RIP Sir Richard Body

This tribute first appeared on Brexit Central and is reproduced with permission.

The death has been announced at the age of 90 of Sir Richard Body, Conservative MP for Billericay between 1955 and 1959 and then Holland with Boston (later Boston and Skegness) between 1966 and 2001. He was a long-serving Co-President of the Campaign for an Independent Britain and in 1994 he famously resigned the Conservative whip in solidarity with eight fellow Tory MPs who had the whip suspended after abstaining on a Commons vote on the European Communities (Finance) Bill, which would increase the UK’s contribution to the EU. He is remembered here by Dr Lee Rotherham.

Sir Richard Body was a thoughtful, courteous, courageous and engaging parliamentary veteran who played a long and significant role in the Eurosceptic movement. He also had a thoroughly disarming manner. After spotting a vacant spot on the European battlefield, he would identify a strategic hill and predict its significance; then, after a pause, he would lean forward: “Now,” he would say with a very perceptible twinkle in his eye, “I do think there’s something we could be doing here.” And having identified a minuscule budget to achieve the task (Euroscepticism in those days was a shoestring affair), a surprise flanking manoeuvre would take place that no one else had considered, the critical importance of which might only be fully revealed several years later.

Sir Richard was an independently-minded Quaker, and what used to be called an old school shire Tory. His unhurried pre-24 hour news cycle style could be problematic to media monsters: on being invited to Downing Street to follow the other whipless rebels back into the party, the Whips’ Office jumped the gun and released a statement that took the action as granted. But Sir Richard had resigned on principle, and in defence of the interests of his constituents. The presumption was dangerous and for some hours the Downing Street press office had to embarrassingly hold a wobbly line of their own making while Sir Richard reflected on whether the commitment made by the Prime Minister over fisheries policy was sufficiently robust.

By that stage he was an extremely experienced parliamentarian. I recall once being taken aback in the late 1990s, when discussing certain developments: “This,” he observed, “reminds me of the mood in the House at the time of Suez.” As such anecdotes (some lately happily captured by the Parliament archivists) remind us, he had by then been on the green benches long enough almost to be in the running to be Father of the House. However, a necessary stint in the private sector (MPs were not well remunerated in those days) generated a break in that service, and he was to observe that he considered himself extraordinarily lucky to have been given a second opportunity. His was, incidentally, the first seat to be announced by live television coverage by a field camera unit. The result came through unexpectedly early and the candidate had retired for a nap in the interim: an unknown force pulled him out of slumber and encouraged him to dash off into the main hall – thus narrowly avoiding the embarrassment of being literally caught napping on camera…

His four decades of parliamentary service did not see him rise to ministerial rank, though he did serve as Chairman of the Agriculture Select Committee. He was a long-standing campaigner on a number of avant-garde environmental and rural issues, amongst them animal welfare, the overuse of antibiotics, and aggressive farm gangmasters. It was not just EU issues that led to an overlap of interests with the Goldsmith ‘green Eurosceptics’.

The most intriguing aspect of his career was perhaps the fact that he started out as a very, very early pro-European. Visitors to his constituency home would even be shown the ‘Ted Heath chair’ on which the future Prime Minister had sat during a visit. The reason why there weren’t more pieces of such nomenclatured furniture, however, lay in a visit that Sir Richard made to Brussels. Over lunch, his interlocutors, believing they were speaking with a convinced integrationist, felt that they could confide fully in their visitor on the scale of their ambition, caveating it with an “Of course, we cannot reveal this in public, because the public would oppose it.”

The deep deceit involved and anti-democratic nature of the project drove him into opposing it. As the programme became clearer over the years, it also revealed itself to be far from the model of accountable, devolved government that he himself supported. For Sir Richard, if federalism were an ideal for any state, it required the balances and parity of scale involved in the Swiss model; political unification on a continental scale, by contrast, meant abandoning the lessons learned from the Renaissance, where humanity had leapt through competition between small states each proud of their achievements and cityscapes, and where a free market urban competitiveness drove innovation and social progress. Strikingly, his Euroscepticism was unusually internationalist in outlook. His links with Scandinavian Eurosceptics was particularly important, and fostered valuable wider co-operation between campaigners.

Sir Richard’s long campaign saw him play a central leadership role during the 1975 EEC referendum. Amongst other actions, it is also worth recalling his commissioning Professor Patrick Minford’s early cost-benefit analysis of EU membership. Quite aside from the significance of this audit in its own right (acknowledged indeed in Margaret Thatcher’s Statecraft), it perspicaciously included a further commentary by a leading Japanese economist. On top of that it also added a brief introduction by several prominent businessmen. Sir Richard predicted the need to bring business leaders openly onto the Eurosceptic campaign trail, and signatories indeed subsequently set up Business for Sterling and, in turn, Business for Britain.

His biggest battle was over fishing, and standing up for the livelihoods of his constituents in the port of Boston. When eight Conservative colleagues voted against the Government over an increase in the EU budget, and John Major removed their whip, Body voluntarily followed them: the money, after all, meant upgrading the Spanish fishing fleet while paying for British boats to be scrapped. Sir Richard supported Save Britain’s Fish at a time when party policy on fisheries was, to say the least, shallow. The extent to which it is less so today is in part down to his support of a cause that had shamefully for so long been considered politically on the periphery and indeed expendable; he, for example, commissioned a legal review by a QC that confirmed beyond doubt the UK’s default sovereign standing over the 200-mile limit. The fact that Conservatives Against a Federal Europe (CAFE) included fisheries as a commitment was effectively down to him – indeed, the move by the Whipless Eight to take over and reinvigorate CAFE in 1996 and turn it into the party’s largest grassroots organisation was at his recommendation.

His early support for Margaret Thatcher as a potential leadership candidate (notwithstanding the fact that she was apparently at the outset quite a shaky speaker!) has been recorded. Less well recalled was his engagement with key proto-Thatcherite think-tanks in the 1970s. In due course he set up his own Centre for European Studies and long co-operated with the late John Coleman in such projects as New European Publications and the New European journal (still going today, and certainly not to be confused with the anti-Brexit rag of the same name). In his own writings, he published books that, amongst other things, supported English devolution, predicted the development of tablets and scanned payments technologies and set out a loose style of European arrangement (Europe of Many Circles) that might still in future years inform debate about a post-EU Europe. He achieved all of this despite a much-hampered eyesight, that when encountered at his desk lent him the air of a jeweller hard engaged on his task.

Coming soon after the passing of Sir Teddy Taylor, the Eurosceptic movement has been hit by the sad loss of another great Brexit pathfinder and pioneer. My thoughts are with his family.

Brexit – the mood at grassroots level eight weeks on

Away from the debate between politicians, businessmen and campaigners  about the best exit route, eight weeks after the memorable result of June’s referendum, life for ordinary people has settled down remarkably quickly.

In fact, it soon became apparent within a matter of days after June 23rd that life was carrying on as normal for much of the country. I recall a trip to London during the final week of June.  Walking down the south bank of the Thames, it struck me how little effect the referendum result  was having on day to day life. A long queue of people of all nationalities were waiting to buy tickets to the London Eye and the restaurants were full – in fact, my train home was even fuller! In short, you wouldn’t have thought we had just taken a major political decision only a few days ago.

Initial statistics suggest that life did indeed carry on much as normal during the first full month after the Brexit vote.  The number of people claiming unemployment related benefits fell by 8,600 in July. It had been expected to rise by around 9,000. The fall was the first since February this year. Other data showed that the employment rate in the UK reached a record high of 74.5% between April and June this year. Retail sales also grew by 1.4% during the month. The vote to leave the EU has not deterred people from spending money.  Furthermore, for all the uncertainly generated by David Cameron’s decision to call the referendum, London attracted more venture capital for start-ups than other major European cities. According to an article in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, it attracted €1.5bn in the first half of the year, well ahead of its nearest rivals Stockholm (€1bn), Paris (€674m), and Berlin (€520m).

Significantly. although the rate of UK consumer price inflation jumped to 0.6% in the year to July followin the Brexit vote, it was only slightly up on the 0.5% recorded in March and still well below the 1% threshold which triggers a letter from the governor of the Bank of England to the Chancellor explaining why inflation is so far below the 2% target!

BBC Radio 4 broadcast an interesting programme on Wednesday Evening where two groups of people from the most pro-leave and the most pro-remain areas of the UK met in separate rooms to discuss their feelings following the Brexit vote. Two Rooms, hosted by Fi Glover,  was another fascinating insight into how quickly life has settled down. The leavers, from Boston, Lincolnshire, were the more optimistic of the two groups, expressing great hopes especially for the UK’s trade prospects. The remainers, from Brixton in South London, talked of their shock when the result was announced. They were concerned about possible loss of access to the single market and expected an economic downturn.

Both groups,  however, accepted the result. Indeed, one person used the phrase “now we’ve left”, even though we haven’t even invoked Article 50 let alone come out the other end! Interestingly, both groups saw Brexit as a long overdue opportunity to re-boot our democracy and to decentralise power to a local level. For all the initial horror of some Brixtonian remainers, there were no calls for a second referendum. They may not have wanted a leave vote, but Brexit as far as they were concrned means Brexit.

Such attitudes at the grassroots level should not come as a shock. For four month’s David Cameron’s decison to call the referendum  thrust the issue of EU membership into a prominence it had never previously enjoyed.  A year ago, just before the General election, a survey by YouGov placed “Europe” as far down as 7th in its list of voters’ priority issues, well behind housing, welfare and health. Anyone who has ever stood as a UKIP candidate will have known the frustration that in general elections, the EU was never widely viewed as the most important factor in determining how people would vote.  After its moment in the spotlight, it is therefore unsurpisingly again receding into the background.

But not totally. News that over a million Eastern European migrants are now working in the UK will have served as a reminder to some people why they voted to leave, while the Daily Express has unearthed another story which will raise plenty of hackles:- a German-based agency called medaltracker.eu whose data is used by offical EU websites, has published a chart showing that the greatest number of medals in the Rio Olympics has been won by the EU! Nowhere is the UK to  be seen, which is  particularly galling considering the tremendous performances by Team GB. It seems that the Brexit vote has done nothing to change the mindset of the EU élite who opened a museum four years ago costing £44 million and called the “House of European History” which calls the Second World War a “civil war“, in spite of quite a bit of the action taking place in North Africa and the Far East

While it seems impossible to change this very selective and bizarre interpretation of history, hopefully, if our government and Civil Service can get their act together, by the time the 2020 Olympics begin in Tokyo, “now we’ve left” really will mean “now we’ve left” and the likes of Medaltracker will not be able to repeat their insult to our heroic athletes.