London greets me with the weather that has become near synonymous with the capital; grey trickles tumbling down in front of a yet-greyer sky. It’s a biting January cold, and the disparity between it and the train’s interior makes for a bracing, but welcome, encounter. Having been sat in a metal tube for three hours, it’s a pleasing release. Stepping out into the street, I make my way to the location of the meeting.
After passing through security, I’m greeted by a welcoming aide who escorts me to Alan Johnson’s office. A quick knock and a call from the inside beckons me to enter. “Welcome to London” chimes the former Home Secretary, as I step inside his domain. The office itself is an expansive locale, filled with ephemeras; a signed poster of the The Who, model aircraft, a guitar alarm clock. The office itself overlooks Parliament Square. A stately wooden desk impends in one corner, whilst in the other are two cream sofas and a magazine-littered coffee table, which is where our conversation will take place.
To those familiar with contemporary politics, Alan Johnson needs no introduction. A veteran of the Labour Party, his time in government saw him serve as the Secretary for the Ministries of Work, Trade, Education, and Health, before becoming Home Secretary in 2009. In the wake of Miliband’s ascension, he served as the Shadow Chancellor between 2010 and 2011, and now he is to head the Labour Party’s campaign to remain within the European Union: Labour In For Britain.
Johnson seems relaxed, and encourages me to begin. I thus decide to cut to the heart of the matter; why should we stay in the EU? “Well, to put it simply” he opens, “it’s preposterous to think that in an increasingly interdependent world we should wrench ourselves away after 43 years of membership from the biggest commercial market in the world. It’s bigger than either China or the US, and it has provided huge opportunities for businesses and trade, as well as protection for both the environment, workers, consumers and the wider public”.
“it’s preposterous to think that in an increasingly interdependent world we should wrench ourselves away”
He goes further to state: “Just as there is no argument to leave the United Nations, no argument to leave NATO, there is no feasible, or indeed rational, argument to leave the European Union.” It’s clear then, that Johnson’s views on the matter are far from sympathetic towards the Eurosceptics.
It should be noted that this is not the first time that the question of Britain’s place within the body politic of Europe has been called into question. Back in 1975, a referendum was staged on Britain’s membership of the EU’s predecessor, the European Economic Community (EEC). At the same time, Johnson had been a postman in Slough, bringing up three children, and so I ask him to compare the two plebiscites. “The referendum then was whether to go in” he explains, “We had gone in two years before under the Conservative government, who didn’t give people a say.”
“But 43 years have passed. We don’t see other countries having to organise a referendum on this issue, it’s no way to run a chip shop. Nevertheless, we lost the election and the Tories won it, so that’s where we find ourselves. But, there is a massive difference between leaving then, and leaving now. There are 28 member states, a Channel Tunnel, and an increasingly inter-dependent world, and with issues like the environment, energy security, and international terrorism which simply cannot be solved by one nation alone. There’s a better argument for being in now than there was in 1975.”
On the subject of deals, I steer towards what is currently a rather contentious issue within the Government. Much of David Cameron’s negotiations are arguably situated more around the idea of making it an ‘event’, rather than a ‘process’ to obtain more votes, which Johnson profoundly disagrees with. “My constant mantra”, he declares, “is that diplomacy is not an event, it’s a process”.
“I served as a trade union leader before I became an MP, and the trick is to get people onto your side in a way that brings the issue along, not to issue threats. Sometimes you do end up in a situation where you threaten to go on strike, but as soon as you do that, you narrow your resolutions because the stakes are up. Johnson served for years as the General Secretary of the Union of Communication Workers, and its successor, the Communication Worker’s Union. Indeed, Johnson is dismayed at Cameron’s handling of the situation proclaiming that, “for us as a big powerful country to be whinging with a hand on the exit door is simply not the way to be conducting matters.”
“For us as a big powerful country to be whinging with a hand on the exit door is simply not the way to be conducting matters”
Moving matters back towards a more local perspective, I bring up the recent survey conducted by Exeposé, which found that approximately 72 per cent of Exeter’s student population wished to remain within the Union, with around 20 per cent wishing to leave, and approximately eight per cent remaining undecided. Among the most prominent reasons provided to leave the EU was the idea that it was undemocratic, an idea which Johnson hastily rebuts.
“I don’t think that’s the case” he responds, “this claim could have been made in 1975 and would have received the same response. It’s all about busting these myths, the EU is not undemocratic, it operates by the co-decisions of the European Parliament, which is elected, and the heads of state, who are also elected. Democracy is at work. Whilst we do cede some of our sovereignty, we do it voluntarily, and we have ensured that there are exceptions. It’s in the treaty, and it wouldn’t have been in the treaty had we not said so. If there is to be a market, there must also be consequences if you disobey those market rules.”
During the campaign, former government titans will be locking horns to ensure Britain’s future. Arguably the two most prominent advocates of the Leave Campaign are Thatcher’s former Chancellor Nigel Lawson, and Nigel Farage. Johnson is quick to downplay their potential however, noting the pro-EEC membership sentiments expressed during Thatcher’s reign, whilst also pointing out that he [Lawson], “doesn’t even think that climate change exists.”
As for Farage, Johnson is again quick to quip, stating that his magnetism is more “repel, than attract. He may appear to be popular at rallies, but the attendants will always vote against Europe, he’s not converting many to the cause, which is why the various Leave campaigns won’t go near him,” Johnson notes.
“Leave campaigns won’t go near him [Farage]”
“The great irony is that, whilst Farage is really just a Neo-Thatcherite, Thatcher herself campaigned to remain within the EEC, and, in her Bruges speech, claimed that, and I’ll paraphrase, that ‘Britain’s position was not at the edges of Europe, but at the heart of Europe’. Her speech was actually a pro-Europe speech.” Indeed, Charles Powell, the man who wrote that very speech, has confirmed this to be the case. Although Thatcher was indeed sharply sceptical about further integration, she nevertheless remained in favour of membership throughout her premiership.
At the other end of the spectrum, the left-of-centre is certainly a different kettle of fish nowadays; the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party has shaken the establishment to its core, thanks in a large part to the reception Corbyn received on social media, which Johnson sees as being “absolutely crucial in this referendum. Our template for this is actually the pro-Equal Marriage campaign in Ireland, which was an incredible bottom-up campaign. Every vote now counts, unlike our current voting system, and thus this asset will be of huge importance to us throughout the campaign.”
“Young people”, he continues, “have never seen life outside of the EU. They cannot remember the days where you couldn’t just hop on a train without applying for a visa. If we lose and throw ourselves back into splendid isolation, then we’ll lose so many of the advantages we now take for granted”.
In light of this, I turn the subject to the lessons learned from the Better Together campaign in Scotland, and the need for a Pro-EU Labour campaign. “A lot of false analogies were made in Scotland, and we’ve realised the need for a distinctive Labour campaign” is the reply. “Whilst we did have a sole Labour campaign in Scotland, it wasn’t very high profile, and that allowed the SNP to do what UKIP would love to do, which is to clump the establishment together and proclaim themselves as the insurgents. We’re determined not to let that happen.” Somewhat ironically, Alex Salmond’s office is now next door to Johnson’s, further enforcing the potential an anti-establishment campaign can have on the contemporary political landscape.
“we’ve realised the need for a distinctive Labour campaign”
“Nevertheless, at the end of the day, we’re the only major national party to be offering a widespread campaign to stay within Europe from a left-of-centre perspective.”
With that, the interview draws to a close. We shake hands, make some closing remarks; the third volume of his acclaimed autobiography is scheduled for a September release, “if I can finish the bloody thing that is”. He laughs, and we shake again, before heading our separate ways. Indeed, if my twenty minutes with Johnson are anything to go by, then the Labour campaign is in the safest possible hands.