“Can Brexit be stopped?” was the key question Owen Smith, MP for Pontypridd since 2010, addressed in Bath on Saturday, June 9th. Dressed in a grey #stopbrexit T-shirt, it was clear where the former Labour Frontbench minister’s sympathies lay as he touched on the causes of Brexit, talking about the people who felt they had been left behind, with politics not working for them. “The tragic reality is that places who voted for Brexit would be the hardest hit,” he said, adding that the impact on industrial sites, now closed, would be most severe. The Trump government’s plans to impose punitive tariffs on steel and aluminium could result in the closure of the UK’s few remaining steel plants so “we’ll become steel importers, not exporters.”
Famously sacked by Jeremy Corbyn for calling for a referendum on the final Brexit deal, Owen Smith admitted to the audience at Widcombe Social Club, “I’m proud of having been sacked for standing up for what I believe in.” He was highly critical not just of Brexit itself, but the “spectacularly cack-handed’” way it was being handled. A devalued pound, foreign investment, manufacturing in decline were huge causes for concern: “In no other circumstances,” he said, “has a government knowingly cut off its nose to spite its face.” Many of the original Brexit luminaries such as Daniel Hannan, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage were now starting to distance themselves from it, having sold the country “a pig in a poke. Soon,” he added, to laughs from the audience, “the only person in favour will be Rees-Mogg’s nanny.”
Leaving the EU, he claimed, would result in a loss of workers’ rights, less control and less ability to prevent multi-national corporations from moving their assets across the globe. It would also leave the UK more isolated. “It breaks my heart to think we are reducing young people’s horizons, limiting their opportunities.” He also despaired that the country, which had become more tolerant and liberal during the time of the last Labour government, now seemed to be sliding backwards with a marked increase in racist crimes.
As former Shadow Secretary for Northern Ireland, his main criticism was levelled at politicians from all parties who failed to understand the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland. “We’re playing with fire,” he said, explaining how fragile the Good Friday Agreement was. Reinstituting a hard border would be disastrous, the only solution being to remain in the Single Market and Customs Union.
Stopping Brexit would not be easy, he admitted, but it was achievable. Although Parliament was key, the ultimate say should lie with the people in the form of a vote on the final deal. He maintained that as the Brexit process was unfolding people were seeing greater downsides than upsides and that “It ain’t as simple as it was sold.”
Questions were wide-ranging: from the impact of new political parties and how Britain is viewed by the rest of the world to whether he would stand against Jeremy Corbyn again. His response to the last question was a very firm, ‘No.’
This was another successful event organised by Bath for Europe and we thank Dr David Moon, Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Bath, for chairing it and Mick Yates for his photography. We will be posting a film of Owen Smith’s talk soon.