It is difficult to move from one political party to another. A huge chunk of the electorate votes for the same party at every election, regardless of policy. It is particularly hard to make a change when you used to be an MP, with longstanding members as friends, not to mention your history with the party and electoral success garnered over decades.
Advancing such a change has been in gestation for several years. In part, it is about policies but these, quite literally, come and go. The real drivers are values, and how they inform policymaking and behaviour. Politics is not an exact science. As Otto von Bismarck famously said: “Laws are like sausages, it is better not seeing them made.” But we do need to know, whatever happens behind the scenes, that the reference point for a politician is a set of values, referred to in choppy conditions as well as smooth.
For me, advancing the national interest, promoting life fulfilment, enhancing and protecting individual freedom, and applying the rule of “good” law through consensus are values worth fighting for. Let me briefly examine each one.
First, the national interest: basically, making sure the UK is prosperous, cohesive, secure and internationally respected. In my view, Brexit – literally in any form – is likely to be at odds with the national interest but, since the referendum, obsessive party interest (Conservative and Labour) has prevented the emergence of a workable plan.
While I recognised the referendum result and, with a heavy heart, voted for Article 50, I hoped the government would be more respectful of the national interest. But from the ill-fated general election campaign of 2017 onwards, this was increasingly subordinated to party concerns. It is important to stress this is not just about the act of leaving the European Union but the signals this action sends about the sort of country the Conservative Party now wants to shape.
Turning to life fulfilment, I believe strongly in a need to reform our education system. My time as chair of the Education Committee and, subsequently, chair of the Commission on Sustainable Learning for Life, Work and a Changing Economy were both platforms where I celebrated education but also promoted my belief in reform and extra resources.
I link economic productivity with social mobility, believing it to be a shocking waste of human talent not to provide properly for every young person. I want to be a member of a party which has the character and capacity to sort this out.
Priorities for education should include a real boost for the further education sector as well as properly identified pathways towards different employment options, an end to blunt league tables system supported by a refocus on a broader curriculum, meaningful action to tackle regional disparities and the well-known rural/coastal challenges, and, crucially, a more linear approach from toddlers to lifelong learning.
Protecting and enhancing individual freedom might be considered a Conservative value, but this is also about rights and, above all, how we treat people, including immigrants. The days when Edward Heath could invite thousands of Ugandan Asians to the UK to save them from Idi Amin’s persecution and then highlight their contribution to our economy and society are, seemingly, well over within the Conservative Party. Today the Windrush scandal stands as a symbol of the Conservative approach to treating individuals.
I am committed to representative democracy and the rule of law. At heart, I am a pluralist – I see the rich variety of attitudes and cultures as a good thing. It is about consensus, engagement and openness, attitudes that should define our political processes. This is already a hallmark of the Independent Group.
I have decided to register as a supporter of the Independent Group. I do so because my values matter to me and I think I can fight for them more effectively if I make this change.
Neil Carmichael was Conservative MP for Stroud, 2010-17
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