What if we had lost?

It’s now over 10 months since the referendum. After the initial euphoria at the result, we enjoyed a brief and well-deserved break before plunging in to the next campaign – ensuring that we end up with the best Brexit deal possible. With Article 50 now triggered, however, the negotiations about to begin in earnest and memories of the referendum itself beginning to fade, it’s easy to forget how hard we had to work to achieve last June’s result.

Suppose, however, that it we had lost.

David Cameron had spelt out in no uncertain terms that this referendum, like Scotland’s vote in 2014, was a “once in a generation” decision. Admittedly, Nicola Sturgeon is straining every nerve to try to engineer a second vote on Scottish independence, but given that it was 41 years since our previous referendum on EU membership, we all knew that if our countrymen had voted to remain in the EU last June, we would have faced many more years of campaigning before a third vote would ever become even a remote possibility.

But just suppose a further vote had eventually been held in, say, 2025, what sort of state would our country – or indeed, the EU – be in by then?

We know that there was a great deal of unease on the Continent following the Conservatives’ 2015 General Election victory, which meant Cameron was going to have to make good his promise to hold the referendum. Laurent Fabius, France’s Foreign Minister, called his pledge “dangerous”. Until last June, Cameron had been described as a “lucky” Prime Minister, winning the 2015 General Election when many pollsters were predicting a hung parliament and securing the results he wanted in both the AV and Scottish independence referendums. Perhaps his track record helped calm nerves in Brussels and Berlin. After all, if remain had won, the implications for the EU would have been enormous.

A vote by the most consistently eurosceptic member state to remain in the EU would have been a green light for a further push towards federalism. Such a move may have initially been focussed on the Eurozone, especially given the victory of the enthusiastic federalist Emmanuel Macron in last Sunday’s French Presidential Election, but we would have inevitably found ourselves swept along in the federalist slipstream. Furthermore, even if voters in other EU member states voted the “wrong” way in any subsequent plebiscites, the EU could have pressed on confident that opposition could be muzzled. If even the truculent UK ultimately had decided to submit to the yoke of Brussels, the EU would have felt emboldened in the pursuit of its objective of creating a superstate. To put it another way, all 28 member states would have themselves been locked into an EU where the Jean-Claude Juncker mindset would have reigned unchallenged. “’If it’s a Yes we will say “on we go”, and if it’s a No we will say “we continue””, he famously said.

Now, however, there will be much nail-biting whenever a new treaty is put to a popular vote. The Brexit vote has shown that electorates are happy to defy a powerful combination of their own political leaders, businessmen and senior figures from both Europe and the wider world. The results of the Dutch general and French presidential elections may have been greeted with huge sighs of relief in Brussels, but it is worth remembering that in the first round of the French elections, 46% of voters opted for an EU-critical candidate. Macron’s victory does not imply a renewed love for the EU in France.

A remain vote would have bolstered the EU’s credibility in the wider world. It is doubtful whether it would have altered the course of events in Turkey, where accession to the EU now looks highly improbable following President Erdogan’s revisions to his country’s Constitution. It would, however, have strengthened the pro-European forces in Norway and Iceland. Maybe even the Swiss would have felt that sooner or later, they would have to join up. Instead, our vote to leave essentially buries the prospect of membership for Western Europe’s non-EU members and also makes the EU a harder sell in the Balkans and the former Soviet republics.

After all, although many of us are aware that one country, Greenland, had earlier left the EEC (as it then was), how many of us can actually remember it happening? It was a pretty minor piece of news at the time whereas the Brexit vote was splashed over front pages across the world, complete with pictures of either Donald Tusk or Angela Merkel looking distinctly gloomy.

The EU was never going to be the same after our referendum, however we voted. Its credibility would either have been boosted or dented.

As for how our country would have been affected by a remain vote, as Rupert Matthews pointed out, defeated leavers would have accepted the result with far more grace than the appalling behaviour we have witnessed from remainiacs like Gina Miller, Richard Branson and Tony Blair. We would have vowed to continue the fight but would not have accused voters in the opposite camp of being stupid. Nor would we have been cry-babies saying that the people didn’t know what they were voting for.

However, within a matter of only a few years, we would have seen much of our remaining distinctiveness gradually eroded. How long would we have been able to remain outside the single currency? How long before our armed services would have been absorbed into an EU army? What of the safeguards of our common law-based criminal justice system, so superior to the Napoleonic inquisitorial system of continental Europe, which the EU eventually would have replaced with a single criminal justice code? Would metrication have been pushed with renewed vigour?

Thankfully, instead of this nightmare scenario, we voted to leave and in so doing, besides the eventual benefits to our own country, we may well have put a big spanner in the works to the whole federalist project, for the good of the whole continent. As William Pitt the younger famously said 200 years ago, “England has saved herself by her exertions and will, as I trust, save Europe by her example.”

Some reflections from 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.

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.

Leavers worked very hard for years to secure Brexit – but we were also helped by a string of good luck

By Patrick O’Flynn MEP

A TV advert came out last year starring James Corden as a motorist driving through central London and finding that every single set of traffic lights miraculously favours him.

After cruising through about four sets in a row, a by-now-ecstatic Corden yells: “They call me Mr Green Light!” The advert serves as a useful reminder of how such a random thing as a run of good luck can change outcomes completely.

I was reminded of it while in Westminster last week to take part in the political circus surrounding the triggering of Article 50. Because, let’s be frank, our victory has only partly been down to our collective political genius. It has also depended on an almost freakish number of factors and events having fallen in our favour in the most fruitful sequence.

No wonder many Remainers cannot break out of outright denial about Brexit. It is an occurrence that has come at them at very high speed, leaving them with an acute case of political PTSD. I suspect many re-run what has happened in their minds every day and simply cannot fathom how it happened.

Let me take you through the sheer number of consecutive green lights we have needed so you can fully appreciate what I mean.

Green light number one was staying out of the €uro and that depended on Sir James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party pressurising John Major and the other party leaders into supporting a referendum before entry. Had a stronger conviction politician such as Ken Clarke been PM at the time, there would have been no chance of a referendum lock on the single currency. But as luck would have it, Downing Street was occupied by a balancer rather than a leader, someone who responded to pressure. And as a result, the UK kept its monetary sovereignty and was able to observe the unravelling of the €uro experiment from the semi-detached sidelines.

The next green light was the failure of the Blair Government to impose transitional migration controls following EU enlargement in 2004. The bottom end of the labour market was flooded and talk of wage compression and pressure on public services took hold in working class communities.

Then came the failure of all the main party leaders to honour their commitment to giving a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Naturally a British rejection of Lisbon would have been hugely disruptive to the EU. But the treaty could surely have been repackaged for a second time with some more tweaks to reassure UK public opinion. But no, it was steamrollered through and as a result public resentment built.

The great financial crash of 2008 further built popular resentment against establishment figures and exacerbated the stagnation of living standards that oversupply of labour was already causing.

Then came another hugely important green light for Brexiteers – the formation of the 2010 Conservative-Lib Dem coalition under David Cameron. With Cameron already regarded with suspicion by the Tory base, the sight of him teaming up with Nick Clegg created the conditions for the rise of UKIP. And as well as transferring at least five points from the Tory score into the UKIP column, the very existence of the coalition also transferred ten points from the Lib Dems to Labour.

Another green light soon followed when the crashing of Lords reform by Tory MPs such as Jesse Norman gave Clegg an excuse to rat on boundary changes that Cameron was depending on for the 2015 election.

So Cameron, who like Major before him was a politician who responded to pressure and travelled light ideologically, was placed in the tightest of tight spots. What he had in addition – something the more cunning Major lacked – was a blithe overconfidence in his own ability to get out of such spots. Therefore, against the advice of George Osborne, he promised an In/Out referendum, confident that his brio would win the day, if and when that day ever arrived. A big green light for us there.

The lights were green again at the 2015 general election – with our First Past The Post electoral system delivering an unexpected outright Tory majority on a 37% vote share. Cameron was left with no excuse for not delivering the referendum.

Accordingly, 8th May 2015 was the first time that most people on the liberal left had even bothered to start contemplating having to win a plebiscite on EU membership. Up to that point most had dismissed the very idea of leaving as a fringe concern of a few right-wing Europhobes in the Tory Party and UKIP.

And even then, the early summer polls on EU membership showed Remain leads of 20-25%. Many pundits predicted a Remain landslide. So Labour and the Lib Dems felt able to take their eyes of the ball and plunge energetically into inward-looking party leadership contests. The prospect of a Leave referendum win was considered so remote that Jeremy Corbyn’s long-time opposition to the EU was barely considered relevant by pro-Remain Labour members as they voted him in by a landslide.

Are you getting the idea by now? They call me Mr Green Light!

And more green signals followed: not only did the more broadly appealing Vote Leave campaign win designation as the official Leave campaign (essential to keeping the dream alive), but the more immigration-focused alternatives were liberated to hit the segments of the electorate who responded to their blunter messaging. And nobody could claim collusion or choreography was going on between Vote Leave and Leave.EU because everyone knew that they really did hate each other.

Just as important was Cameron’s botched “renegotiation”. So cocksure was the then PM about his ability to win pragmatic voters around to Remain on economic grounds that he advertised in advance to his EU peer group that he would ultimately accept whatever they offered him. Unsurprisingly, a lousy deal was forthcoming.

Also, both David Cameron and George Osborne took bad reputational hits in the eyes of Labour-inclined voters in the months leading up to the referendum campaign they were destined to lead.

Cameron’s, one vaguely recalls, concerned a slightly trumped up story about his late father’s use of tax havens. Osborne’s concerned benefit cuts and blew up when Iain Duncan Smith resigned from the Cabinet in protest. The appeal of Osborne in particular to sectors of the electorate that Remain needed to turn out was much reduced. And while Osborne allegedly had been damning about the intellectual capacity of IDS, there is little doubt about who outsmarted whom on this occasion.

So Remain was left with a derided renegotiation and an undercooked campaign led by two Tory posh boys and involving almost zero input from the ambivalent leader of the Labour Party. Even during the campaign itself some crucial luck broke our way when postal vote ballots dropped on a day when record immigration figures led the news.

When polling day itself dawned it should have come as no surprise that torrential rain unloaded on London – depressing turnout in the Remain heartland.

So, my fellow Leavers, as well as recalling our heroic hard work and strategic brilliance, let us also try to understand rather better the trauma of our Remainer friends who were beaten before they even properly realised they were in a fight that they might lose.

One can only conclude that somebody up there must like us. I give you Article 50, courtesy of Mr Green Light.

This article first appeared on the Brexit Central website and is used by permission

You can never trust an emigré

I was going to write this column a couple of weeks ago, but I was unable to find the correct source for the quote that serves as the title. I still haven’t been able to track the quote down properly, so you will have to take this as an unsourced anecdote instead. But one of immediate and urgent relevance to our current state of relations with the European Union.

In the autumn of 1813, Wellington was poised to cross the Pyrenees and invade southern France. He was faced by the decision of where to strike. At this point a group of French Royalist emigrés appeared with inside information that had, they said, come from their contacts inside France. Bordeaux was in a state of turmoil. Royalists had armed themselves and were just waiting for a chance to rise up against the hated Bonarpartists. If Wellington attacked towards Bordeaux, the emigrés claimed, he would have a warm welcome and an easy victory.

It was at this point that Lt Colonel Colquhoun Grant , Wellington’s chief intelligence officer, stepped in to say “You can never trust an emigré”. He suspected, rightly, that these emigrés wanted Wellington to do their dirty work for them, defeat the French forces around Bordeaux and so allow them to move in and exact their own brand of revenge on personal enemies. Wellington listened to Grant, and advanced toward Toulouse instead.

It is, indeed, a truism that you cannot trust those with ulterior motives. Particularly emigrés.

From 1998 to 2002 the American intelligence agencies spent a lot of time speaking to Iraqi emigrés. These exiles poured out a host of stories about how unpopular Saddam Hussein was, how Saddam had vast stocks of weapons of mass destruction and how Saddam was a dangerously unstable dictator who was just itching to invade neighbouring states. The only solution, the emigrés said, was for the USA to invade Iraq and remove Saddam from power.

The US intelligence services did not heed Grant’s advice. They believed the emigrés and only later realised that it was all a pack of lies designed to get the Americans to remove Saddam from power. We all know how well that ended.

And so we come to today. In the Referendum last year, those who wish to leave the EU gained a majority. Since then most of those who voted “remain” have accepted the decision. But a small number of die-hard Europhiles have not. They fondly believe that they are right, that a growing number of British people agree with them and that the referendum decision can be overturned. For the most part they are harmless, but some are not.

Some are men and women who have high level contacts in Brussels, Berlin or Paris. Like the emigrés of old, they are saying what their audience want to hear. “The British people are changing their minds”; “The British economy is in trouble”; “We can stop Brexit with legal challenges”; “Parliament will never agree to go with WTO rules” and so on and so forth.

This is dangerous stuff. If the EU negotiators believe these emigrés  – and from what I have heard some are inclined to do so – then they will seek to impose a punishment deal on the UK in the belief that this will cause the UK to change its mind and stay within the EU.

So those well-connected big beasts with their contacts within the EU machinery are working against the interests of their own country. Like the emigrés of old, they are wanting the EU to do their bidding for their own reasons. They are potentially dangerous, they are certainly wrong. The EU should heed Grant’s advice and “never trust an emigré”.

Photo by dun_deagh

“The tyranny of the majority” – really?

The phrase “the tyranny of the majority” is one that has been bandied around a lot recently. Some might be tempted to simply shrug it off as another example of Remoaners doing a bit of moaning. But the phrase actually encapsulates a serious point about the limits of democracy in a diverse, modern society. Whether the Remain voters are using the phrase correctly is, however, another question.

John Major talked about “the tyranny of the majority” at some length last November. He first used the phrase in a speech to a dinner in Westminster. Sir John made it very clear that he wanted the views of the 48% who had voted “Remain” to be taken into account by the government during its negotiations with the EU.

Tim Farron and Tony Blair quickly came out in agreement (no surprises there) as did many others. A common theme was that another referendum should be held before Britain actually left the EU. The idea was that the simple majority of votes cast in June 2016 should not determine Britain’s future for ever. That seems to be what these Remain supporters mean by “the tyranny of the majority”.

But that is not how the phrase is usually meant nor used.

The phrase was first used by American founding father Alexander Hamilton during the drafting of the Constitution of the USA back in the 18th century. Hamilton worried that if there was a permanent majority of people with one viewpoint, they could use it to oppress and disempower those with a different viewpoint.

An example being bandied around at the time was that the densely populated industrial cities might use their voting power to penalise the more thinly populated agricultural areas. Perhaps agricultural exports would be highly taxed, but no taxes put on industrial exports. So those in rural communities would be economically penalised by a larger bloc of voters. That would be unfair.

Hamilton and his colleagues sought to get around this by setting up the electoral college system for the Presidential elections and the way states have weighted voting in the US Senate. Not a perfect solution, but at least they recognised the problem and made an effort to solve it.

A more recent example in the UK might be the fox hunting ban. A majority of the population live in urban areas and prefer not to see foxes hunted by florid-faced stereotypes in red jackets on horseback. The realities of the situation in rural areas played little part in the debate. The urban majority got their way, and look set to continue to get their way for the forseeable future.

That is a real example of “the tyranny of the majority”. One section of the nation has been permanently oppressed by another, larger section which has no stake in the outcome of the oppression. I do not recall Major, Blair or Farron objecting then.

By comparison the EU Referendum vote was a simple exercise in direct democracy. Now, you may or may not approve of referendums [I’ll come back to that another time], but “the tyranny of the majority” it most certainly is not.

Photo by Chatham House, London