I was a strong Brexiteer. Now we must swallow our pride and think again

If we are to leave the European Union we want a sensible Brexit. There’s no chance of that just now.

Peter Oborne
Peter Oborne
7 April 2019, 3.40pm
Patriotism and prudence
Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved

It’s nearly three years since I, along with 17. 4 million other Britons, voted for Brexit. Today I have to admit that the Brexit project has gone sour.

Brexit has paralysed the system. It has turned Britain into a laughing stock. And it is certain to make us poorer and to lead to lower incomes and lost jobs.

We Brexiteers would be wise to acknowledge all this. It’s past time we did. We need to acknowledge, too, that that we will never be forgiven if and when Brexit goes wrong. Future generations will look back at what we did and damn us.

So I argue, as a Brexiteer, that we need to take a long deep breath. We need to swallow our pride, and think again. Maybe it means rethinking the Brexit decision altogether.

Help us uncover the truth about Covid-19

The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.

Certainly it means a delay when we can think about it all in a period of calm. Europe is offering us this opportunity. President Tusk is ready to offer a year’s extension. I say: grab it with both hands.

No normal decision

Ask any psychologist when is the worst time to reach a decision.

They agree that it is when you suffer from exhaustion and emotional collapse. Speaking candidly, that is the state of mind in which most of our MPs and cabinet ministers now find themselves.

And now consider this very sombre thought. We are not talking about a normal decision.

There’s zero chance of a sensible Brexit amidst the pandemonium and hysteria at Westminster just now

We are talking about arguably the biggest decision with the most momentous long-term consequences made by any British government since the second world war.

It’s a decision which will not just viscerally impact the lives of our children. But also our children’s children.

And their children too.

Indeed, this decision affects each and every one of us. A clumsily executed Brexit will hit us in terms of lower incomes, lost jobs and industries, worse public services and restricted opportunities.

If we are to leave the European Union we want a sensible Brexit. There’s zero chance of that amidst the pandemonium and hysteria at Westminster just now. MPs are at the end of their tether. The cabinet is harrowed and exhausted. I admire the prime minister, think she’s a hero, and have been one of her strong supporters.

But she’s in the last weeks of her premiership.

As the end has come closer she’s turned into a shapeshifter, like the android assassin in the final stages of the second ‘Terminator’ film, moving desperately from one Brexit model to another.

She’s shown immense fortitude and determination which has won her the respect and admiration of decent people.

But there comes a moment in life when determination alone turns to madness. When the wisest and best move is to give up and think again.

I note that matters have been made much worse by Theresa May’s resignation pledge. As night follows day, the cabinet has embarked on a leadership contest, whose result will be decided by 100,000 Conservative Party members. Tory members are good people, and sometimes (writing as a long serving political correspondent who has covered every Conservative conference since 1992) I feel I know every one of them personally.

However, this means that would-be leadership candidates are not thinking of the interests of the nation at large. They are pandering to a tiny electorate, one furthermore which has been infiltrated by UKIP and does not represent the mass of Tory voters, let alone the British people as a whole.

It is practically certain that the next Tory leader will rip up Mrs May’s deal, however sensible and well-intentioned, and then embark on another two-year-long attritional battle with Europe. Does anybody truly want this? And just think what damage will be done to Britain as a nation.

Take Tusk’s offer

That is why I cannot think of a worse time to make the decision about how to leave Europe. Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, is right. We should grab his kindly offer of a year’s sabbatical.

The economic arguments for Brexit have been destroyed by a series of shattering blows

I’ve heard the argument that people want to get it over with and ‘just leave’. That’s reckless, stupid and could inflict incalculable damage. Matters can get an awful lot worse – more unstable and angrier and far more economically damaging – after we leave the EU. And I write this as someone who voted for Brexit.

Economic disaster

If we are honest, we Brexiteers have to admit that the economic arguments for Brexit have been destroyed by a series of shattering blows.

The leading Brexiteers argued during the 2016 campaign that the British economy had been held back by membership of the EU and would survive and flourish on its own. That argument is now unsustainable.

Investment-led growth has collapsed, and we need to stare that undeniable fact squarely in the face. Just look at the events of the early months of this year. They fill me – as they should fill every lover of this country – with anxiety and despair.

Nissan is abandoning its plans to build one of its flagship vehicles at its UK site in Sunderland. In January, the electronics giant Sony announced it was moving its headquarters from London to Amsterdam. Panasonic did the same in August last year.

The Japanese financial firms Nomura, Sumitomo Mitsui and Daiwa have all made clear their intention to move to other European cities. Honda is shutting its plant in Swindon. The news from Airbus (a particularly striking example of a successful pan-European manufacturing operation) is depressing.

The trickle of companies announcing plans to leave Britain has turned into a flood. It is becoming unbearably painful to read the financial news. For political reasons many are careful to blame factors other than Brexit. Do we believe them? Or is too much of a coincidence?

The most wounding insult for Brexiteers came with the announcement that Dyson is to shift its headquarters to Singapore. James Dyson is without a doubt an industrial genius. His insistence that Britain could flourish outside the European Union was held up again and again by Brexiteers. James Dyson was our trump card.

He insists that Brexit is nothing to do with his decision. Nevertheless, he joins a long list of rich men who made the case for Brexit but have no intention of living with the consequences of the 2016 referendum result.

Another case in point concerns Jim Ratcliffe, the billionaire industrialist and Brexit apologist, who recently announced that he would be shifting his HQ out of Britain to save tax.

Investment banks in the City are compelling their employees to sign contracts committing them to move to European centres if required. Perhaps we commend them for putting the interests of their clients first, but what does this say about the difficulties financial services in Britain may face? Our economy would be lost without them. The City of London has been one of the motors of British post-war prosperity.

There have been decisions to continue to invest in Britain, and they are welcome. But they are easily outweighed by moves in the opposite direction. The reason for this mass exodus from Britain is easy to understand.

Easy access to Europe was the most important reason why so many important foreign companies chose to invest in this country over the past three or four decades. Investment has come in the shape of both manufacturing and services. The Brexit debate about the customs union vs the single market has revealed how blurred and narrow the distinction between the two has become. They are both massive sources of inward investment and job creation.

Britain’s departure from the EU will be as great a disaster for our country as the over-mighty unions were in the 1960s and 1970s

I vividly recall the wave of national elation when Margaret Thatcher brought Japanese car manufacturers to the declining north-east of England in the 1980s. This was a turning point in British industrial history. The car industry – in seemingly terminal collapse since the second world war – switched course, beginning a long, sustained revival. It is now undeniable that Britain’s departure from the EU will be another punctuation mark in the history of British manufacturing, only this time a sombre one.

It has become clear to me, though I’ve been a strong Tory Brexiteer, that Britain’s departure from the EU will be as great a disaster for our country as the over-mighty unions were in the 1960s and 1970s.

Indirectly we will all be disadvantaged. The biggest and immediate losers, however, will be working-class people from England’s north-east, who are widely said to support Brexit. Some of them currently enjoy relatively well-paid and secure jobs thanks to foreign investment. A lot of those jobs will slowly vanish.

When hedge-fund managers and the Communist Party see eye-to-eye on any question, it’s time to be concerned

I can’t help noticing that those most vocal in advocating Brexit are two opposing camps. On the one hand traders in financial assets – in particular hedge-fund managers – relish the speculative opportunities created by Brexit volatility. The city state of Singapore is held up as one economic model. The United States is another. I cannot see that there is any popular desire for us to follow the business and employment cultures of such countries.

On the other side we have the far Left, which wants out of the European Union for the exact opposite reason. The Left sees the EU as a capitalist conspiracy because of the protections it offers for private property and the restraints against centralised economic power, in particular state aid. A very substantial faction around Jeremy Corbyn, including former members of the Communist Party, is looking forward to British departure from the EU because they rightly see that the EU prevents the imposition of socialism.

When hedge-fund managers and the Communist Party see eye-to-eye on any question, it’s time to be concerned.

If Brexiteers are clear-eyed about the economic consequences of Brexit, a further question arises. Do they really think that the economic disruption that lies ahead – along with the serious threat to our own union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – is worth it?

Remote elites

I should explain at this point why I voted for Britain to come out of the European Union. Like millions of others I voted for what I thought were honourable principled reasons.

It’s an exaggeration to say the European Union is anti-democratic, but it is not democratic. This leads to a problem. The politicians operating at a national level are accountable for decisions made in Brussels or Berlin for which they have no responsibility. We have seen a great deal of this over the last ten years. In Italy, Greece and other countries politicians have been obliged to enforce brutal programmes of economic austerity whether they like it or not.

It was never as bad as this in Britain, but some of the same contradictions applied. Politicians and ministers were unable to respond to popular concerns about immigration because membership of the European Union meant they were unable to back words with action. When she was home secretary, Theresa May kept promising to combat the relatively high levels of immigration. The reality was she was powerless to do anything about it.

Well done Britain for challenging remote oligarchs based in Brussels

This has had a noxious effect on our politics in a number of ways. Sometimes politicians make promises that they know they are powerless to deliver. At other times they use Brussels as a whipping-boy for unpopular decisions they would have made in any case. This has created a real problem for democracy across Europe. Not just in Britain.

It has also fanned a resentful belief that decisions are actually made by remote and unaccountable elites. This brings politics itself into disrepute and helps explain the rise of anti-establishment, racist and even neo-fascist political parties right across the European Union.

European leaders have not faced up to the tension between a dogmatic political centre, and unruly and indignant dissent from the periphery. They must. The invisible ropes that bind nations to those who rule them have grown ever more taut. Our politicians should wake up and accept they are in danger of snapping.

Part of me, therefore, still feels proud of Brexit. Well done Britain for challenging remote oligarchs based in Brussels.

For me, however, and I am sure for many people, the last 30 months of very bitter and angry debate has cut me in two. I have come to see that this is not just a simple problem of whether or not we are patriots.

Both Remainers and Brexiteers love Britain with equal strength and sincerity. Remainers are not citizens of nowhere, as the Brexiteer insult goes. Nor are Brexiteers ignorant, closet racists, as, disgracefully, some Remainers like to sneer.

Many who voted Leave have a deep – perhaps the deepest – understanding of the communities where they live; and in some of these, everyday life has been spoiled for many by policies imposed on them by a pro-European Westminster elite: policies they never voted for.

The truth is these apparently warring parties, Remain and Leave, represent different elements of the same country and opposite sides of the same coin. Sometimes the war is within our own breasts. I feel it within mine.

The uses of history

The great public debate of the last two years has split families and broken friendships but it has also been a magnificent engagement about what are the ties that bind us as a nation.

The European Union is not a dictatorship

Most of my personal friends are Brexiteers. I think they are – with a few exceptions – decent, patriotic people. They are driven by one great solemn idea, namely that democracy can only exist and flourish within a nation state. For me this argument remains valid – and powerful.

I respect those who say yes, all this is worth it to pursue a dream of independence. It is a noble dream. I share it. It is founded on Britain’s historic role as a proud nation that has repeatedly fought for freedom and liberty. I, too, am conscious of our magnificent history. In the 18th century we stood against the Bourbon dream of European hegemony. We liberated Europe from the Napoleonic domination of continental Europe at the start of the 19th century. And faced up to Nazi Germany in 1940.

But this is not 1939 or the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. History gets made and remade all the time. The European Union is not a dictatorship, as contemptuous of national identity as Napoleonic France. Nor can it be compared to Nazi Germany – a foolish analogy which has become an ugly cliché and displays an unforgivable failure to understand the true horror of recent European history. Nor is it any longer a socialist project as envisaged by Jacques Delors, let alone an evil empire, as some have characterised it.

Of course our looming privations and national isolation would be thoroughly worthwhile if we were confronting such a continental menace. Let others call us ridiculous: we would have a duty to stand alone. But is such language appropriate in a century when all our EU partners are democracies, and none poses the remotest threat of taking up arms against us? Donald Tusk, who will lead the EU heads of government when they meet next week to decide Britain’s future inside the union, is not Hindenberg. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, is a genial, shrewd elderly man who (like me) enjoys the occasional drink.

I readily accept that the European Union is a dysfunctional body beset by all manner of problems. But the lesson of the last two years is that we are much better off working inside the EU (where we are greatly respected; it was British civil servants, remember, who wrote the rules of the single market) for reform and not as a hostile neighbour.

WTO weakness

This is even more the case because of the new forces which have been driving history in the two years since our Brexit referendum. We are seeing the frightening collapse of the liberal post-war ‘global’ economic order and the emergence in plain sight of a fist-brandishing system of protectionist blocs.

In this new and dangerous environment, it is folly to rely on the World Trade Organization (WTO). Yet the WTO is fundamental to the Brexiteer economic model. Under attack from Donald Trump’s America and Xi Jinping’s China it is losing the ability to ensure a free market of goods and services. In the Trump and Xi world, relying on the WTO to ensure free trade is like relying on the United Nations to protect human rights: all they can offer are well-meaning but impotent resolutions. When Xi met EU leaders on his visit to Europe last week, I suddenly felt alarmed that Britain wasn’t there.

The UK will be weaker and more isolated

I don’t think any country that is small relative to these blocs can rely on the WTO alone. We would be adrift and at the mercy of larger powers as we try to go it alone. It’s not a coincidence that Liam Fox’s Department for International Trade will have almost no replacement trade deals ready for Brexit. (This is in despite of Fox’s claims in 2017, shortly after the triggering of article 50, that the UK would “replicate the 40 free trade agreements before we leave the EU”. )

The EU has just signed a huge, ground-breaking free-trade deal with Japan. If we leave, we must begin complex negotiations to get something as good. Does anyone seriously think we could get something better?

Japanese trade negotiators working on the bilateral Free Trade Agreement with UK are successfully holding out for better terms – for them­ – than they could achieve in similar talks with EU. This is evidence, not opinion, that our bilateral trade negotiating power is weaker than our position were we to remain. That the ‘freedom to negotiate free trade deals’, which the Brexiteer Tory MPs in the European Research Group regard as a red line, will lead to greater economic prosperity is a delusion. The UK will be weaker and more isolated.

All that will happen in future is that the UK, post Brexit, will be forced to ask to piggyback on EU trade deals with, say, Japan to secure equal terms. Our only argument will be that the aggregation of our market to the EU’s will add strength. Which is no more than the restoration of the position had we remained in the EU.

That is why no business organisation wants Brexit and why there is no queue of lobbyists in Whitehall screaming to be ‘liberated’ from the EU shackles. In a highly unusual and telling manifestation of unity the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress have written a joint letter to the prime minister expressing a deep-rooted concern about the direction in which the country is headed and urging a change of approach. What exactly is it that Jacob Rees-Mogg or Boris Johnson know about British business which the TUC and the CBI don’t?

A disunited kingdom

Moreover, there is a second reason for why I have changed my mind. The threat to the United Kingdom. This hits me like a massive punch in the stomach. When I cast my vote in 2016 I believed that the European Union was, if anything, a threat to our own union. Beneath the federal objectives of Brussels bureaucrats lay a routinely denied hostility to individual nation states (though the nation states, including Britain but not only Britain, have always fought back).

I now see a different picture. The “ever closer union” brigade in Brussels do still need to be resisted. That has not changed – though under current arrangements we’re not part of that.

Like almost everybody else I underestimated the importance of the Good Friday Agreement

But I did not foresee that Brexit would threaten the continued existence of our kingdom as a union. I reckoned without the separatists within our nation who would push us apart, and seize on Brexit (as the Scottish nationalists are doing) as a reason to break up.

I did not foresee how the popularity of our union in Northern Ireland might weaken, if ease of interchange with the Republic were threatened. Like almost everybody else I underestimated the importance of the Good Friday Agreement. And we’ve all misunderstood the Irish question, even though it has loomed so large in our history for the last 500 years.

I did not foresee how one of the biggest arguments against Scottish independence – that Europe would not encourage the break-up of its member states by accepting an independent Scotland as a new member – would be lost after Brexit. I failed to understand how the EU is part of the glue which now holds us together in the United Kingdom.

Illegal tactics

My third unhappiness concerns the integrity of some leading Brexiteers. We are learning more and more about the deceit and illegal tactics which accompanied the Leave campaign. Late last month, on a busy news day, Vote Leave dropped its appeal against a £61,000 fine for electoral offences committed during the referendum.

Allegations of illegal overspending are deeply worrying. Britain’s data protection watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office, fined Leave. EU and Eldon Insurance, an insurance company run by Leave’s Arron Banks, a total of £120,000 for breaking electoral marketing laws. The National Crime Agency is still investigating suspicions of criminal offences committed by the unofficial Brexit campaign during the referendum. Banks’ alleged links to Russian money are even more worrying. There have not yet been serious enough attempts to answer these questions.

Phrases such as 'vassal state', 'empire' and 'supplicant' do not even remotely characterise our relation with Europe

A false prospectus

The fourth problem is the Brexiteers themselves. Language has become ever shriller. Phrases such as 'vassal state', 'empire' and 'supplicant' have entered the language even though they do not even remotely characterise our relation with Europe. The affection of some of them for Donald Trump is ominous.

It is not too late to think again. Our European neighbours have made it clear that we can reverse Article 50. Of course this would be a moment of national embarrassment.

More seriously, it would quite reasonably be portrayed as a betrayal of the 17. 4 million people who voted to leave Europe in the referendum. This is a huge, powerful point, and having thought about it deeply I would answer as follows.

The Brexiteers made a succession of claims about leaving the EU that have turned out to be untrue. They said it would be quick and easy. They said that a raft of trade deals would be available by the time we left the EU. To quote Liam Fox, “The free trade agreement that we will have to do with the European Union should be one of the easiest in human history. ”

They made exaggerated and false claims about British finances after Brexit. They used illegal methods, and their funding was obscure. If the Brexit referendum had been a general election the Brexiteers would have been chucked out of office.

Of course changing our approach after a year’s mature reflection would need a second referendum. But I don’t believe it would be undemocratic. A great deal of water has flowed under the bridge since January 2016. So many of the facts have changed that it makes every kind of sense to re-examine the most important decision in decades.

Finally – and without naming them – I must state that there are many MPs (and not a few journalists) still marching under the Brexit banner who will read this article with a sympathy and support they do not feel able to declare. They too have changed their minds.

I have, and must say so. Fair enough (you may think), but where is the ringing declaration of love for the European Union? We have seen the passionate beliefs of the Brexiteers. Where’s your own positivity? Where your matching passion for Remain?

I have none. Only a deep, gnawing worry that we are making a significant mistake: a worry that is growing by the hour. Call that negative, if you like, but precaution is negative – yet it is part of our kit for survival.

I come back, then, to a proposition that sounds lame – as quiet good sense so often does. Just this, and this alone. Suspending Brexit will be greatly preferable to the alternative. How many important decisions in our own lives, too, have had to be taken on such a chilly and unexciting consideration? It’s time for a long pause.

Peter Oborne writes here in his personal capacity

Update, 24 September 2019: The National Crime Agency has found no evidence that Arron Banks, Elizabeth Bilney, Better for the Country Ltd or Leave.EU committed a crime under electoral or company law. Its investigation related to a referral from the Electoral Commission on 1 November 2018. For more information see the NCA statement here.

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