Recently Ian Dunt published an article on Medium entitled: A Short Guide to Britain’s Long Attempt to Leave Europe: On its third anniversary, a quick update on Britain’s never-ending soul search¹. The piece criticised those who advocated leaving the European Union. It was well argued, making lots of good points. However, as a Leaver, I thought I would respond. (You may wish to read his article before continuing. However, I have quoted it extensively, so this is not absolutely necessary.)
Dunt, up to a point, believes that he is in touch with “objective reality”, and that the Leave campaign told the large lies that “Britain could leave the EU, take full control of every aspect of its regulations and laws, and still maintain frictionless trade with Europe, its largest market”, and that “life does not involve trade-offs”. He is correct on the first point; many Leavers were indeed excessively optimistic and utopian in what they thought they could obtain. It should have been obvious that it would be very difficult to leave the EU, and that they, despite their claims of not trying to “punish” or “take revenge on” the UK, were not going to give us a deal advantageous to countries wanting to leave. I have even read (although I haven’t seen the original source, so am hoping it’s not fake news) that Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, has been quoted as saying that it was his job to give the UK such a bad deal that we would want to remain.
On the second point, however, Dunt says that “since the EU is the most ambitious transnational project in the history of mankind, it demands heavy-duty trade-offs. It works basically by melting European economies together into one”. Perhaps it does, but for whose benefit? For all countries involved, or for the big central countries — Germany and France? Ask Greece, and some of the other poorer countries, whether melting all economies into one is a good idea.
In addition to this economic policy, the EU has a project of political integration, the eventual outcome of which will be the removal of national sovereignty and democracy — the possibility of citizens to remove politicians they don’t like. Perhaps that is a trade-off too far.
Dunt talks about the advantage of having frictionless markets for goods and services without taxes or regulatory checks, and rightly so. But these are the benefits of a single market. Why do we have to have economic alignment and political integration in order to secure that? It is obviously possible to have a free-trade single market without political integration, since that is how the project started (when it was known as the European Economic Community, or Common Market), even if it had such integration as a long-term political aim.
On the question of immigration Dunt talks about the “extraordinary freedom for workers to start a business, or join one, wherever they like. Freedom of movement means that anyone, from any European country, can holiday, live, work, love, or retire in any European country”. He says that “countless studies have shown that immigrants boosted the British economy and provided a young and eager workforce to care for the country’s elderly population”. All this is true, and sounds wonderful in principle. I certainly do not disagree with these findings but, to use one of his favourite words, there is a trade-off.
Dunt says that there was “a relentless drumbeat in the right-wing press (which) convinced many Brits that immigration was at an unsustainable level”. Because the UK is seen as a desirable place to work, there is a net increase in population because of immigration. A couple of years ago the official figure given was 300,000 a year, said to be equivalent to a town the size of Sunderland. This may be sustainable for the time being, but if it continues at the same rate, in ten years the population will have increased by 3 million, in thirty years by 9 million, and so on. At some point in the future this is going to become unsustainable. All these newly settled people will need places to live, and have children who will need school places. Many of them will want cars. We are a small country. Our cities are already highly congested with traffic, as are our motorways which often resemble car parks. Unless we start to limit immigration at some point in the future, our country will gradually become more like a concrete jungle, with ever wider motorways, and so on. None of this should be taken to mean that we don’t like foreigners, or are in any way racist.
Dunt says of dedicated Leavers that “in the years since the referendum they have accused almost everyone of trying to ‘thwart the will of the people’: journalists, members of parliament, the judiciary, the House of Lords, the Treasury, the prime minister, the EU, academics, policy experts”. But that is exactly what all these (mainly Remainer) people have been trying to do, namely overturn the result of the referendum. Many of these ‘authorities’ are probably the same people responsible for the ludicrous claims of Project Fear at the time of the referendum. It is, of course, true that David Cameron consented to this in an attempt to resolve internal difficulties in the Conservative Party, and that he was probably complacent, assuming erroneously that Remain would win. It is nevertheless true that we were given the binary choice of in/out, never having been given the opportunity in the past to say whether or not we wanted to join the EU, and it was promised that the result would be implemented. In the UK we have a first-past-the-post electoral system, where the winner takes all. The losers should accept this. The situation can be compared to a football match where one team scores the winning goal in the last minute of injury time; the result stands, and losing supporters would be criticised if they started to throw bottles on the pitch.
In order to support his view that we should vote again, Dunt resorts to a common Remainer insult (and illusion) that Leave voters are unpleasant nationalists and racists (while Remainers are decent, liberal, outgoing and tolerant). The implication is that their opinions and votes should therefore be overruled. He says: “It was about identity. The Brexit fight was a culture war between people who wanted a form of national purity and those who wanted a more open, international country. It was Trump’s wall, on a system-wide scale”. I say quite sincerely that Dunt is a decent man and genuinely likeable (I’ve seen him several times on TV), but I have to take issue with him here. On the one hand he seems to be saying that over 17 million British voters are of that nature. If that is the case, why do we not have a permanent fascist government in place at Westminster? Furthermore, he is calling millions of people whom he has never met, including me, nationalist and racist. How can he justify this? It would be silly to deny that there were some people like that among Brexit voters, but for many of us it was not a question of national purity, rather national sovereignty.
As evidence that Brexit is not an unworthy far-right enterprise, I offer the following quote from the Social Democratic Party’s New Declaration — they are about as centrist as it is possible to be in UK politics: “We consider the nation-state to be the upper limit of democracy. Along with the family, we regard it as indispensable to the solidarity and concern for our fellow citizens. We regard supranationalism as a neoliberal ideology aimed at neutering domestic politics and placing the most important issues beyond the reach of ordinary voters. The European Union or any other supranational entity is not — and will never be — a social democratic enterprise”². I couldn’t have put it any better. As one Leaver whom I met on Monday said: “It is a battle for the soul of our nation”. Indeed it is, and not about a racist national purity. (In this context, I take the word ‘soul’ quite literally, not in any metaphorical sense.)
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Regarding Theresa May, Dunt is far from complimentary about her personality, then adds: “She fought hard to leave the EU, but eventually, reality intervened in the form of something called ‘the backstop’ ”.
Did May fight hard to leave the EU? She certainly tried hard to give that impression. After the referendum she said “Brexit means Brexit”, confirming that we would indeed leave. She also said “no deal is better than a bad deal”, suggesting that she would be prepared to leave without one. In her Lancaster House speech of January 17th 2017 she said that the UK would leave the Single Market and the Customs Union. She also said that no British Prime Minister could ever agree to anything which threatened the integrity of the UK. In what he thought was an off-camera remark, Ken Clarke described Mrs May as “a bloody difficult woman”. We Brexiteers all hoped that he was right, and that she would stand up to the EU and battle for the UK. However, nothing she has done since suggests that she meant what she said. On the contrary, everything suggests that, because of her desperation to get a deal, she capitulated to the EU’s demands. This is why they have been able to outmanoeuvre her and back her into a corner at every opportunity.
Not once, presumably to save face, has she come out and said something like “actually I’ve had to back down. I can’t get what I promised”. At least she would have deserved some respect if she had done that. Instead she said repeatedly that we would leave the EU on March 29th 2019, and claimed that, if only Parliament had voted for the Withdrawal Agreement agreed with the EU, we would have left. What she failed to mention was that this was an agreement on the EU’s terms, in effect worse than being in the EU, since we would be outside but having to trade on their terms without any input into the decision-making. (All this because she failed to stand up to them and threaten them with no-deal.) This was confirmed when the Agreement was voted down in Parliament three times by spectacular majorities, including the worst ever result for a government proposal in history. Although there were many other reasons for rejecting the agreement, the primary one cited was the backstop, an ‘insurance policy’ for the EU in the event of a trade deal not being negotiated. Many of us thought originally that this was something that the EU had insisted upon. It was revealed later, however, that this was actually suggested by the UK government, thus Theresa May. (It is hard to claim therefore, as Dunt does, that “reality intervened in the form of the backstop”.) Once the backstop is in place, the UK cannot leave the EU without its permission. The EU states that “no one wants the backstop”. However, since the EU does not want us to leave, what incentive do they have for doing a deal to avoid it? They have a golden opportunity to keep us in forever.
I accept that May’s task has not been made easy by Parliament, and that the situation was made worse, with the benefit of hindsight, by her disastrous decision to call a General Election in an attempt to bolster her position. Nevertheless she has failed to deliver on every one of her promises.
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According to Dunt, “One after another, the politicians in charge of Brexit walked away. It was easier to shout about betrayal from the sidelines than to try to deliver a version of it that would be accepted by the EU and the British parliament”. This is arguably not true. If they did shout about betrayal, it was because they had actually been betrayed. Dominic Raab, the second Brexit Secretary of State, says that he was close to a breakthrough on the issue of the backstop in a meeting with Simon Coveney, Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs³. His idea, however, was dropped by Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach, following a meeting with David Lidington, Theresa May’s de facto deputy, a Remainer who has been described as a close ally of the PM. I have also heard David Davis, the first Brexit Secretary of State, say on the radio similar things about being undermined by the Civil Service. Is it any surprise that both these ministers resigned as a matter of honour?
Dunt thinks that a second referendum is an “obvious response” to the current crisis, “ the only obvious way to break the deadlock”. The latter may be true, but the reason Brexiteers “ have fought tooth-and-nail to prevent it” is that we would be repeating the normal strategy of the EU — keep making the people vote until they get the result they want, as historical examples have shown. We were told categorically that the result of the first referendum would be implemented. The 2015 Conservative election manifesto said: “We will hold an in-out referendum on our membership of the EU before the end of 2017” and “we will honour the result of the referendum, whatever the outcome”. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats promised an In/Out referendum in the event of any transfer of powers or sovereignty. (This, of course, never happened at the time of the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties, so it is not clear whether such promises would be kept.)
Finally, I have to turn to the seemingly most difficult problem in this ongoing struggle, the Irish border. Dunt says: “Leaving would have one other, even more severe, consequence: it would threaten peace in Ireland. The island of Ireland is split between the Republic, an independent country that is and will remain in the EU, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K. and therefore subject to the decision to leave the EU. The border between them is open. You can travel across it without knowing it is there. That is not some curiosity. It is a key requirement of the peace process that brought an end to the Troubles in the late 90s”.
The first thing that can be said about this issue is that neither the UK, Ireland, nor the EU wants a hard border. It seems extraordinary, therefore, that no solution can be found. I am not alone in suggesting that the EU has made a big issue of this, presumably because they see it as an opportunity to force the UK to remain. They say: “You voted to leave, so you have to come up with a solution”, (and surprise, surprise, they never agree to anything we suggest). Putting to one side for a moment the objection that the citizens of the UK were never asked whether or not they wanted to join the EU, we could say: “We as a nation voted to leave, which is allowed according to the rules of the EU, and is our democratic right. We will not do anything to threaten the integrity of the UK, therefore you come up with a solution if you want to avoid a hard border”. It would then be the responsibility of the EU if peace in Ireland were threatened.
On that theme we can note, even if the circumstances are not precisely the same, that the non-EU Switzerland has borders with Germany, France, Italy and Austria which run smoothly, even though it is not within the Customs Union. It seems that the EU is capable of resolving border issues when it wants to. As a last resort, since the need for peace is so important, why can there not be some exception to the usual rules, a relaxation? Where there is a will, there is a way.
I share Dunt’s low opinion of Boris Johnson, and wish that we were going to have a more credible personality as our Prime Minister. It is believed that the EU would prefer Jeremy Hunt on the grounds that he would be more accommodating, therefore likely to compromise. At least with Johnson we have someone who is dedicated to the cause, and who therefore might take on the EU, challenging them so that we see how badly they want to avoid no-deal.
It is, of course, very difficult to see how he can achieve Brexit, given the arithmetic in Parliament and its unwillingness to accept no-deal. He may, like Theresa May, become another casualty of Brexit. Dunt thinks that he is pursuing “an imaginary strategy for an unattainable outcome”. Perhaps, but all we can do is wish him luck.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics, and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
2. This can be found at https://sdp.org.uk/