Far from having faded into obscurity since the 2011 security scandal which led to his resignation from the post of Secretary of State for Defence, Dr Liam Fox MP has risen once again to the limelight within the Conservative party, tipped as one of the most likely candidates to take over from David Cameron following the next leadership election and a leading voice for Brexit campaigners in Parliament in the run-up to the upcoming EU referendum.
Seemingly unfazed by the grilling from the audience, Dr Fox sat down with me after Question Time in Exeter’s Northcottt Theatre in April. Appearing alongside Labour’s Kate Hoey MP, former leader of the Liberal Democrats Lord Paddy Ashdown, leader of Plaid Cymru Leanne Wood AM and founder and chairman of JD Wetherspoon Tim Martin, Dr Fox spoke on the pressing subject of the EU referendum, as well as the junior doctors’ strike and the distribution of wealth in business.
“the European Union is still stuck with a model designed in the 1950s, that’s much too inward-looking, and much too restrictive.”
When asked during Question Time about Barack Obama’s recent visit to the UK to discuss the EU referendum and urge voters to choose to stay within the European Union, Dr Fox queried the wisdom of allowing America to tell the UK what to do. The consensus amongst the “for-Brexit” panellists was that American politicians would not take kindly to similar interference from the UK. Dr Fox had no qualms about asserting the United Kingdom’s capability to deal with their own affairs. “Can we cope with making our own laws, controlling our own borders and money? Yes, we can,” he affirmed.
Having voted against the party line for the first time on this issue, Dr Fox claimed he was glad he did so. Recent accusations thrown at the “Remain” camp include those of scaremongering, a view Dr Fox shares. “I think that they’ve been obsessed with trying to frighten people out of leaving, rather than telling them why they should remain.” A draw of remaining in the EU, particularly for many young people, is that despite its issues, the EU could be improved from the inside if the UK remains a participant country working to solve the deficiencies the international organisation has displayed, but leaving opens up many uncertainties regarding free movement and the state of the economy. However, Dr Fox made it clear that many in the leave camp find the Prime Minister’s justifications for remaining simply inadequate. “Why do they think we should hand powers over to the European Court? Why do they think we should have more law-making made in Brussels? There must be reasons for wanting that – I’d like to know what they are!”
Dr Fox believes, and I am inclined to agree, that Europe needs fundamental change. It remains to be seen whether Britain leaving the EU would be the “shock therapy” needed to prompt these changes. Concerns expressed by students over the course of the referendum campaigns focus largely on the issue of free movement in Europe. The Prime Minister made a visit to Exeter University in the Easter holidays, and was criticised by many for keeping the visit quiet and holding it at a time when many students would not be able to attend the invitation-only event. Dr Fox avoided comment on this subject, but made it clear that he sees students as a key target group who could swing the vote.
I asked Dr Fox why we in particular, as students, should vote to leave the European Union. His response was immediate, highlighting the need to “free ourselves from a failing European project. Across the European continent now, you’re seeing walls being built, fences, barbed wire going up. You’re seeing a rise of nationalist tendencies, the rise of extreme parties. You’re seeing mass unemployment, especially amongst young people, as a result of the failure of the euro.”
He lamented that “the political leaders in Brussels don’t seem to care that you’ve got 50 per cent of young Spaniards unemployed… there needs to be some solidarity between young people in this country, and those who are being left without hope of prosperity or progress because of the absolutely botched way the single currency has been brought in.” Unemployment is certainly a concern for many students in Britain, but the dangers and uncertainty of leaving the EU also leave many of us wary of scare tactics being thrown our way.
Dr Fox acknowledges that the European Union has, in many areas, been extremely beneficial to its member states. “I’m not one of those who says that everything the European Union has done is wrong. It’s done some very useful things, helping Spain and Portugal and Greece come from being military dictatorships into democratic nations.” However, he continued that in an era of globalisation, “the European Union is still stuck with a model designed in the 1950s, that’s much too inward-looking, and much too restrictive. And I think that will be to the detriment of this country. In fact, it will be more detrimental to younger people in the longer term than anyone else.”
Dr Fox shrugged off a question regarding warnings from Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party, that a “Brexit” would trigger another Scottish independence referendum. “I’m not sure what the SNP didn’t quite grasp about the Scottish referendum… They lost! The Scottish people voted to stay part of the Union.” Whilst the result was extremely close, the Scottish referendum left the SNP without a mandate for another referendum within the next year or so. Dr Fox appeared to believe that there is little concern to be had regarding another surge of Scottish nationalism appealing for separation anytime soon.
“Whether we stay in the European Union is a decision for the Union, for the whole United Kingdom, and every vote counts the same. From the furthest point in Shetland to Land’s End, all those votes are exactly the same – every UK citizen gets their vote counted in the same way, and it has the same weight. If Scotland, at some future point, [have] a mandate for another referendum, then we will tackle those issues as they are at the time.”
Being from Scotland himself, Dr Fox has a vested interest in the future of the nation, but he believes citizens first have a duty to the Union which they chose to remain part of. “The idea that the whole of the United Kingdom should make a decision about something as important as our future in Europe, because Nicola Sturgeon threatened something she can’t deliver, is not the kind of politics of bullying that we should ever give in to.”
On the subject of the recent Panama Papers scandal, concerning offshore holdings belonging to a number of high-ranking politicians including the Prime Minister himself, Dr Fox expressed a concern that under the umbrella term of “public interest”, too much scrutiny is being placed on the families of politicians and their incomes. “In terms of wider transparency, we all now have to put in the register any money that we make outside our income as Members of Parliament, and our financial interest. I don’t have a problem with that… I think it’s perfectly reasonable that politicians themselves are scrutinised, but I don’t think that politicians’ families should be.”
Regarding David Cameron’s own involvement in the scandal, after disclosure of details of the aforementioned offshore holdings, Dr Fox seemed to be more on the side of the PM than he is regarding the EU referendum. “I mean, the Prime Minister’s father made money, he left his money to his family, they obeyed the law and they paid their taxes. I don’t see what the problem with that is.” Party loyalty does, to an extent, prevail.
Returning to the subject of the EU referendum, naturally the buzzword of the evening, Dr Fox drew attention to the dangers of extreme nationalist movements which have been growing across Europe. “In a world that will value agility and flexibility, what Europe offers is a sclerosis. And if they don’t change their ways, there will be a nationalist upswing across the European continent.” Dr Fox, and his colleagues in the leave camp, do not have the faith which the Prime Minister seems to, in the leaders of the EU making concessions and changing in accord with British interests. Is the EU the stagnant water which Brexit campaigners make it out to be, or could it have the potential to evolve to encourage further collaboration and understanding between member states?
The refugee crisis is one we hear about often, but does not always seem to hit home for those in the university bubble. I asked Dr Fox whether leaving the EU might lead to Britain shirking its international responsibilities to asylum seekers and further turning its back during the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. “Britain has always played its part,” Dr Fox insisted. “The idea that we would only be able to play our part in the United Nations, for example, and our humanitarian, international obligations, because we’re part of the EU under a Brussels umbrella, makes no sense to me whatsoever. We don’t need Brussels [in order to] play a part in international humanitarian issues.”
“You know, there is a big world outside the European Union.”
And according to Dr Fox, the EU is not, by a long shot, the most important organisation when it comes to these issues. Indeed, few could say that the organisation has coped well with the influx of migrants fleeing the Middle East, with other countries such as Germany calling for a diversion of the EU budget towards alleviating the crisis. “We’re taking them [refugees] from the UN camps, because we think the UN is the proper place to sort that out, not the European Union.”
As we wrap up the interview, Dr Fox leaves me with this last thought. In a world where we aim to be increasingly outward-looking as a nation, this may be worth remembering. “You know, there is a big world outside the European Union. It’s got 500 million people in it, sure. But there are 6500 million people who aren’t.”