I am what has become known as a “liberal Brexiteer”.My belief in Brexit is underpinned by liberal values and an optimistic view of our future and my vision is of an independent, outward looking, global Britain with open markets and a free trade strategy. What sets me apart from the kippers (UKIP supporters) and the like is that I find the “pull up the drawbridge” approach to immigration policy repellent.
Above all else we “liberal Brexiteers” have always had a pragmatic and open minded approach to the actual process of leaving the EU. During the campaign I was part of a minority group who openly advocated remaining in the European Economic Area as the first stage in a de-risked, economically secure Brexit. The plan was for a gradual evolution of our new trade based relationship with the EU and a process of rebuilding our capacity for self-governance over time.
This put us in the unenviable situation of having scorn poured on us from the both sides. The uncompromising headbangers of our own side called us “closet remainers” and “fifth columnists” and the opposition questioned our intelligence, integrity and sincerity. My inbox received plenty of abuse. Luckily I have thick skin.
The gravest misjudgement that my associates and I made was to believe that if Leave won the referendum we would have newfound allies from the Remain side. With our combined strength we could “win the peace” and prevent the nasty and insular minority exerting undue influence. We kept this olive branch extended throughout despite every insult and rejection.
“You will need us”, we said, “if Leave wins we are your best hope”, we insisted, to sneers. Still, we were sure that in the event of a Leave victory we would reconcile around some mutually cherished core values and move forward.
It was a terrible and thoughtless misreading. The Remainer reaction to Brexit has for the most part been absolutely hysterical. With a good few honourable exceptions, they have had nothing but wrath to offer, with a special reserve of resentment for us liberal Brexiteers. This unreasonable response has been a primary driving factor behind the move towards a so-called “hard Brexit”.
Remainers have been their own worst enemy. The EEA option was gaining traction but they did everything they could to discredit it as an option; propagating myths about the potential disadvantages. They popularised pithy slogans mocking Norway such as “still pay, no say”. This deliberately over simplified the nuanced system of payments Norway makes as part of its European strategy and belittled the influence they can exert on Single Market regulation.
EEA advocates offered a vision of the UK leading a free trade alternative to the EU. There would be a two Europes; a political union and an association of independent states, all would reap the benefits of a European marketplace. It was plausible to imagine that eventually a few other members might peel off and join the trade based alternative, rebalancing an overstretched EU. Many Remainers, as ever, sneered at this. They refused to think outside of the box of the political union.
Thanks to a concerted effort to deliberately smear the market solution to Brexit, and making it abundantly clear that they absolutely refused to accept the referendum result, Remainers have been the main contributory factor in the hardened stance of the Brexit camp. So much for rallying around a pragmatic solution after the vote; many have instead become dogmatic hardliners and Brexiteers have responded in kind. The divide has in-fact widened.
The EEA option, formerly supported by high profile eurosceptics such as Dan Hannan and Owen Paterson, now lacks widespread support. Having successfully trashed it as an option, Remainers are baffled why stubborn Brexiteers won’t be reasonable and meet them in the middle. Instead, many liberal Brexiteers now plan to take their chances with a clean break.
Now, in a welcome attempt at finding a resolution, Ian Dunt of politics.co.uk has tentatively extended an offer to Liberal Brexiteers to meet in the middle of the divide. Although I thoroughly welcome the sentiment, and strongly believe we need the tone and outlook of Brexit shifted to more positive and liberal grounds; clearly reconciliation is not going to be easy.
As Ian’s piece makes very clear, there is still one thing that divides us in a very big way. For Ian and many of his fellows remaining in the EEA is a means of getting us back into the EU at the earliest opportunity. Thus, rather than being a stepping stone out, this portrays the EEA option as something more akin to the “Association Agreement” proposed by arch federalist Andrew Duff; merely a holding area, where we will be kept on a tight leash before re-joining.
Given that the desire for a clean break is partly motivated by preventing Europhile machinations to either prevent Brexit or reverse it later, this piles on yet more difficulty in gaining the buy-in of Brexiteers for an EEA based exit deal. No one wants to accept an olive branch they will later be beaten with.
Little wonder then that many former EEA advocates are instead exploring alternatives and devising methods of achieving trade continuity by bridging the gap between Brexit and the conclusion of a Free Trade Agreement. All the while preparing to fight the opposition for every yard until secession is complete.
Sadly, it seems for the extremes of both sides this will be a bitter battle all the way, to the detriment of all. It isn’t just the Leave side that has an uncompromising, hardline contingent. Many Remainers reject any conciliatory tone completely and see all Brexiteers as a malign enemy who must be subjected to ridicule. They’d rather see Britain crash and burn than work with us or accept the referendum and move on.
@IanDunt Plus I’m now on the chaos Brexit thinking route personally: there’s no saving this, no sense. So make it crash. And crash big.
— Jon Worth (@jonworth) 5 January 2017
— ????Simon Gardner (@Simon_Gardner) 6 January 2017
The bottom line is this; the UK is going to leave the EU. It’s happening. The notion that public support can be won to return to the EU later is a fevered delusion. After Brexit, the vast majority of the public will more likely be mystified by the rapidly dwindling number of people calling for re-accession. The lack of interest will be palpable.
The more Remain voters move towards acceptance of the referendum, the easier it becomes to meet in the middle and shake hands. The movement for an “open” Britain that is globally engaged and embodies liberal values makes up a strong majority. I pledge to work with anyone to champion these values and roundly defeat the insular authoritarian minority.
Ultimately though, what has to be understood is that those of us who are comfortable with immigration and globalisation had wide-ranging and principled reasons for voting the way we did. Our principles and beliefs are firmly held and we are working to achieve our goal. if the future is to belong to liberals; it will belong to liberal Brexiteers.
Ben Kelly is an Executive Director of Conservatives for Liberty.