from Whitehall to local government, while applauding the transfer of power from our flawed but elected parliament to an unelected and unaccountable EU bureaucracy?
Some progressives argue that the EU forces us to enact regulations, from environmental standards to labour laws, that our elected representatives otherwise would not. However seemingly benign, this undermines the very principle of liberal democracy. We end up with no answer to the final two of Tony Benn’s famous ‘questions to the powerful’: To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?
Even if you like some EU regulations, however undemocratic, do we not have a responsibility to the rest of the world? Free trade has for the best part of two centuries been the liberal solution for peace and prosperity between nations. But inside the European Union, that principle ends at its borders. Why should African countries be forced to pay 30 – 60 per cent import tariffs if they want to sell cocoa products to British chocolate factories? Are they not entitled, especially given Europe’s terrible legacy of colonialism, to a fair deal and an equal footing?
Thousands of refugees are fleeing the Middle East and North Africa yet the ‘free movement of peoples’ inside the European Union has in effect become a closed door to the rest of the world. Moving to Britain should be a question of the skills you can contribute and the values you share – not the passport you hold. Unshackled from the EU, I believe the nations of Europe and beyond will be far better served working to solve this issue together, rather than acting through a failed bureaucracy.
So with a heavy heart, in the upcoming referendum, I will vote to leave the EU and have joined with other party members and supporters to set up the Liberal Leave campaign group. I do this not in spite of being a liberal, but because I am a liberal.
Paul Keetch is a former Lib Dem MP