Siobhan Benita was a former senior civil servant who left Whitehall to campaign for better politics. Passionately opposed to Brexit, she joined the Lib Dems on the morning of the EU Referendum result and became a leading voice in their anti-Brexit movement. Now politically homeless again, she remains active on social media and spoke at the first National Rejoin March in Autumn 2022. Siobhan has a French husband and two bilingual daughters.
David Eldridge: Do you foresee the UK rejoining the EU? If so, what would be the timescale and steps on the way?
I absolutely foresee the UK re-joining the EU. As time passes, the economic damage that Brexit has caused for the UK will become increasingly obvious and fewer and fewer people will be prepared to defend it (or even admit they voted for it). We are already seeing a shift in the narrative with papers like The Telegraph and Daily Mail running articles highlighting some of the negative consequences of Brexit. In addition, pressure for the UK to re-join will come from younger generations as they reach voting age and want to access all the freedoms that we previously enjoyed as part of EU membership.
Given that I would like us to re-join the EU tomorrow, the timescale will never be as quick as I want but I do think it’s possible for it to happen in a matter of years rather than decades. In terms of the main steps along the way, the immediate priority is to get the Tories out with tactical voting at the next general election. I also believe that we desperately need electoral reform and a move to a more proportional system should ensure that we never again have a government with so much power but so little reflection of the voting public as a whole.
Mike Phillips: The Retained EU law bill will scrap thousands of EU laws, many of which were proposed by the UK and all of which were scrutinised by them. This imposes a massive task on civil servants. How do you view the risk of lack of Parliamentary scrutiny resulting in loss of previously agreed common standards?
The Retained EU Law Bill is going to impose huge burdens on already stretched civil servants as they attempt to meet the Government’s deadline to review all EU legislation by the end of 2023. As a former civil servant myself, I can honestly say that the amount of resource that this needless and entirely self-inflicted exercise will require – at a time when the civil service needs to be tackling huge challenges such as post-Covid, economic recovery, getting our public services back on track or meeting our climate change obligations – is both absurd and indefensible.
The fact that the Bill will allow ministers to revoke and replace EU laws with little or no parliamentary scrutiny is a major concern. Not only is this undemocratic but it will also create serious uncertainty for all stakeholders, including employers, businesses, regulators etc. And let’s not forget, that all of this effort will, ultimately, either produce no change or will actually create new red tape and regulatory burdens, especially for people who still want to trade or work with EU organisations. It’s bonkers.
Michael Soffe: Where, oh where, can those of us who feel “politically homeless” turn to? Do you see the creation of a serious full-on, rejoin party ever being created and funded?
This is the million-dollar question that I have been asking myself for years now! I am optimistic that a serious, re-join party will emerge over time. Indeed, as polls increasingly show that a growing majority of the public now believe Brexit was a mistake, the creation of a mainstream re-join party is surely a matter of when, not if. Whether this will be a new party or, for example, a future Labour party dropping its ridiculous and unsustainable “make Brexit work” stance, I’m not so sure.
In the meantime, there are many ways that politically homeless campaigners like myself can engage, including: amplifying the voices of individuals who do publicly advocate for re-join, supporting the ReJoin Party and other fledgling movements in their grassroot efforts and taking part in movements like the National Re-join March, which took place in London in Autumn last year and which will be touring the country over the coming months. Despite its many flaws, social media has helped me to connect with other re-joiners and to keep the re-join narrative going. It can be exhausting and disheartening campaigning for something you feel so strongly about when every day the Government seems intent on taking the UK further down a nationalistic path and Labour isn’t prepared to call out Brexit for the disaster that it is, so being part of a re-join community (even a virtual one) helps to keep me energised and sane!
Anon: If you could take over the job of PM, with so many pressing issues facing the country, where would you start?
As PM, my first priority would be to bring about electoral reform. Our two-party system is broken and is no longer serving the national interest or reflecting how the public actually feel and vote. I would also prioritise reforming parliament. We have seen under the Tories that Ministers can break the ministerial code and the Nolan Principles of Public Life with little or no consequences and that must change if we want better politics and better politicians. The Lords also needs reform. There should, for example, be transparency around appointment decisions and fixed terms replacing lifelong peerages.
With regard to policy, I’d initiate a fundamental shift in funding with more resource going into prevention, such as early years provision and public health because this would create more efficient and effective public services in the medium to long term. And, given that tackling climate change is by far the single biggest challenge facing us today, I would require every policy to be considered through a net zero lens.
Peter Corr: The pro EU community is said to be “full of old white people”. Do you feel this to be true, and if so, what can we do to promote the Rejoin campaign to a wider, more diverse community to win support?
Unfortunately, the accusation that the pro-EU community is “full of old white people” can sometimes feel justified when you look at who – traditionally – the most prominent pro-EU individuals have been. That said, there are some fantastic, high-profile campaigners such a Femi Oluwole and Marina Purkiss who certainly don’t conform to the stereotype. The other accusation that I hear quite often is that the pro-EU community is very middle class.
The bottom line for me is that Brexit will make everyone in the UK poorer, regardless of age, ethnicity or class background. And, whilst Brexiteers were sadly quite successful at persuading many voters that they would be better off post Brexit, the lies are now beginning to crumble and the economic reality is becoming clear. As with any issue, the pro-EU movement will be stronger and more impactful if it is inclusive, reflecting the UK’s diverse population. As we edge towards the possibility of re-joining the EU, having clearer messages, delivered by a wide range of people, on how this will benefit everyone will be crucial and the work to engage communities and community leaders should be happening now.
Lisa Burton: I note that you joined the Liberal Democrats on the morning of the Brexit Referendum result, as they were the only party with a clear rejoin message at that point. How do you feel now about how the party handled Brexit and their position now?
This is a tough question for me to answer because I have a lot of friends in the Liberal Democrats. We desperately need a strong, centre-ground party in the UK and I would like to see the Lib Dems doing well in the next election. All that said, however, I am extremely disappointed in the way they handled Brexit and in their current position.
In the run up to the referendum the Lib Dems were so unequivocal in their pro-EU stance. Their “Bollocks to Brexit” approach gained them profile and traction, and consequently they were successful in getting 19 MEPs elected to the European Parliament in 2019. In contrast, Lib Dem MPs today are virtually indistinguishable from Labour in their stance on Brexit. I understand the thinking; where the Lib Dems see their best chances of winning seats at the next election, they are largely Tory-facing. Nevertheless, I believe they have made a strategic error in rowing back from their clear, pro-EU position.
As a party, they are currently at around 9% in the polls and this hasn’t budged since we left the EU, despite their reticence to talk about Brexit. Unlike Labour, they need to take some risks. There was an opportunity to be seized in scooping up the millions of people like myself (and disillusioned Labour and Tory voters) who are desperate to throw support behind a serious a re-join force but the party chose not to seize it. What a shame.
Next month: Russ Jones is an author and political commentator with over 277k followers on Twitter ( @RussInCheshire) where he regularly reports on #TheWeekInTory. He is currently writing the sequel to his book ‘The Decade in Tory’. The new book will be entitled ‘Four Chancellors and a Funeral”.
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