Hard Brexit will let liberalism thrive in Britain, not snuff it out
Conservative MP for Lichfield
It has become fashionable among some of the young and the habitu?s of Islington wine bars to convince themselves that enthusiasts for Brexit (with the exception, perhaps, of Jeremy Corbyn) are both illiberal and reactionary.
I was proud to be included recently in a list of only 12 MPs of all parties in the House of Commons who voted positively in seven crucial votes on LGBT issues and women?s rights, including those on abortion. Nobody doubts my socially liberal credentials. But I do believe in Brexit too, and a solid one at that ? which means having to leave the Single Market.
This, sadly, conflicts with my heroine, the Leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson. Her triumph in Scotland and her stance on LGBT and other progressive issues resonate with my own beliefs and those of modern Britain. Yet her stated desire for a ?soft? watered-down Brexit reflects the myth that has been constructed by some Remainers that social liberalism, which has flourished in this country, is somehow antithetical to leaving the EU.
Far from it. The arguments against remaining part of the EU were based on sovereignty, economics and border control. The idea that leaving a union of 28 European nations, many of whom are far less progressive than the UK, will somehow undo the social progress of the last few decades is preposterous. Brexit will instead embolden our liberal traditions by giving our courts the freedom to uphold these values.
Ms Davidson has been a passionate advocate for social liberalism and has criticised the Democratic Unionist Party, with whom Conservatives are entering a partnership, for their traditional and antediluvian values. She is right to do so, but it is equally fair to observe that we have co-operated with the DUP over the last seven years, and they in no way hindered David Cameron and his legalisation of same-sex marriage.
Now Ruth is one of the Conservative Party?s biggest assets. But I could not disagree with her more when she pushes for a soft Brexit, which would require Britain to stay in the Single Market. Britain is a naturally liberal country. Our continued membership of the failing EU risks stoking a rebellion, not just against the established economic order of free markets, but also against social liberalism.
Progressive rights such as gay marriage, abortion and maternity leave have come to be wrapped up with the European project. This could not be further from the truth. Britain was way ahead of the European curve when it introduced same-sex marriage in 2014. Even today, only 11 of the EU?s 28 member states allow gay marriage. It is a complete misunderstanding of European politics to argue that the EU brought same-sex marriage and women?s rights to the UK. Instead, we introduced these reforms despite the traditional, conservative, and often deeply religious, views of the majority in the European Union.
By leaving the EU and retaining our cherished liberalism, we are demonstrating that these values stem not from officials in Brussels, but rather from the British people themselves. Single Market membership or not, tolerant liberalism is in the very DNA of our country ? it is not something granted to us by politicians and cannot be taken away easily. For I believe Brexit, like pregnancy, is binary: either we have it or we do not.
If we remain in the Single Market, the supreme court will remain in Strasbourg not London, Brussels will still control our immigration policy, and we will not be free to negotiate our own trade agreements. This is not what the British people voted for in the referendum, and this would immediately reignite divisions in the Conservative Party. It would also revive Ukip, whose social views are certainly not at all in line with modern Britain and, in some cases, are virulently anti-gay.
The social liberalism that underpins this country is not going anywhere, with or without Brexit. Indeed, a truly independent judiciary ? free of the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg ? is part of our great liberal tradition and has defended us from fascism while continental Europe was riven apart by it. If Brexit is weakened, only bigots will benefit and our nation?s long history of tolerance will be undermined.