Article Published September 15th, 2020
Mr Johnson’s decision last week to bring in a bill which will contravene a critical portion of the Withdrawal Agreement has at least had the merit of clarifying the real nature of Brexit and thus of the proper path by which it must be opposed.
Former Prime Ministers John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron were all at the time of the referendum in 2016 supporters of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union and all have now unequivocally condemned the Government’s strategy for leaving it. But they have at the same time affirmed their “acceptance” of Brexit, insisting only that it needs to be “got done” with a deal of some kind. This equivocation should remind us of the long-standing weakness of their commitment to Britain’s place in the EU, and the illusions about it which they harboured and husbanded in office. Weakness and illusions which are the reasons they must bear an important part of the political responsibility for Brexit and all it entails.
Their weakness was their fear of making the case to the British people for a full engagement in European integration, on precisely the same basis as other great European nations, like Germany or France, or Italy or Spain. Their illusion, fermented by this fear, was to imagine there was a viable “half-way-house” policy of Britain indefinitely maintaining a semi-detached stance towards European integration, preventing progress when possible, endeavouring to evade the provisions of such progress when not. The architects of Brexit rode to their victory in 2016 essentially on the absurdity and unsustainability of this illusion. And in doing so, they were always determined not to repeat the same error themselves. A clean break, one where the cut is so cruel and complete as to maximize the difficulty of ever returning to the EU, has always been the intrinsic logic of their position.
Of course, as this development has also revealed, there are a few opponents of the UK’s membership of the EU, who certainly fancied themselves as architects of Brexit, but apparently believed too readily the tactical, reassuring rhetoric deployed by their co-campaigners to persuade the British people of their cause and to secure their strategic objective. Lords Howard and Lamont, and Mr Cox, for example, are now assiduously advertising their gullibility in this regard. Most, however continue successfully to seamlessly adapt their positions to each turn of the screw towards the most crushingly ruthless and radical of resolutions.
Unfortunately, the politicians carrying the responsibility of opposing the Government, Sir Keir Starmer and Sir Ed Davey, both erstwhile staunch supporters of the UK’s membership of the EU, appear set on sharing such gullibility. They thereby demonstrate an even greater reluctance to make the case for any sort of European engagement than the hapless ex-premiers, and promote an even more absurd and unsustainable policy than that which caused Brexit. The revelation of the starkness of real Brexit is also the revelation of the starkness of the real alternative to Brexit: which is to return to the EU as a fully committed member, embracing the complete integrative aspiration, and its current key manifestations of shared sovereignty: Monetary Union, Schengen Free Movement and geostrategic co-ordination.
Sir Keir and Sir Ed are today so anxious to assert their “acceptance” of Brexit by publicly supporting the Withdrawal Agreement they had previously in different ways opposed as to align themselves with Lords Howard and Lamont, and with Mr Cox. Privately, however, they are praying Brexit will deliver the destruction of Mr Johnson’s Conservatism without their having to reveal what their own strategy for Britain’s future would be (or even, indeed, really mentioning Europe at all).
In this, they provide a curious mirror to the position of Mr Johnson, who whilst becoming increasingly coherent on the nature of the UK’s departure from the European Union, is dumb about what should come afterwards. For the Brexiteers are deeply divided about that. Some are seeking a very much closer, though unspecified, relationship with the US, some a revival of Joe Chamberlain’s federal Empire via a union with Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and some a purist, semi-isolationist, English nationalist state whose closest contemporary model appears to be Japan or Turkey. (Although without the former’s industrial capacity or the latter’s self-sufficiency in food, and so could rather end up resembling a revival of Franco’s Spain without either the sunshine or the spirituality). It is these divisions, as much as the economic and constitutional challenges created by Brexit, which will doom the project, and with it the Conservative Party. Pro-Europeans, by contrast, should have one clear, concise, concrete proposition to put to the Nation: to rejoin the EU as a full member.
Many pro-Europeans fear it is too soon to make this case. That promoting the prospect of accepting the euro is far too big an ask for a British public still conditioned to comprehensively condemn European co-operation. That immigration, in a time of rising unemployment, makes free movement as unpalatable to British opinion as ever. That the referendum result requires a period during which it should be respected on democratic grounds, regardless of the basis upon which that result was achieved. That Leavers will not now accept the notion they have made a massive mistake.
But the referendum result has been honoured. We are now living with its consequences. And in normal life the sooner one corrects a massive mistake the better. Let us see how the coming economic crisis, with rising unemployment and sustained sterling weakness, effects attitudes to Schengen Free Movement and Monetary Union. Employment opportunities on the Continent for British citizens could become as welcome as they were in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. A devaluation that requires some sort of international support (from the ECB as well as the IMF), could make adopting the euro an attractive, even a necessary proposition. And only a full and prompt return to the EU has the remotest prospect of saving the British Union.
We have now seen the true and only face of the Brexiteers’ cause. The actual delivery of their dream is now imminent. The recklessness of their project, which has given them such campaigning strength, will shortly impact upon the Nation with full force, even to the extent of putting its very survival as a state at risk. Time surely for pro-Europeans to recognise, at last, the great motivational strength of our project. The practical and emotional power of fully joining in a deep union with those countries which are geographically, culturally and historically closest to us, to preserve and promote our common interests in a dangerous world. Time surely for pro-Europeans to show the true and only face of our cause. If we do so, we can still not just avert the more dreadful aspects of the disaster that now looms: we may yet deliver our aspirations for our national destiny.