Tom Brake, now the longest-serving Liberal Democrat MP, began his talk by describing himself as a “passionate European”. I was not surprised to hear this, having sat down to talk to him beforehand. He had spoken about his years at an international school in France, highlighting the benefits of a multicultural, multilingual learning environment. He had also mentioned his father’s time working in Portugal, pushing the positives of EU freedom of work for young people. He then went on to compare the free movement he had enjoyed cycling through Western Europe in 1983, with the visas he had had to apply for to visit the East, and the desire for freedom he had encountered there.
I asked him what he thought was the best way to motivate and engage with young voters ahead of the referendum. “It is a struggle, the first thing we Lib Dems tried to do to engage young people was to ensure that young people, 16 and 17 year olds, had the vote in the referendum. Unfortunately the government did not agree to that, which is a huge pity seeing as if we vote to come out it’s something that will be with them for the rest of their lives.” However, he described his campaigning as revolving around making sure those that were eligible were actually registered and pushing the benefits of the EU over social media.
Brake has always taken a strong stance on human rights; it’s one of the things he mentions as having got him into politics. Leaving the EU would enable the government to repeal the Human Rights Act. Brake was firmly against this worrying possibility, “human rights are not something that governments should be picking and choosing and that is the approach that they want to adopt. I think the Conservatives would like to see differentiation between the human rights that are granted to British citizens, as opposed to the human rights that are granted to others. I think human rights are intrinsic, they’re not negotiable.”
When Nick Clegg came to speak to Oxford Students for Europe he was quoted saying that the Conservatives loved power. I wondered whether this was something Brake agreed with. “I think if you’re a party that has historically had more than your fair share of power then you come to expect that as the norm, and are then deeply off ended when that power is taken away from you,” he said, referring to the 2010 coalition. He later mentioned the fact that many Conservatives were hostile during the coalition because they felt the Lib Dems had disrupted their sense of a natural right to rule.
But Brake contested the basis of this right to rule, “the fact is that at this parliament the government has a majority, but only secured 37 per cent of the vote. I think in certain circumstances it would be perfectly acceptable, and I think required, that the government reflected at least a majority view of how the population had voted.” Despite this, he says he doesn’t push for electoral reform, “because it’s not something the public are interested in.”