Former leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrats party, Nick Clegg , visited the Hist today, April 5, where he was awarded the Gold Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Discourse. This award is presented to those who are deemed to have particularly promoted discourse in the international sphere. The previous UK Deputy Prime Minister was the last speaker of this year hosted by the Hist, and delivered a talk on the topic of “Brexit and Beyond: Future challenges for the UK and Ireland” to a packed out room in the GMB’s Debating Chamber.
Clegg is the current Liberal Democrats European Spokesperson. He began by speaking of the current political situation the UK is facing, stating that “we must look at British politics with a combination of bemusement and bewilderment.” He spoke in detail about what sounded like a laughable fable, describing how there is currently a Prime Minister of the United Kingdom who was seemingly not elected by anyone, a Foreign Secretary who never really wished to leave the European Union in the first place, and politicians such as Boris Johnson of whom he said that “the moment they got their victory went running for the hills.”
Clegg spoke with a touch of humour and wit, but his concern for the future of the United Kingdom was palpable, as he stressed to the audience “I am speaking to you at a time of bewildering volatility, a time of almost political cross-dressing.”
Opposed to Brexit, Clegg wasted no time in expressing this.The “subject of the moment” was discussed in depth, focusing in particular on the impact it will have on Ireland, Northern Ireland and the border. Clegg put the reason for the heightened interest in Brexit from the Irish population down to the fact that “no other country in the EU will be so profoundly affected by a decision over which you have had no control”.
Emphasising the “astonishing interdependence of the two countries”, Clegg spoke of the significant trade market between the UK and Ireland; 40% of all Irish agricultural produce is exported to Britain, with 90% of all mushroom exports travelling to the UK and 500,000 pigs crossing the Ireland/Northern Ireland border each year. In addition to the economic relationship between the two countries, Clegg spoke extensively about the border between the North and the South of Ireland, referencing the current state of the border as an example of one of the “most uplifting achievements of what statesmen and stateswomen have done”.
Contemplating the future of the border, Clegg expects this one to remain the only border of its kind, with checks on all goods crossing the border taking place as well as checks on services and people. This type of hard border, which Clegg insisted will be implemented, will be the new land border between the EU and the non-EU. Comparing it to the border between Turkey and Bulgaria, he dismissed the idea that technology will solve potential problems, insisting that delays will exist.
Prime Minister of the UK Theresa May was also a point of discussion for Clegg. He emphasised that what happens in the post-Brexit era is very much on May’s shoulders, saying “it is very important that I stress that these are her choices” referencing that the manner in which Britain leaves the EU will be the Prime Minister’s choice. May could have chosen to possibly remain a member of the customs union and the free market, but instead it seems as if a ‘hard’ Brexit will be implemented; “It was Theresa May’s choice to place party before country.. which will do immense damage to not only the United Kingdom but also to Ireland.”
The geography of international politics was also raised for discussion. Clegg said that the suggestion that geography does not matter any more as “24-carat bilge”. He expressed scepticism towards the idea of a “new global Britain”, furthering that the importance of neighbour states should not to be underestimated.
Regarding the impact Brexit will have on younger generations, Clegg outlined that when a decision goes against the wishes of those who actually have to live in that future, the nation is on a grave and perilous path. With over 70% of 18 to 24 year olds, who came out to vote “in their droves”, opposing Brexit, Clegg expressed a belief they have been robbed of their future.
Following Clegg’s speech, the floor was opened up to answers from members of the audience. There were numerous issues raised, ranging from the question of a Russian engineered vote, to the effect Britain’s exit from the EU will have on a UK citizen’s freedom to live,work and study within the EU. Overall, Clegg brought humour and wit to this Wednesday lunchtime event, all the time engaging with those in attendance. He entertained and educated, an effective approach if the reaction from the audience was anything to go by.