Interview with former MEP Antony Hook

, by Lewis Powell

Interview with former MEP Antony Hook
Antony Hook was a Liberal Democrat MEP for South East England. Photo credits: Liberal Democrats.

On January 31st, Britain finally left the European Union after 47 years of membership. Post-Brexit, former Liberal Democrat MEP for the South East of England, Antony Hook came to give a talk on 19th February in Canterbury to the East Kent European Movement titled ‘’Britain and Europe- The Future’’ in which I and the Young Europeans Canterbury were in attendance. Antony was elected to the European Parliament in early 2019 on a stop Brexit agenda and was kind enough to agree to an interview.

Here we talk about the failure to stop Brexit, the future of the Liberal Democrats and the political centre in Britain, and the failures of the First Past the Post electoral system and the possibility of moving to a proportional election system.

I want to start by asking exactly how you felt when the exit poll was released on 13th December and you saw an 80 seat Conservative majority and you knew it was over, that the UK would now leave the EU. Where were you and who were you with?

I was at home doing radio interviews by the phone. I was devastated when I saw the exit poll because recently they have been very accurate, as was this one. knew a seat majority of that size meant that Brexit would happen, despite most people voting for parties that backed a People’s Bote, but it would also empower Boris Johnson to act in all areas of policy with hardly any checks or balances.

A related question: how did you feel at 11 o’clock on Brexit Day, when you saw Brexiteers celebrating what they see as a victory of having their sovereignty and country back and no longer being ruled by Brussels?

I didn’t see them cheering. By 11 o’ clock I had gone to bed. Earlier in the night my team and I projected “We still love EU” onto the cliffs at Ramsgate which attracted huge media attention. It was covered from the USA to Japan and, of course, throughout the UK and Europe. It was a great way to conclude my time as MEP.

In your talk at the East Kent European Movement, you mentioned the support you got from colleges and staff within the European Parliament. What does that support mean to you and to fellow Brits who wanted to remain?

The support of colleagues in Europe has been of tremendous practical value and will continue to be. I can still go to the Parliament and attend most meetings and speak to MEPs about what is going on. That will help us keep up with the information we need to press for the closest possible relationship between the UK and EU.

The Liberal Democrats were the leading anti-Brexit party. What do you think of Jo Swinson’s and the Liberal Democrats’ decision, along with the SNP, to back the Prime Minister’s call for an General Election - especially when half of Labour MPs abstained and didn’t back their leader?

An election by that point was, sadly, our last chance to stop Brexit. We saw at first and second reading there were enough Labour MPs voting for Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement to pass it and no enough supporting amendments for a People’s Vote. [The choice was to] call an election or wait and watch Brexit happen.

The big lost opportunity, in my view, was mid September to early October to form a cross-party government, or Government of National Unity, that would call a People’s Vote. Such a government needed to be led by someone who could command trust among Labour, Liberal Democrats and moderate Conservatives (those who had the whip withdrawn by Johnson). You needed all three parts to have the numbers for a cross-party government.

Jeremy Corbyn could not unite all those groups. MPs who had left Labour over anti-semitism could hardly do so and nor could Conservatives for obvious reasons to do with Corbyn’s record on national security and economic policy. There surely was a suitable figure to be found. Margaret Beckett and Dominic Grieve were mentioned in the press - caretakers who could steady the ship and see the country through a People’s Vote.

I attended the People’s Vote March on October 31st, when Johnson’s deal was rejected by Parliament and it seemed like the tides were turning. Why didn’t the People’s Vote movement build on that momentum and do you think there was an opportunity that Brexit could have been stopped? And when was this?

It is important to be clear that the Johnson deal was not rejected by Parliament - if only it had been. The second reading was on 23 October. The government won that vote 329-299 because of 19 Labour MPs, such as Lisa Nandy, supporting the government. But they then lost the timetable motion. That meant they had to request the extension. We could have used that three months to form a new government or pass a further amendment of Bill for a People’s Vote. But that didn’t happen. Not enough Labour MPs were willing to vote for a People’s Vote even after Jeremy Corbyn supported it, having not done so from the outset. We failed to stop Brexit because there weren’t enough votes in the House of Commons for a People’s Vote either before or after the General Election.

Brexit has polarised British politics and diminished the political centre. The Change UK party, founded in February 2019, didn’t even last a year and not a single member got re-elected to parliament. The Liberal Democrats also lost 10 MPs, including Jo Swinson, and now sit at only 11 MPs. Is the political centre dead in Britain or do you think the Liberal centre is set to make a comeback?

I think Change UK had an important idea - bring together people who might have supported different parties in the past but had more in common with each other than they did with the people who had taken over control of their parties (both Conservative and Labour). I think they under-estimate the infrastructure that is needed for a party and when the European elections came they weren’t ready they were blown away. Change UK had some very good candidates such as Gavin Esler.

A question that Change UK was unable to answer was “how are your values different from the Liberal Democrats”. One of their lead candidates, Rachel Johnson had an awful interview on the Today programme, where she could not answer this, and never recovered. Most of their MPs later joined the Liberal Democrats. From the launch Change UK had rebuffed Liberal Democrats reaching out to them. People suggested we explore ways to work together. They said “close down your party and join us”. That was not realistic.

There is a lesson there for the future. If you want to work with someone who is in another party it is better to say “let’s work together.” Not “leave your party, join mine, then let’s work together.”

The Liberal Democrats emerged from the 2019 election with one fewer MP than we had elected in 2017. But our vote share was up substantially. In a fairer voting system, like proportional representation, our seats would have been up and Brexit would have been stopped. The Liberal Democrats are in a stronger place now than two years ago as an organisation. We are in second place in 91 seats, almost all Conservative held, and in many with have keen candidates ready to campaign for a four year run-up to the general election. We didn’t have that last time. We don’t have an overdraft now, we have quite a healthy balance in the party’s funds for campaigning. We have many more councillors than two years ago and I think we’ll make more gains in local elections going forward to GE2024. There are 58 seats that have been Lib Dem in the past that Labour have never won, only we can beat the Conservatives in those seats and we need to do so in 2024. We need Labour to not get in our way. In 2019 there were seats Labour, under its tribal leadership of recent years, sent activists to draw votes from us and stopped us beating the Conservatives.

If Labour goes for a leader like Keir Starmer then there should be scope for us to work together. As Layla Moran MP (who’s running for the vacant leadership of the Liberal Democrats) said recently Labour and Liberal Democrats working together would be unstoppable. I know it is a prospect that the Johnson government fears.

In your talk you also mentioned that 53% of people in the General Election actually voted for parties which backed a final vote on the Brexit deal but instead the country got a right-wing government with a majority of 80 seats. Do you think this increases the case for the UK to change the electoral system and switch to Proportional Representation? In Europe, only the UK and Belarus used a First Past The Post system for general elections in 2019.

Yes, FPTP is antiquated and utterly fails to represent the view of the public. It needs change. If you change the electoral system you will get more progressive governments. There are other issues too. We need to look at how money in politics operates. There is still no cap on how much a donor can give. An handful of extremely rich people can, and do, hugely affect how each side in an election is resourced and who the public hear from. There are also loopholes through which money from overseas can come in and of course we all need to see the Russia Report that the Prime Minister is suppressing about interference in our elections.

Some political commentators have argued there was never significant demand for a second referendum or People’s Vote in the country as a whole. In hindsight should the policy of Remainers have been to campaign for a ‘soft Brexit’, like a sort of Norway+ deal (whereby we would stay in the single market and be part of EFTA while negotiating our own Customs Union with the EU) rather than trying to stop Brexit altogether? Would damage control have been a better policy? Our strategies resulted in a situation whereby the UK will not be close to the EU and no deal is very much still on the table if Johnson doesn’t get a trade deal with the EU by the end of the year.

There was support for a People’s Vote. We see that in the size of the People’s Vote march, the petition to revoke Article 50 that 6 million people signed and the opinion polls and that 53% of people voted for parties that wanted a People’s Vote. We did not lose because there was not support for a People’s Vote. Our problem was the lack of an electoral system that proportionately represents people’s wishes.

The Conservative government has released their own Australian-like points-based immigration system model. Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, has stated that the ‘‘government wants to encourage people with the right talent (to come to the UK)’’ and ‘’reduce the levels of people coming to the UK with low skills’’. Is this new immigration system fair?

There is a great deal of analysis of this online. But it is worth noting that Patel’s own parents would not have been allowed in under the system she now advocates. There is an hypocrisy in that which I do not know how she can live with.

What do you think of the future of the EU and what direction do you think it’ll go now that Britain has gone. Is the future bright or do you think other member states will leave and that it could eventually cease to exist?

The EU barometer shows support for membership in all 27 member states is high and has increased since Brexit. The European Union’s mission is peace and prosperity between its members. Britain’s departure does not prevent that mission continuing for the rest. Europe has been somewhat behind the USA in the development of new technology in recent years but there is determination to change that and the EU has the scale, economically, and in every sense to match anyone in the world. That is good for those of us who believe in European values - freedom, democracy, human rights. A more successful Europe is good for the world.

Finally, do you consider yourself a ‘Rejoiner’ and do you think the Liberal Democrats should advocate for such a policy as the strongest ‘Remain’ party? Or do you think it’s time for the Liberal Democrats to move on? And do you think there’s a future where the UK rejoins the EU, maybe sooner rather than later?

Rejoining is off until there is a change of government so that needs to be our first aim. I would like to see a new government in 2024 launch an independent review of how Brexit has worked out. We could also have a Citizens Convention - a group of people selected randomly like a jury and able to call for any evidence they wish to see and to report their conclusions - it works well in other countries. I think that could be the start of a process that leads to us rejoining within this decade. People sometimes say “if we rejoined we wouldn’t have the terms we had before.” That is by no means certain. We need to make an application to rejoin to find out what terms are offered. It would be a reasonable proposition for any party to say “lets review Brexit” or “let’s explore rejoining and see what happens.” When we know what is offered in response to our application then we can decide what to do. Right now, the fight is to save the basic partnership between Britain and Europe which Boris Johnson seems intent on destroying.

Antony Hook can be followed on Twitter at @AntonyHookMEP

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