Yesterday evening I attended a discussion at Conway Hall entitled “The EU Referendum: What Happens Next?” #ConwayHallEU organised by #LondonThinks. It is the first political meeting I’ve attended since I was a student in the 1980s. Shame on me! You can watch it all at https://t.co/aXbbuBCInx.
The panel was chaired by Guy Foster from Brewin Dolphin (a large stockbroker company in the city) and comprised Matthew Goodwin (Professor of Politics in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent), AC Grayling (Master of the New College of the Humanities), Shannon Harmon (Stop £35K campaign), James O’Malley (#londependence) and Prof. Takis Tridimas (Professor of European Law in King's College London).
This is a time for all of us to get stuck into the debate over the future of the UK. Indeed, AC Grayling and Takis Tridimas emphasised that this is no time for remainers to give up on their arguments. They need to fight their corner. Even if the referendum result cannot be reversed, there is an urgent need to make the best case possible for the benefits of the EU.
Matthew Goodwin was the most vocal panellist and bravely and intelligently made an argument that I’m sure many people in the room did not expect to agree with, although you could not fault the audience for their exemplary behaviour and commitment to debate. His points deserve careful attention. The referendum, he says, gave a voice to whole section of society that feels its views and interests have been hopelessly marginalised and ignored by an educated, skilled and socially mobile elite. England voted decisively (7%) to leave the EU and this assertion of Englishness cannot be ignored.
James O’Malley, who I learned later is a trustee at Conway Hall, is a bit of an ‘accidental hero’. He confirmed that he does not believe London independence is a realistic aim. His petition was never intended to be taken as a serious policy suggestion. However, he does strongly advocate devolution for London.
For quite a long time, Shannon Harman was not invited to contribute, to the point it was beginning to get embarrassing. She jointly heads up the Stop £35K campaign. The £35K refers to the amount an immigrant with a Tier 2 Skilled Worker visa has to earn to remain in the UK once the visa expires after five years. As an American working here in the UK, Shannon is focused on this specific issue, along with Josh Harbord who was at the event, but not on the panel.
It was a good debate, but not a great one. I found Matthew Goodwin’s perspective challenging, and it has certainly influenced my thinking. AC Grayling was passionate about pursing the fight against Brexit, and I think he is right. However, he seemed a little detached from a deeper engagement with the state of the country. I very much enjoyed the contributions from Takis Tridimas who looks at things from the perspective of legality. James O’Malley underplayed his hand. He is in a fantastic position to influence the debate, but needs to work with others to develop a realistic agenda for London’s possible future. Shannon also slightly underplayed her hand, I felt. As a skilled worker in the UK, she has a perspective that requires urgent attention, and this was a more valuable contribution to the evening than she perhaps felt.
The biggest criticism I would make of the event is that it never really got to grips with London’s future. That was perhaps not such a bad thing. I came away convinced that, to talk constructively about the future of our city, Londoners must first engage realistically, charitably and compassionately with the pain expressed by so many elsewhere in this country. Like James, I don’t really believe in London as an independent city state, though I do think we need to talk urgently about devolution of powers to the Mayor and GLA and begin to work towards a strategy for London’s survival as an open, vibrant centre in the globalised economy. However, devolution could prove a disaster if London does not collectively and wholeheartedly commit itself to pursuing the best future possible for the country as a whole through a concrete plan of action. That is our mission and our duty in this wonderful, but now deeply challenged and endangered, ‘world’ city.
 This refers to the points system that has been in place in the UK since 2008. I personally found the constant claim that Brexit was needed to allow the introduction of such a scheme to be one of the most agonising examples of the lack of honesty in what passed for debate in the referendum.