The critical responses to Sir John Major’s speech on Brexit this week came so rapid-fire fast that it is worth asking whether those complaining had really had time to read it all before taking to the airwaves.
These days there is far too much easy outrage deployed when a person says a thing. It is a requirement of a functioning democracy that people should be allowed, encouraged even, to say stuff that others might disagree with. If we really are to proceed with character assassination at will, and outrage when a person says a thing, even if said person has been Prime Minister and should be listened to, then Britain is not going “to make a success of Brexit” as Theresa May has it. Instead the UK will end up with the equivalent of a mass punch-up in a pub carpark which will probably not – as the Remainers hope – instigate a rush back to liberalism, but instead open the way to some pretty nasty forces shouting betrayal from atop the ruins.
The former Prime Minister’s speech this week was predictably denounced by some leading Tories in terms that were downright silly, suggesting once again that among some extreme Brexiteers there is growing edginess and a fear that if the economy dips (it always does eventually) then the centrist forces will rally and the voters will be persuaded to change their minds.
In my experience, that edginess is largely restricted to those extremist Brexiteers who were most convinced, having fought for parliamentary sovereignty, that it should not be exercised in the case of Brexit. They need to calm down.
Moderate leavers seem generally keen to get on with moderate remainers, if it is accepted that Brexit is going to happen and the question is in what precise form. Just my experience. We’ll see.
Anyway, back to Major. The problem with his speech is not that he dared to make it. The problem is that it was wrong in several respects.
Major talked of providing a “reality check” – which is perfectly valid:
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
“I have watched with growing concern as the British people have been led to expect a future that seems to be unreal and over-optimistic. Obstacles are brushed aside as of no consequence, whilst opportunities are inflated beyond any reasonable expectation of delivery. I am no longer in politics. I have absolutely no wish to re-enter it in any capacity. I don’t seek publicity – more often than not, I shy away from it. But I can’t ignore what I learned in Government. Nor can I forget the people who voted to leave Europe in the belief it might improve their lives. If events go badly, their expectations will not be met, and whole communities will be worse off. The particular fear I have is that those most likely to be hurt will be those least able to protect themselves.”
Hold on. If Major wants to talk about wild-eyed over-optimism, surely that criticism is best directed at his Europhile friends of the last 25 years? Those who charged ahead, arrogantly neglectful of warnings that the EU was (as was shown in the polls) really not very popular in in the UK and becoming linked (rightly) in the minds of voters with open borders and bossy incompetence.
The Brexiteers, surely, have the better claim to be the hard-headed realists who spend an age trying to get the EU reformed or constrained and who now want to leave, get on with it and make the best of being good neighbours?
Major’s speech also contained the standard-issue confusion on the EU and Europe, namely a blurring of the lines between Europe (the continent which we cannot, thankfully, leave) and the EU (the relatively new political construct).
He warned against moves for the UK to cut itself off from Europe completely. Yet who, with a brain, is proposing this? Even on the hardest of Brexits the UK remains the main, albeit depleted because of cuts, non-US defence, security and intelligence power in Europe, dedicated to defending Western security and pledged, by Theresa May, to look at doing more. The UK is not leaving Europe.
This splendid isolation from Europe line from Sir John is straw man stuff. Of course there are some in UKIP or on the right of the Conservative party that want nothing whatsoever to do with Europe the continent, but they’re not in power and won’t be. And yes there are some voters who regard even people from ten miles up the road in Nottingham as somehow foreign or alien. That is the nature of life in some semi-urban parts of Britain, where voters feel ignored.
Elsewhere, the overwhelming majority of the British have travelled or do travel to assorted parts of Europe on holiday. A poll for YouGov in 2014 suggested that only 8% of Brits have never been abroad for a holiday. The British palate has undergone a revolution in the process, thanks to supermarkets from the 1970s onwards meeting the changing tastes of those who came back from Spain, France, Italy and Greece in search of better food, and increasingly from non-European destinations too. The phenomenon is most definitely not restricted to the super-affluent. Just look at the TV schedules and the cosmopolitan character of mainstream media when it talks about food.
The idea that the British now somehow seek isolation or can be persuaded by Nigel Farage (never elected to parliament in seven attempts) is ridiculous. Voters knew what they were doing. They had warned for ages that they didn’t like the EU and were unimpressed by efforts to fix it. They heard the warning of economic apocalypse and seem to have priced it in. Their assumptions now do not seem excessively optimistic. If anything the country is too downbeat about the possibilities of change. One cannot move at the moment for speeches from grandees from the 1990s warning that it is all going to be terrible.
In Major’s speech there was one very important section, in which he said he would return to what Brexit means in term of Ireland and Northern Ireland. It is important that he does this, what with his positive record on the Peace Process. Meanwhile, could he not lend his weight – and experience of negotiating with the EU in the early 1990s – to getting Britain the best possible deal rather than declaring it all but impossible before the talks even begin?