Many books have already been written about Brexit, there are many more to come and many books-worth of material online and in the press trying to analyse the result, the negotiation and the position Britain is in now. I doubt that my contribution will be of interest to many, but I make it nevertheless. Amongst the doomsaying on all sides and the inertia that has characterised events in Westminster there has been a distinct lack of positivity. Not just positivity about the outcome of the referendum from someone such as myself who was pleased with the result, but about Britain’s place in the world and our future, regardless of our membership (or not) of the European Union. Many commentators have emphasised the need to bring the nation together, usually before embarking on a diatribe against the other side.
I do intend to criticise in this article, and I will try to briefly analyse where we are and how we got here. That is necessary perhaps to set out my own biases and prejudices in the debate. I expect to be criticised from many sides to my views, sadly hyperbole has overtaken much of our public debate and so denouncement is almost inevitable. Yet I want to reverse the chronology. To talk about the future first, the positives about our nation, before joining the throng in the exercise of mass navel gazing that we have embarked upon. The truth is however that we must, as a nation and as individuals, move on. That will take time. Even if the Brexit withdrawal is resolved in 2019, there will still be many months and years of reshaping our relationship with our nearest neighbours and the rest of the world.
Yes, I along with 17,410,741 other people voted to leave the European Union. Inevitably this colours my view of the world, but I am not naive enough to think I speak for everyone who voted the same way, anymore than there is a single ‘Remain’ view that coherently represents just over sixteen million people. I have heard nonsense from both sides. On either side of any debate, and this one is no exception, there are idiots and those filled with hatred. There are also intelligent considered individuals, and they too are capable of being wrong. So this is my view, representing some of the reasons why I voted to leave, incorporating areas where I believe many should compromise - myself included.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a great country with a history to be proud of. I begin with history not through pure nostalgia, but because we need to understand how we ended up here. We have always been a trading nation, and island nation, a nation with plentiful natural resources, but one that has also needed to import many goods. The strength of the City of London as the financial centre for much of the globe is not an accident or a recent innovation. It is because of the legal stability, physical security, political dominance and outwards looking nature of our country over centuries.
This is not a mere trip down memory lane concluding with a Trumpesque “make Britain great again” slogan. In my opinion, Britain has always been a great nation and remains so today. The challenge for many is realising that, not least our politicians. There is much in our history that we should not be proud of, but it is our history nevertheless and I would argue that there is much more in our past to smile upon than there is to weep over. Our future path should be the same. Not sunlit uplands and the construction of a new Jerusalem. An honest, pragmatic view of Britain as one of the world’s leading nations. I have always hated the suggestion that our nation “punches above her weight”. The phrase suggests that Britain should not be at the top table, is an interloper with now place in the modern world. Perhaps that is how some people feel, I do not.
The accusation of being unpatriotic is thrown at both sides in the Brexit debate. I can respect those who have different views from me about the future course of our nation. My objection is to those who lack ambition. By all means argue that Britain’s future as a leading nation is stronger within the European Union. I disagree with you, but I can respect the position. Those, and there are some, who claim that our nation is an irrelevance, that national ambition is merely jingoistic rhetoric, that our time has passed, they are the truly unpatriotic ones.
I take the long view of our nation’s future fortunes. Not what will happen next month, or this year or even next year. Where will we be in 10, 20 or 30 years time? This matters to me, not because it’s easier to talk about long term visions that deal with the problems of today, but because I have young children. Hopefully I am still many years for this world, but my children and hopefully grandchildren will inherit our nation and their lives and prospects will be influenced by the influence and power (hard and soft) of our country. Yes the short term matter. It makes a difference to people’s jobs and family lives, both positively and negatively, and I will seek to address the short term in due course, but if we are to unite our nation, we need to lift our sights beyond the end of March or even the next round of European Parliament elections.
The talk of securing a “deal” by the end of this month has disguised the fact that what is being debated is the Withdrawal Agreement (WA in the jargon). This includes a political declaration which sets out nothing more than a framework for a future relationship between Britain and the EU. Our government, and our Parliament has been paralysed for nearly two years by getting bogged down in the details of withdrawal and not looking ahead to where we want to be. This has been one failings in the negotiation process, but more of that later. There is no clear vision of either Britain’s future relationship with the EU or our place in the wider world. In the place of vision, there has been an exercise in damage limitation. Those who should be leading our nation into the future - whatever that my look like - have lacked the confidence of their own convictions. There is undoubtedly a need to compromise between competing views, but the almost apologetic attempts to talk about our future has simply meant that no-one feels satisfied with what is on offer.
I believe one reason for this is because we have become obsessed with form over substance. We talk all the time of the institutions, whether it be the EU or the WTO, or the agreements that are in place such as Schengen and the Erasmus Programme. Certainly the details of future multilateral and bilateral relations with other countries matter hugely, but whilst we delve into the details of revoking Article 17 of this or trying to retain Schedule 7 of this, we once again miss the big picture.
A thought experiment for a moment. Imagine not that the result of the referendum had been different, but rather that it had simply never happened. What is the consensus on Britain’s place in the world then? Is it really any clearer? The establishment may have been more confident in stating a view, but I am not sure it would have been much more coherent than the debate we are currently witnessing.
My view, and it is just that, a personal perspective, is that Britain is, should remain, and should see herself as one of the top five nations in the world. How do you measure success I hear you ask? There are a plethora of measures of course: GDP, GDP growth, military power, cultural influence, membership of global organisations, quality of healthcare, all of these and many more. Probably the most important albeit intangible is how others see us. Impossible to measure, but we respect France, Germany, Japan and China as equal players in global politics not because of the size of their national banks, but because of a million and one different things that make a nation.
We should be outward looking, not insular. The rule of law is not unique to the United Kingdom, but it is a bedrock of our nation state and should be maintained and upheld. Along with that goes law and order. Not just in the short term political context of increasing police numbers, but in ensuring fair and impartial justice, due punishment and effective rehabilitation. A nation that champions free trade, that brings challenges when some industries call for protectionism, but the vision should be for Britain to be a beacon for free trade globally. Free travel is linked with free trade. Embracing those from overseas who visit our shores for tourism, academia or business, just as many Britain have in the past, still do, and will continue to shape many other parts of the world. That is not the same as freedom to settle permanently within a 15% of the countries of the world that make up an even smaller proportion of the world’s population.
On the face of it the divisions in the debate are about the institutions, but these are binary issues - you are either in or out - and therefore do not lend themselves to compromise. I would argue the way to bring people together it to move beyond the institutional questions. Like it or not, that was answered in the 2016 referendum. I disagree with, but respect those who vehemently want to remain in customs union, or the single marked or the European Court of Justice or the European Union itself. Yet few are ideologically wedded to these institutions themselves. Instead it is what they stand for. This is the point at which we can unite, in a new vision of the future.
Many ‘remainers’ that I have talked to on the subject want to retain free movement because they believe in a free exchange of ideas and don’t want to see Britain becoming insular. I would agree, but we have allowed the argument to become polarised by a minority at both extremes. Yes some on ‘Leavers’ want to see a complete end to immigration and say so with racist overtones. Equally some extremists at the other end of the spectrum believe in entirely uncontrolled immigration - almost to the abolition of the nation state as a concept. The truth is that most of us - I would guess well over seventeen million - are somewhere in the middle. Accepting that immigration is necessary and desirable but ultimately there need to be controls and limits. Britain’s travel the world as much as we receive visitors from overseas. Families are now much more likely to cross national borders and for most people (leaver or remain) this is no challenge to them. So if we can agree on a vision of openness whilst retaining reasonable national control, as all other countries do, then why should that openness not apply to the whole globe. We should abandon the debate about the current institutions and have a grown up discussion about a sensible global immigration and travel policy. I accept this is something the present government have singularly failed to do. Free movement is one of the areas that is seen as divisive, but taken away from the constraints of the current institutions and the binary choice of the status quo versus an unknown future, I believe there can be a general consensus.
Similarly on trade policy. We have created divisions on whether we should remain part of the single market, without discussing the vision of free trade versus protectionism. There is a legitimate view by remainers that the best way to maintain free trade with our closest geographical neighbours is to remain in the single market. This however discounts the wider global opportunities. Yes the EU is gradually expanding trade agreements, but this is where we should once again move away from institutions and think of the underlying principles. Should trade agreements by the EU or by the UK be fundamentally free trade or protectionist? I believe there is a consensus to be built around free trade, despite the challenge that may bring for certain industries. Once again there may be difference in how best to achieve this in the short term, but these are policy differences not a fundamental divide.
We will never agree a national consensus on the best policies to achieve our aims, it would a boring world in which to live if we did, and without challenge we would no doubt end in disaster. Yet there can be a much less divisive vision of where we should be heading for.
There will be exceptions, we live in a democracy and we should embrace differences of opinions. Yet whilst I have argued with many over the institutional issues of leaving the EU, there are very few that, following some discussion, I think that have a fundamentally different view of where Britain ought to aim to be.
So how have we ended up in this place? I believe the government’s failed negotiating strategy has a lot to be blamed for. There is however a more fundamental problem which has been the failure of a majority in politics and a minority of the public to simply fail to accept the result of the 2016 referendum. Did the question posed in the referendum set out exactly what the terms would be? No of course not. Was there spin put on issues during the referendum? Yes, but both sides. Did some people vote a particular way for reasons other than the question on the ballot paper? Yes, in the same way the do at every election. Was the referendum legally binding? No, of course not. So what? These are technical objections put by those who lost. All of the same criticisms could have been made if the result had gone the other way. It’s a free country. If you don’t like the result and you want to overturn it, be honest. I fundamentally disagree. I campaigned to leave. I cannot prove the negative, but I would have accepted a remain result. I would not have changed by view that Britain would have been better off out, but I would not have taken to the streets to protest about a legitimate result. I may have hoped that my children would have a chance to break free in a generation’s time, but I would have accepted - as the public were promised - that the referendum settled the issue for a generation.
As I have tried to argue that does not mean that people should abandon sincerely held beliefs, but if we are to unite it is up to all of us to be willing to compromise. Those on the ‘winning’ side must articulate the vision, must argue for the things that unite us, and not seek to gloat in a victory. We must look beyond the decision itself and the technical implementation and look to an achievable vision. Equally those who supported remain must accept the fundamental argument was lost, but they can and should continue to argue for the outcomes they want to see.
An good example of this is employment and environmental rights. The reality is much more complex than a simple division between left and right that some people would like to characterise this debate as. But for the purposes of this argument I will oversimplify. Again it’s become institutionalised. The ‘left remainers’ argue that only the EU can protect the environmental and employment rights we have. This is simply not the case. By all means use multilateral agreements to tackle global problems, but constitutionally there is nothing that the British Parliament could not legislate or regulate on. If you do not believe they will then that is a matter to campaign on in the domestic political sphere. We can debate those issues in public and political discourse but they are not wedded to the institutions themselves. There is nothing in principle that says leaving the EU has to change any of that legislation. It may change, for better or worse depending on your perspective, but the two are separate arguments.
The party political system is blamed for many of the problems we face. If only MPs would do what they knew was right for the country it would all be fine. The problem is that there are 650 different versions of the national interest in parliament - and approximately 46.5 million different versions in the electorate. What the Party system should have done is to draw people together, to force compromise and find a consensus. Undoubtedly the system has failed to achieve that, but it is not because of the system, it is because the system has fallen apart.
The two party politics has been unstable since the formation of the 2010 coalition and has struggled to recover. My - perhaps unpopular - believe is that the restoration of the two party system is vital in finding a way forward. A plethora of smaller, often single issue, parties does not lead to consensus. It allows us all to think someone represents our precise view, and then to feel that either everyone should join us or that we have been betrayed if our position does not prevail. I have been a member of the Conservative Party for at least twenty years. Have I agreed with everything done in the name of the party over that time? Of course not. I do however remain committed to a vision for our national which I broadly share with the majority of the rest of the Party. Within any political grouping there has to be compromise. I hold my nose about the things I may not be too keen on, and argue for the things I think are fundamental. That is compromise.
Recent innovations such as the Independent Group (TIG) are I hope and believe likely to be short lived. They talk of compromise, but instead the only thing that unites them is their opposition to the referendum result of 2016. They show no signs of compromising towards the majority and there is not evidence that they would compromise amongst themselves to develop a coherent domestic policy. They present themselves as the solution but are in fact a symptom of the problem.
It may not be a label that I would welcome, or one intended to be flattering, but I am undeniable part of the ‘political class’. I am more ashamed of the politicians in this country than at any time. Yes, this is a time of national humiliation. Not because of the result of the referendum, but because of the way our politicians have conducted themselves on almost all sides since then. As I have said previously, it is possible, indeed required to accept the result, yet to retain a belief in your own position. What is not acceptable as a politician is to claim to accept the result, pay lip service to it, and yet consistently seek to undermine it. Edmund Burke was right that politicians must do what they believe is right, but to be a politicians in a democratic country they must surely believe it is right to accept a democratic decision.
My shorthand for national success earlier was respect. Currently I expect the level of global respect for Britain is lower than at any time since the Suez Crisis - and possibly lower. That does not mean the fundamental strengths of our nation do not remain, but it does present us with a challenge.
I pure respect terms I do not see that after two years of flawed negotiations that a retreat through a second referendum, interminably extension or revocation of Article 50 will do Britain any favours. The humiliation is not the decision to leave the European Union. I respect people who disagree with that decision, but I cannot see it as an embarrassment. There was a democratic exercise, peacefully conducted in a mature economy. The result was a surprise to many, it was close, but clear. Many people who voted to ‘Remain’ have accepted that result and moved on. The embarrassment and humiliation comes with a government unable to present a clear vision, a parliament unable to make a decision and a political class unable to embrace the result.
So we have reached the point where around 500 MPs voted to pass legislation that says we will leave the European Union a week today with or without a deal. Since passing that legislation that large majority has lost it’s confidence. Parliament is now split into three broad groups, those supporting the Government’s Withdrawal Agreement; those rejecting it due to the Irish backstop and favouring a No Deal if that backstop isn’t resolved this week; and finally (most likely a majority) who will not accept the deal or a no deal, but cannot quite work out what they do want.
Those who support the Government’s deal I disagree with, but on matters of policy not principle. On the whole they respect the result of the referendum and are trying to deliver it. I believe the deal is seriously flawed and will simply cause more problems for Britain in negotiating the next stage. Yet at least I can reconcile myself with the position taken by those MPs. I disagree with them, but I see their motives as being consistent with bringing the country together, leaving the EU and moving on.
The breakdown of the Party system and the lack of compromise (despite the talk of it) means that the majority in parliament hold a plethora of different views. Revocation, delay, second referendum (and then the permutations of the referendum question!) Norway, Norway+, remaining in the single market and customs union and no doubt others that I have not listed or even thought of. Almost all of these are ways of denying or trying to avoid the result of the 2016 referendum. This group have genuinely held beliefs undeniably, but they are on the whole not seeking to move forward, but rather to find a way to undermine the decision of the people.
This is what breeds the strongest divisions in the country. Undoubtedly this approach will appease a core group who which to have a rerun of the referendum, but this cannot be described as bringing people together. Yes we need to unite. Yes all sides need to compromise. Everyone needs to accept the result, move on from the institutional questions and develop a vision for our nation.
That analysis leaves what have become known as the ‘hardcore’ remainers. Certainly there are many in that group, as across parliament who have not conducted themselves well. Yet I find more support for the option of defaulting to a ‘No Deal’ at the end of next week outside of parliament than I do in it. Forgetting the personalities and the character assassinations of all sides, this seems to most logical solution. If you accept the result of the referendum and the need to leave, if you were an MP who voted for the Bill that enshrined our leaving date as 29th March and if you agreed with the now infamous phrase, “no deal is better than a bad deal” then the logic is simple. There are two options. Either you believe the Withdrawal Agreement on offer is good enough and the risks of the Irish Backstop are negligible in which case you support the proposal as is. Once again I do not hold this view, but I can at least respect it. If you do not accept the deal, then the answer is not to prevaricate for an option that is not on offer, but instead you must accept the default option which is leaving in a weeks’ time. Some remainers have accused leavers of ‘chasing unicorns’ in seeking something that is impossible. This is simply an incorrect assessment. Those of us willing to accept a no deal may be wrong in our assessment of the impacts and advantages, but it is eminently possible to achieve, in fact as of today it is still the law. Rather it is those who still hope to reopen negotiations, to bring a weary public with them on another nine or twelve months of negotiations with still no clear vision of the outcome, who are entertaining fantasies. I have disagreed with politics with people for many years and always managed to stay friends. Compromise is certainly needed, but so is tolerance of difference, and this is something that goes well beyond the debate about Brexit.
Our politics, our nation, is undoubtedly at a crossroads. We are witnessing a crisis of confidence, not so much in the public, but in our political class. Delays for delay’s sake is no strategy. We may be looking at 12th April now rather than 29th March. Even if things move to 22nd May, that does nothing to move us on. Compromise cannot be found by uniting everyone in opposition to your course of action. The public decided to leave. We must all accept that result, but the reconciliation comes in the vision for our country. Moving away from the argument over a question that was answered three years ago, and instead discussing Britain’s place in the world.
We are in a crisis, not because we are leaving the European Union, but because our politicians have failed to deliver. We can recover from this, and regain global respect, but it will take courage from politicians and civility and understanding towards each other. There are brighter times ahead, but not whilst stuck in an interminable limbo. In order to move forward we must leave the European Union and forge a new place for ourselves amongst our global partners.