Report: Holding a civilised conversation on Brexit in Stockton South

Dr. Paul Williams MP hosted a discussion on Brexit in Thornaby Academy School on Friday 25 January. Eleven participants were carefully selected to represent a balanced sample of the local population, with views evenly split between Remainers and Leavers. Perhaps inevitably, the majority of attendees were older and retired people, though a couple of young faces enlivened the discussion.

Paul welcomed the group and thanked CommonGround for suggesting the event to him. He hoped it would provide a forum for him to listen and respond to all sides of the local debate, including a wider audience of his constituents, to whom the event was broadcast on Facebook Live. Helen Noteyoung from BBC Tees did a great job of making everyone feel at home and facilitating the discussion. Participants were each given one minute to make an opening statement on how they voted in the 2016 referendum and why, before discussion began on the Brexit process and ideas for the future.

Four people had voted Leave. Their reasons included: lack of democracy in the EU; freedom of movement and uncontrolled immigration; European courts overruling UK ones; and our financial contributions to Europe being a “waste of money”. The five Remain voters mainly cited economic arguments: being part of the largest single market in the world and being able to trade freely with our partners. This was especially important for one participant whose family business trades frequently with Northern Ireland and the Republic. Remain voters also felt that leaving the EU would reduce British influence in the world and jeopardise our security. “Stronger together” was a common refrain. One very passionate lady had arrived in a brightly coloured pro-EU sweatshirt and an orange Liberal Democrats badge. She was concerned about peace, pollution and the environment, and pointed out that all these issues needed to be tackled across borders. She also reminded everyone that the North East had benefited hugely from EU investment and its manufacturing industries would be very hard hit by a no-deal Brexit.

Together, the participants formed a fascinating microcosm of the current state of debate in Britain. One Remain voter, a Labour supporter and retired NHS nurse, said that as a Democrat he would now vote to Leave. The only participant from an ethnic minority hadn’t voted in 2016 because she didn’t feel she had enough information to make a well-informed choice. Her main concern was the rising cost of food caused by the fall in the pound and how this situation might worsen. A college student—too young to vote in the referendum—said that she and her friends wanted to remain because of the opportunities the EU offered to live and study in other countries. Another Remainer who described himself as on the centre-left of politics was conciliatory in tone and criticised the Remain campaign for failing to set out a positive vision of Britain’s future in the EU.

Everyone agreed that Theresa May’s Government has made a “complete mess” of the Brexit negotiations. No one supported her proposed deal and there was little faith in politicians in general. Jeremy Corbyn was roundly criticised for refusing to engage in dialogue with the Prime Minister, while many felt that the  leaders of ‘Vote Leave’ had all “disappeared” after the referendum.

Paul Williams, the local MP, had voted to Remain when he was still a GP due to concerns about the damage leaving the EU would do to the NHS. He is now in favour of a People’s Vote to break the deadlock in Parliament and warned that a no-deal Brexit would be disastrous. Local employers have told him it would damage jobs, while the North East Chamber of Commerce echoes the sentiment that manufacturing businesses would suffer badly. Paul challenged some of the Leave voters over the assertion that there would be economic benefits to exiting the EU. However, claims that because of our overall trade imbalance the EU “needs us more than we need them” went unopposed. It could be argued that, for individual member states, trade with the UK is relatively marginal. When the discussion turned to “all the billions we will save” by not sending contributions to Europe, it could have been pointed out that we pay for membership of a club in part because it brings us enormous economic gains in access to the single market.

The conversation turned to how to move forward from the current chaos. The conciliatory Remainer was pragmatic, supporting a series of indicative votes in Parliament. A couple of hard-line Leavers supported no deal. The Liberal Democrat wanted a People’s Vote. A retired teacher reminded us that to choose a Pope in 1268 the Cardinals were locked in a roofless palace for more than two years until they reached agreement. They were fed just bread and water and several of them died during the ‘conclave’. Everyone agreed that MPs should focus entirely on solving Brexit and not take time off from that debate.

The evening’s discussion was courteous and generally well informed, with many of the participants having put a lot of thought into their positions. Everyone said they felt the exercise had been interesting and worthwhile, commenting that a similarly polite and constructive discussion between politicians would be beneficial. Though the aim of the event was not to change minds, one of the Leave voters said that he would now vote to remain, after learning that his primary concern—asylum seekers—was not a European issue.  Before departing, one participant noted the unity he had seen within the group when chatting amongst themselves before the event started: “When we were talking about the important issues that face our local community we were all in agreement”, he said. Perhaps the strongest evidence of common ground all evening.

By Susie Hedegaard