In coming months we will debate a crucial question for our nation’s future. It has divided friends and split communities. I know that we, in our corner of Kent, will not let it do that. We will come together again on 24 June however we voted the day before and recognise that on both sides of this question are people of integrity, honour and good conscience. More than that, we will be proud the British people will have expressed their democratic choice peacefully.
As we enter these discussions we must remember that this question will look different to each of us. Based on our experiences and our perceptions of the future we will assess the risks and opportunities differently. That is why this referendum is so important. It will take into account the combined wishes of our whole country and not be me speaking on your behalf. We will each have our own say through the ballot box. Having listened to many from across our community I have come to my own decision. Like you, I will only be representing myself, but as you gave me the privilege of representing you on other issues in Parliament, I wanted you to know my reasons.
I am proud of our country. Over the centuries we have done more than any to promote liberty, the rule of law and free markets. We have done so in cooperation with many and in the interests of all. Today, we still offer hope to those less fortunate than ourselves in a troubled world.
They see us for what we are. We are a historic power with deep friendships across the world, an international power at the heart of an interconnected world, and a sovereign power that embraces the strength found in exchanging mutual commitments. Over the past decade I have served our country across the globe and I have seen this proven time and again. Fighting for our national interest has been a privilege because we are, truly, a force for good.
It is no surprise that we are a bridge between cultures and nations. As an ancient union of four nations, we are a living example that the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts. Today, by operating through the UN, NATO, WTO, IMF, Commonwealth, EU, and many other groups, we extend our geographic reach and maximise our influence.
But cooperation requires compromise.
Foreign aid, freedom of action, defence obligations, business intrusion and migration are all part of the price we pay to enable us to use the networks through which we enrich ourselves and strengthen our security. Those burdens should not be ignored. They are a weight on the shoulders of the British people. That is why I look at every alliance and every treaty dispassionately.
I ask: does it add to our national security? Does it extend our influence? Does it enrich us? Is there a better, less costly, alternative? The only question that matters is: what’s best for Britain and the wider interests we defend and represent?
So what do we get from the EU? Of course we get the free market and trade deals we’ve already signed, which all sides of this debate want to keep. We get cooperation across a range of fields from the environment to policing but that includes disadvantages as well as advantages, and in consequence of both of these, we get migration and cost. Today, these benefits are undermined by an over-reaching bureaucracy that may cause us problems but is worse for Portugal, Greece, Spain and others. This is why I remain sceptical about our membership which should always be under review. In that I’m not alone. Millions across Europe are too. That is why I believe that despite what is claimed by some in Brussels, reform has not ended. People across the EU nations are demanding change and we should throw our weight behind them.
While economic and social issues are, of course, important to all of us and no one can truly say what hiatus would follow our exit or how long it would last, Britain is a powerful, innovative and enterprising nation and would be fine in the longer term so for me they are not fundamental. What matters most from my perspective is our future as a united kingdom and our security in a dangerous world.
Our Union is precious. From a diverse history of separate kingdoms, including the Kingdom of Kent, we have woven a richly patterned country. But as the Scottish Referendum showed, national identity can be used to unpick the cloth and risk leaving us all poorer. There is little doubt the separatists would try to exploit a withdrawal from the EU to weaken the integrity of our nation and expose us again to the risk of division. I am not prepared to take that gamble. Having seen the price paid in Northern Ireland, nor am I prepared to reopen that settlement. The veneer of peace, even in parts of our own country, is sadly all too thin.
Of course, our security does not start at our borders. Our defence, anchored in NATO, is a spectrum ranging from nuclear deterrence to trade. All points along it make us stronger and though none alone is key, the breadth creates what the military calls defence in depth. That’s why economic ties count and why membership of international organisations can matter as much as military might. The goodwill of friends deters adversaries, extends our security perimeter and makes us safer. Of course the UK could prosper outside the EU, but the same cannot be said for the former Eastern Bloc. Their economic weakness would be exploited by a resurgent Russia and the ill will created by what our friends would perceive as rejection – as many in England before Scotland voted to remain – would weaken us all. However we vote, we cannot choose our region and we cannot opt out of geography.
As we have learnt time and again from history, fixing a broken Europe would be more costly than correcting a misdirected one.
For me, this is why we should stay. Our security is more than just the size of our military or the stability of our economy; it is the prosperity of our allies and the confidence of our friends. No matter how emotionally appealing it would be to leave, I have a duty to think hard what would be best for Britain and best for our community. I cannot, in all conscience, follow my heart and not my head when to do so would, I believe, diminish our security.
Of course my views may change. Events happen which force us all to look again at a position we took and to view the world differently. Nor do I argue we should be the institution’s champions. We should not. We must be trenchant critics and constructive partners, as any true friend must be, and ready to exploit every opportunity for reform. This is not without cost. We must now invest in diplomats and envoys just as we do in military spending to secure greater influence. We must spend time extending the conversations we started last year and pressing home advantages and supporting the millions who need our help. I know people say it can’t be done but I am not defeatist. That it hasn’t been done for a generation is clear but isn’t surprising. Our officials in the EU have shrunk to only 3 percent of the whole. There used to be far more and there must be again.
Margaret Thatcher understood this and insisted that British diplomats spend time in Brussels. She sent one of her closest advisers, David Williamson, to become Secretary-General of the Commission, one of the most influential positions. She invested time and energy in understanding how the EU worked and getting to know foreign leaders. That is what delivered our rebate and boosted our power. She showed that strategic, considered leadership and commitment will deliver for Britain. Today, we need the same vision. Never before have so many people been crying out for change. Britain can lead it.
I will vote for our continued membership, not out of any love of the EU but from a cold, hard look at what I think is in the best interest of the British people. Yes, Brussels has undermined our democracy, and it has bound us with red tape, all alliances do to some extent, but the EU cannot continue on the same path. The internal fault lines are so great that it must change and Britain’s place is at the table, charting a course through the turmoil so that we achieve not only what is in our interest, but, in consequence, what is in the interests of the European peoples. I believe in Britain and I believe we are, as we always have been, a force for good.
I recognise that others will have deeply held, honourable views as they see things differently, but I must have the integrity to give you my candid opinion, as I promised I would you when we began this journey together more than two years ago.
As we make our decision over the coming months I know we will all remember that we in Kent have a long history of working together for the benefit of our community. The number of civic societies in Tonbridge, Edenbridge and West Malling, the range of community activities across the villages and hamlets are proof of our unity and commitment to our society. Together, we are a powerful team and achieve so much for our people. We may have our differences but always remember who we are and how to fight for the interests of our county and country. It is a privilege to serve as your Member of Parliament.