The Historic Challenge of 2018

William Powell explores challenges in the year ahead

The snow and icy conditions after Boxing Day extended the festive atmosphere for many of us but the Christmas and New Year break will soon be a distant memory. It is certainly time to reflect upon the old year and look ahead to the new, with everyone wondering what 2018 will mean for us, our families and communities and those we hold dear. It is inevitably also a time when we think of those who are no longer with us – and recall their part in our lives.

Difficulties, challenges & unpredictable events

2017 certainly brought its share of difficulties, challenges and unpredictable events. Our world feels like a less stable place due to terror attacks at home and abroad, with the occupants of both the White House and the Kremlin pursuing nationalist agendas, showing scant regard for wider world opinion. Whilst Alabama reminded Trump of his vulnerability just a few weeks ago, even before the brutal expose of ‘Fire and Fury,’ the exclusion of charismatic Alexei Navalny from standing in the Russian elections in March shows that Putin is not prepared to take the risk.

Re-evaluating friendships

Another aspect of these early weeks of the year is how we re-evaluate friendships and relationships, those that have flourished and those that have waned, either through neglect or because they have run their course. In this context, we in Wales and the wider UK have cause to reflect in 2018 on what could be the last year of our membership of the European Union.  During the past 45 years, our economies have grown stronger, relationships between member states have grown deeper and war and bloodshed between the nations of Europe, as between the communities of Ireland, have become a distant memory. As with many relationships, maybe we don’t properly cherish them until they come under threat.

Devoid of facts & values

One lesson that many of us have learnt to our cost since the historic referendum campaign  of June 2016 is precisely the danger of allowing a relationship to sour through lack of commitment, aided admittedly by complacency and a mendacious effort to turn the EU into the repository of everyone’s discontent. While the promises on the side of that Red Bus have widely been discredited, many of us have had cause to regret our part in a passionless, largely transactional Remain campaign, devoid of warmth, values and crucially the historical context of peace in our continent.

Navigating the choppy waters of Brexit

We now face the reality of what the total rupture in relations a ‘Hard Brexit’ would mean – for our rural heartlands, our post-industrial communities, our food security and our public services, notably the NHS.  The current ‘winter pressures’ we are facing, both in Wales and across the UK, relate directly to the staff recruitment and retention crisis. What a time to risk the vital skills sets of our dedicated EU Nationals, as application levels naturally continue to dry up and many who have served us well for years and made their lives here, feel demotivated, undervalued and consigned to ‘limbo.’

Respecting the 52% AND the 48%

In the wake of the 2016 referendum, we must respect the views not only of the 52%, but also the 48%, and the many, including EU Nationals   and 16-18 year olds denied the chance to have a say. It has been a consistent theme of our work in the Welsh Government EU Advisory Group that the greater the stability we can retain in our relations with European friends and neighbours in the time to come and the lower the hurdles erected in trade and labour flows, the more it will be in our shared national interest.

Our historic challenge

My own party, the Liberal Democrats, have been committed to our European destiny since the days of Jo Grimond, and I am proud that we remain on that terrain. But this issue, which matters more than any other in my adult life, must transcend all partisan or tribal interests. This is the shared belief that transcends the Welsh Government’s ‘Securing Wales’ Future,’ reflecting the principled stand of Welsh Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Liberal Democrats. The cross party movement to reassess the impact of Brexit, of leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union, on living standards and the prospects of ordinary people in every community, must continue to grow apace and find its voice in 2018.

Cross party working

At Westminster, the invitation from the SNP leader, Ian Blackford, accepted by the Lib Dems Sir Vince Cable, Liz Saville Roberts of Plaid and the Green Caroline Lucas was a crucial development. Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to engage has been widely criticised on his own side – but Sir Keir Starmer, Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary, is clearly behind a gradual transition in his party’s attitude. Finally, the Conservative ‘mutineer’ MPs, including my old friend and former North Wales Assembly Member, Antoinette Sandbach, have shown incredible courage, in the face of intimidation and threats, in standing by their principles. The decision of former Education Secretary and passionate pro-European, Justine Greening, to return to the back benches following Mrs May’s latest reshuffle, may yet help to stiffen their resolve and swell their numbers.

In Wales and across the UK, generations to come will judge them – and us – harshly, if we fail to rise to this historic challenge.


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Cllr William Powell is President of the Welsh Liberal Democrats and was Assembly Member for Mid and West Wales from 2011 – 16. He is a Member of the Welsh Government EU Advisory Group.

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