Some reflections fro a bewildered Brexiteer

To my dying day, I will always look back with a sense of real satisfaction and pride in having played a part, albeit a pretty minor one, in securing that crucial vote on June 23rd last year. This time last year, like many leave campaigners, I was in the thick of one of the most hectic, demanding periods of my entire life. The late nights travelling back from debates, the numerous phone calls and e-mails to answer, the leaflets to put through doors in my neighbourhood. It just didn’t stop. When it was finally over, it took a month, even for a fit and healthy person like myself, to recover.

But it was worth it! That sense of exhilaration on the morning of June 24th when the leave votes hit that magic total 16,775,992 was something I shall never forget. We leavers had started as the underdogs. We had Cameron’s government using all the levers at its disposal to persuade us to stay in. We had a very limited timespan to get our message across. We were not united on exit strategy and there was no love lost between several leading leave campaigners, but yet we won.

I can understand some remainers’ motives. Some people, albeit a dwindling number, believe the government and therefore fell for “Project Fear”. Others decided to “hold on to Nurse for fear of something worse”, which was understandable given the lack of a clear post-Brexit vision. “There’s a lot wrong with the EU, but it’s the least bad option to stay in.” Some people reached polling day still with little idea of what the EU actually was and therefore decided to stick to the status quo. The EU has historically been a peripheral issue in UK politics – just ask anyone who has stood as a UKIP candidate in a previous general election!

However, what bewilders me – and no doubt many other leave campaigners – is just why anyone who actually understands what the EU is all about can actually want their country to be a member state and even now would love to stop the Brexit process – neither out of fear nor of concern about economic problems, but because they really believe in the EU project.

This applies not just to the hard-core remainiacs over here but the members of EU-27. As the final preparations for the Brexit negotiations get under way, the BBC took some soundings from a number of European countries. The comment which shows the least understanding of the sentiment of the UK electorate came, rather surprisingly from the Netherlands. “A self-inflicted wound” was one Dutch columnist’s description of Brexit. Perhaps the best response to this is that Brexit is like a cancer operation. There may well be some pain at first, especially if the negotiations end badly, but for us, EU membership is like a malignant tumour which had to be cut out if we were to survive. Yes, the surgery may leave us with a wound, but the alternative would have been far worse. The columnist in question has clearly not moved on from the drama of last June when a number of continental leaders, including the former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, called the Brexit vote “beyond comprehension.” Bryan Macdonald, an Irish journalist who is based in Moscow, used exactly the same phrase five months later. “It’s beyond comprehension that the UK would vote itself into irrelevance,” he wrote.

Actually, dear Messrs Bildt and Macdonald, it’s very easy to understand why we voted to leave. There are umpteen reasons. Here’s just a few:-

  • We should never have been part of the EU in the first place. Last June’s Brexit vote righted a great wrong perpetrated on us by Edward Heath over 40 years ago. When he realised that honesty about the real objective of the European project would have resulted in the UK electorate rejecting membership, he deliberately downplayed the loss of sovereignty. Resentment over this deceit has been festering ever since.
  • Back in the 1940s, the idea that a professional class of politicians, aided by an army of bureacrats, may have seemed a good way of stopping another World War, but things have move on since then. There is no threat from Soviet Union to counter any more and the professional politicians and bureaucrats, far from offering any solutions, have become part of the problem.
  • The EU is fundamentally undemocratic. Even as ardent supporter of the European project as the Labour MEP Richard Corbett talked of a “democratic deficit” as far back as 1977. And nothing has changed in the subsequent 40 years. The Dutch and the Irish were made to vote again when they rejected the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties respectively, while Cecilia Malmström, the former Trade Commissioner, responded to a petition signed by three million people against TTIP, the EU-US Free trade deal, by saying contemptuously, “I do not take my mandate from the European people.”
  • As far as trade is concerned, we are much better off with one of our own representatives on global bodies like the World Trade Organisation speaking for us rather than having someone from the EU trying to represent 28 nations which sometimes have very conflicting trade objectives. Likewise, we are much better off seeking our own trading arrangements with other countries, free from the protectionism that is still endemic in some EU member states.
  • We desperately need to cut the numbers of immigrants coming to the UK, Our poor little island is badly overcrowded and advances in robotics will soon knock on the head the argument that we need mass immigration to keep the economy ticking over. Thanks to the principle of freedom of movement of people, however, unless we leave the EU, we can do little to staunch the flow.
  • The waters surrounding the UK are some of the best fishing grounds in the world, but the EU Common Fisheries Policy has devastated our once-flourishing fishing industry. Only Brexit can allow us to regain control and to determine who catches how many fish in our own waters.
  • The nation state is far from dead and buried. Only in Europe has this lack of confidence in the ability of a nation’s institutions to manage its own affairs taken such deep roots. The Brexit vote was an expression of a desire to re-join the ranks of sovereign, independent nations. What is hard to understand about that?

To any convinced Brexiteer, these arguments are so overwhelming that unless anyone either has their snouts in the EU very substantial trough or else is stark raving bonkers, what is so bewildering is not so much why anyone should want to derail Brexit either in this country of in Brussels, but why we are not at the head of a queue of nations scrambling for the exit door and freedom.

SNP confusion over fishing policy

The roots of the SNP lie in the fishing communities of the North East of Scotland. The recent desire for Scottish independence, in other words, was borne out of a desire to regain national control over fisheries, which by then were under control of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy.

Now, of course, the SNP seems hell-bent on securing a further referendum on independence in order to rejoin the EU after Brexit. That, however, would mean rejoining the Common Fisheries Policy – and on even more disadvantageous terms than the present arrangements.

So what are we to make of those SNP MPs who have signed a pledge that would protect fishermen by, in effect, keeping Scotland out of the EU?

Signatories include Mike Weir, the party’s chief whip, and Banff and Buchan MP Eilidh Whiteford. The pledge could not be more specific:- “We must avoid any policy, practice, regulation or treaty which could return us to the Common Fisheries Policy and the enforced giveaway of almost two-thirds of our fish stocks.” If this doesn’t mean staying out of the EU after Brexit, what does it mean?

True, the Conservatives, under Michael Howard, considered repatriating UK fisheries policy without leaving the EU, using the so-called “notwithstanding” clause which allowed the Westminster Parliament to enact legislation “any provisions of the European Communities Act notwithstanding” – in other words, to override the EU. Would Scotland, however, newly back into the EU fold, wish to embark on such a confrontational act, even assuming the Scottish Parliament actually possessed similar powers?

While Dr Whiteford insisted that the party’s policy “has always been consistent” in its opposition to CFP, the charges of hypocrisy levelled by Murdo Fraser, a Scottish Conservative MEP and fellow-signatory, are not without foundation. Ultimately, the SNP has a choice. Does it want to seize the opportunities provided by Brexit to rebuild the Scottish fishing industry or does it want to complete the work begun by Edward Heath in wrecking Scotland’s coastal communities completely by dragging the country back into the EU and thus the Common Fisheries Policy it was formed to oppose? It cannot do both.

Photo by stusmith_uk

The uniqueness of the breadth of anti-EU sentiment in the UK

Next Wednesday, Parliament will be dissolved in preparation for June’s General election. The final Prime Minister’s Question Time has already taken place and it provided an opportunity for retiring MPs to make their voice heard in the debating chamber for the last time.

Quite a number of MPs have already indicated that they will not be seeking re-election. Some, like Alan Johnson, who headed up the thankfully ineffective Labour in for Britain campaign last year, will be no great loss. His colleague Gisela Stuart is a different matter, however. One of the few solidly pro-leave Labour MPs, Mrs Stuart’s eyes were opened   when she was appointed as one of the UK Parliamentary Representatives to the European Convention, which was tasked with drawing up a new constitution for the European Union.

Another veteran pro-leave MP to be stepping down is Sir Gerald Howarth, the Member for Aldershot since 1997, with whom I shared a platform last May at a debate held in nearby Farnham.

These two individuals, from different parties but united in their opposition to our membership of the EU, epitomise the uniqueness of anti-EU sentiment in the UK and ultimately, why we were able to secure a sufficient majority to leave.

Historically, in most member states, anti-EU sentiment has been primarily a phenomenon of either neo-fascists or the political left. Jacques Delors’ “Social Europe” of the 1980s won round most Socialist parties to supporting the EU, including our own Labour Party. Sections of the Far Left remained irreconcilable and as Delors’ vision has faded with the EU gradually turning into a honeypot for lobbyists from multinational businesses, they have further reason for their opposition. In this country, even though left-of-centre anti-EU sentiment in the UK has never been as strong as it was in the 1970s and early 1980s, it never died out completely.

What marks out the UK as unique, however, is the strength of Thatcherite anti-EU sentiment. The centre-right Christian Democrat-type parties in the other member states are solid supporters of federalism. David Cameron’s pledge to pull the Conservative Party’s MEPs out of the European People’s Party grouping in the European Parliament, which includes Angela Merkel’s CDU and France’s “Les Republicains”, when seeking to become Conservative leader, was one of the reasons for his success. It was probably no great issue for the ideology-light Cameron, but many of his MPs were aghast at their colleagues in Brussels being bedfellows of unreconstructed federalists.

The Campaign for an Independent Britain has always sought to act as an umbrella group for anti-EU organisations on both the left and right of the political spectrum and by and large, we have found that the vast majority of pro-withdrawalists have been willing to work together, notwithstanding their differences over other issues.

Indeed, this held true during the referendum campaign itself. Some left-of-centre Brexit campaigners felt that Martin Durkin’s Brexit the Movie presented a vision of an independent UK which was too free market and Thatcherite for their taste and produced their own Lexit video to offer a more socialist picture of life after the EU. This did not preclude left- and right-leaning withdrawalists sharing of platforms, nor did differences in other matters obscure the considerable degree of overlap. Ultimately, the undemocratic nature of the EU and its progressive erosion of our national sovereignty is not an issue which is the exclusive concern of any one part of the political spectrum.

This is because the scale of revulsion over the EU’s intrusion into the political process in our nation is born out of something which transcends party politics – our long-standing tradition of freedom and our mature democracy. This is without parallel in most other EU member states. Only the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries can begin to compare with us in this area.

And thankfully, this deep-seated loathing of foreign interference in our affairs was sufficient to bind an otherwise disparate group of MPs and activists together and secure the magnificent result of 23rd June. To all those departing pro-leave MPs who are bowing out:- Ladies and Gentlemen, enjoy your retirement and thank you for your efforts. We owe you a great debt.

France gives the EU a breather

The nightmare scenario in Brussels would have been a le Pen/Mélenchon run off in the second and final round of the French Presidential election. Both candidates, for different reasons, were strongly EU-critical and the far left Jean-Luc Mélenchon put in a strong showing in the final days of campaigning.

Not strong enough, however, to beat Emmanuel Macron, the most pro-EU candidate of the four front runners. He will go forward to the second round where he is widely expected to win comfortably against Marine le Pen, although probably not by anything like the same margin as the 82%-18% victory of Jacques Chirac over her father Jean-Marie le Pen in  2002

One reason why a Macron victory is unlikely to be that decisive is that he has come out openly in support not only of the EU but of multiculturalism and diversity. France today contains a substantial number of voters who are distinctly unenthusiastic about both. Indeed, a total of 46% of all votes were cast for either le Pen, Mélenchon or “Frexit” candidate Nicolas Dupont-Aignan. Abstention is likely to be high in the second round and some supporters of the defeated candidates may well switch to Marine le Pen. Even so, it would be a brave man who would bet any money on her becoming president this time round.

So huge sighs of relief are the order of the day in Brussels and Berlin. What about in London? A run-off between two EU-critical candidates with one of them eventually becoming president would have perhaps given us a Brexit-friendly voice in the Elysée Palace but at the expense of the remaining EU-26 wanting to take a tougher line on Brexit to minimise the risk of contagion. A probable Macron victory relieves the fear of any other country voting to leave. As with the failure of Geert Wilders’ PVV Party to top the polls in the Netherlands’ election earlier this year, Brexit now looks more and more like a one-off as far as the EU is concerned.

But those disaffected 46% will be heading back to the polls in June to vote in elections of the National Assembly, the lower house of the French Parliament. Even if France ends up with a pro-EU president, that president is likely to deal with a considerable number of députés who do not share his enthusiasm. As in other European countries, support for the mainstream socialist party is in freefall and the centre-right Les Républicains are unlikely to perform well. This doesn’t mean that the EU’s day of reckoning has only been postponed by a further two months. Its final collapse could be several years away, but as one Old Testament prophet put it, “The vision is yet for an appointed time… thought it tarry, wait for it, because it will surely come.

The 2017 General Election we weren’t expecting

Since becoming Prime Minister, Theresa May has insisted that she wasn’t going to cut and run. Although the Conservatives have consistently held a substantial lead over Labour, she has resisted calls from within her own party to hold a snap general election and has been adamant that her government would run its full five-year term.

Her change of heart this morning therefore came as a bolt out of the blue. This was her statement in full:-

“I have just chaired a meeting of the Cabinet, where we agreed that the Government should call a general election, to be held on June 8th.

“I want to explain the reasons for that decision, what will happen next and the choice facing the British people when you come to vote in this election.

“Last summer, after the country voted to leave the European Union, Britain needed certainty, stability and strong leadership, and since I became Prime Minister the Government has delivered precisely that.

“Despite predictions of immediate financial and economic danger, since the referendum we have seen consumer confidence remain high, record numbers of jobs, and economic growth that has exceeded all expectations.

“We have also delivered on the mandate that we were handed by the referendum result”.

Of course, Mrs May cannot ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament. The Fixed Term Parliaments Act, passed under David Cameron in 2011, requires Parliament to serve a full five year term unless there is either a successful vote of no confidence in the Government or else two-thirds of MPs back an early election. Can Mrs May achieve that majority? With Jeremy Corbyn, Tim Farron and Nicola Sturgeon all enthusiastic to fight another General election, she stands a reasonable chance. However, assuming that every Tory MP will support their leader, this still requires every SNP and Lib Dem MP to do likewise along with at least 30 Labour MPs. If some MPs abstain and enough Labour MPs are fearful for their seats, achieving this figure may prove a bit challenging.

Presumably Mrs May and her supporters have been taking soundings, for if she fails to gain the necessary support, it would not look good for her, especially as she would then be going into the all-important Brexit negotiations from a weakened position. The only other alternatives for a snap election – calling a vote of no confidence in her own government or seeking to repeal the 2011 act, which would require approval of the House of Lords – do not look very likely.

Assuming that she does secure a majority, from the perspective of the Campaign for an Independent Britain, this will be a very different election from anything in the recent past. Being a cross-party campaign organisation, our focus has been to encourage voters to support candidates supportive of withdrawal from the EU, regardless of their party allegiance. With the vote to leave and the triggering of Article 50 behind us, the dynamics have changed considerably, particularly as many former remain-supporting Tories along with a significant minority of their Labour colleagues have insisted that they will honour last June’s vote and will not be obstructive of Brexit. Our task, therefore, will be to highlight obstructive individuals – either sitting MPs or candidates – while encouraging voters to support any candidate who is committed to the UK securing a good Brexit deal, whatever party they come from.

We can but hope that this election, rather than resurrecting the animosity of the Brexit campaign, will give us a Parliament which will carry out the wishes of the people as expressed last June and work constructively to secure such a successful exit from the EU that by the time the next General Election takes place, it will no longer be an issue for the UK electorate.

Second referendum? Nein Danke!!

It is now almost ten months since the referendum on our membership of the EU. After a long wait, Mrs May has now triggered Article 50 and we are finally about to begin the exit negotiations.

While Brexit is likely to feature prominently in the newspapers and on radio and TV news bulletins in the next two years, how much interest the finer points of the negotiations will be to the majority of the population who are not political “anoraks” is debatable.  The EU has never been popular in this country, but it has only ever set the adrenaline racing for a tiny minority of voters.

Of course, it took centre stage for the first half of last year, but now we have made our decision, it has retreated into the background as an issue for most people. Whichever way they voted, the result has been accepted and life carries on, focusing on areas of greater concern.

There are a few exceptions, it must be admitted. In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon is doing all she can to stir up resentment to the Brexit vote in order to pursue her aim of a second independence referendum, In some parts of London, disagreements between leave and remain voters have left a legacy of unpleasantness and even in the Somerset village of Norton-sub-Hamdon, home of a former Lib Dem leader, some neighbourly relations are a bit strained.

But this hardly justifies a German politician urging us to hold a second referendum. The proposal from Katarina Barley, the general secretary of the German Socialist Party (SPD), therefore needs to be firmly rejected. She claimed that, “when the referendum was held, nobody really knew what it would be about — not the British people, not even the political class….A lot of people wrongfully thought that Britain could get a deal like Switzerland or Norway without the inconveniences, without accepting the rulings of the European Court of Justice, without free movement of labour.”

This is hardly an accurate summary of the referendum campaign. In reality, the leave campaign gave very little detail about exit strategy – indeed, Dominic Cummings of Vote.Leave decided quite deliberately not to adopt an exit plan. As for the aspiration to end free movement of people and the power of the European Court of Justice, the issue is not so much whether these things will happen but when. Theresa May has been quite specific in stating that Brexit means both of these things. The complexities of the divorce settlement may mean that we cannot distance ourselves from the EU to the degree we would like as quickly as we would like, but we’ll get there in the end.

The leave campaign did have its weaknesses – no one could deny that. On the other hand, the remain campaign, with its cranked-up Project Fear and its reluctance to admit that the EU was a political project designed to build a superstate, was equally flawed.  After such a bruising and mediocre campaign, it is hardly surprising that only 21% of those surveyed in a recent poll by YouGov want a second referendum. If the same pollsters had asked the speakers and activists who had taken part in last year’s campaign, enthusiasm for a re-run would have been even lower.

So Ms Barley’s claim that the mood in the UK is shifting towards a second referendum has little basis in reality, not to mention the prevalent attitude in Brussels being a desire to be rid of us ASAP.  At the end of the day, we voted to remove ourselves from a project designed to emasculate our national political institutions. Forget last year’s debate about the percentage of our laws which originate in Brussels. The reality is much more complicated and as the scale of the Brexit negotiations becomes clear, it will also become increasingly clear exactly how much independence has been surrendered by 44 years of EU membership. We are getting out just in time – and by the time we actually go, there will be few regrets.