The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
To talk of many things:
Of shoes – and ships – and sealing-wax –
Of cabbages – and kings
We have all here at Reaction and elsewhere talked a great deal about Brexit over the last two years. Often it seemed as if there was nothing more we could possibly say, and yet we said it anyway. And then we said it again.
It is in this spirit that I offer this requiem for British membership of the European Union, a process that began for me when I was 24 and will end when I reach 70. Hard Leavers are excited. They can hardly wait. In celebration of Britishness, my fellow Reactionary Gerald Warner recommends that we now play “hardball” – the American term for full-on baseball – by not so much walking away from disputes as swaggering off. Gerald would even, I suspect, favour delivering as our parting gift to Europe what Orangemen used to call “a fart for the Bishop of Cork”.
But I don’t see it this way. Here is what I think.
First, Britain is not a “great” country unless it does great things. What does greatness even mean beyond the ability (now long gone) to win wars? The people of our islands have enjoyed a splendid and colourful history, much of it bound up with invasions of other people’s countries and armed interventions in European squabbles. They have a rich culture, but one that in recent decades has become so blurred at the edges as to be recognisable as British only in the sense that it contains sizeable chunks of just about everything from everywhere else.
In the 21st century, what we are is a medium-sized country on the edge of Europe, quite well-to-do, reasonably well ordered, but with serious and seemingly intractable problems that can only be resolved either by accepting that the future means less or that the rich should be taxed to buggery.
Tax is one thing (entirely a province of the UK treasury). Wealth is something else. We became the fifth-largest economy in the world during our membership of the EU, but now – notwithstanding the fact that since the referendum we have dropped to sixth – advertise this fact as a reason for breaking free of European “constraints”. We even boast of the fact that Europe sells far more to us than we sell to them, which for some reason makes them our prisoners.
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Let’s be honest. Most (I would say 90 per cent) of Leavers voted as they did primarily because they wanted a clampdown on foreigners. The appeal of UKIP was entirely built on this. The disadvantaged of Middle England were determined to be rid of the East Europeans who had come to live among them. They disliked the fact that Poles spoke Polish and that Polish shops had opened up on their high streets. Never mind that no more than one in ten UK expats in Europe ever learns the language of the country to which they have moved. Never mind that the newcomers, along with nurses and home visitors from India and Africa, are what keep the NHS and social services up and running. They wanted the migrants gone. They wanted them out of here. That, added to the fact that governments in recent years were all obsessively London-centred, is why they opted to put the applecart through the car-crusher.
How this could have surprised anyone surprises me, for we have been here before. Fifty years ago, and well into the 1980s, millions of Brits wanted an end to what we called “coloured” immigration. We don’t like to be reminded of this, still less of the language we employed. But we all know it’s true.
“Responsible” leaders of Vote Leave tut-tutted, insisting that the real reason the British (actually the English) voted for Brexit was that they were fed up with the imposition of European rules and regulations on such dear-to-our-hearts-of-oak issues as bendy bananas and UK-style vacuum clearners. They said that it was the “undemocratic” nature of the European Commission and, even more, the European Court of Justice that got us riled up. But when – come on! – did you ever hear anyone in a British pub or in a queue at the shops denounce the latest atrocities of the Commission or Court? It’s a nonsense. The suggestion is nothing short of a lie. Most people have never once in their lives complained about the European Convention on Human Rights or the European Arrest Warrant (both, incidentally, drafted by British lawyers). In many cases, they won’t even have heard of them, or the fact that, strictly speaking, they are not part of EU law. And they couldn’t care less about the geometry of vegetables.
I am still six feet three inches tall and weigh 16 stone. The fact that I am also 190 cms and 101 kilograms is neither here not there.
The message I have for Leavers on the subject of immigration is this: it will continue. The rate of increase may slow down as we “regain control” of our borders, but the difference will be minimal. This is because we need immigrants. Due to the lamentable failures of our British politicians down the years, we as a people have neither the skills nor the enterprise of the East Europeans we affect to loath. Ten years from now, there won’t be three million EU citizens living in the UK, there will more likely be three-and-a half million, many of them in top jobs. There will be children in our schools called Tosiek and Jadwiga, who will speak fluent English and start marrying our children. There will also be at least a million more new arrivals from the developing world – Africa, Asia, the Middle East and South America. If you don’t believe me, listen to David Davis or Keir Starmer – or Nigel Farage. How they will all fit in to our already jam-packed country is a separate question. Don’t ask me. But leaving the EU won’t have made a ha’p’orth of difference. So stick that in your pipes and smoke it, Leavers. You were conned.
Yes, but what about those pesky statutory instruments that have allegedly suffocated British get-up-and-go? Aren’t they the reason Britain isn’t number one on the world stage like we were in 1890? No. Most of the regulatory “impositions” that have come out of Brussels have actually been beneficial. There may be too many of them, and not all of them make sense, but it is juvenile, and prejudiced, to dismiss them as so much “red tape”. They transformed our beaches, protected our fish stocks, set standards for the food we eat and the devices we use. The Commission and the Court have used their powers to take on giant corporations and the banks, curbing abuses, handing out massive fines for bad and criminal behaviour. If Brussels didn’t do it, who would? The answer is, nobody. Does anyone believe that the Tories will be as hard on Google, Facebook, Amazon or the banks as the EU?
Conservatives have never met a big corporation they didn’t like – especially if it is American. In this context, note the joy among investors over the news that Brussels has blocked the merger of the London Stock Exchange and the Frankfurt bourse. They are delighted that the way is now open for a takeover of London by a US rival. We won’t sell our souls to Europe, but we’ll bend over backwards for America.
On Question Time the other night, and again on the Today Programme, David Davis, our affable Secretary for Exiting the European Union, made a point of saying that it would be easy, almost routine, for Britain to negotiate a new free trade deal with Europe because our rules and regulations will be “exactly the same” as theirs, down to the last jot and tittle. The Great Repeal Bill will not rid us of European legislation; instead, over the next ten years, it will incorporate it, unaltered, into British law. The fact that any significant changes we subsequently introduce would return our new deal to the jurisdiction of the European Court is apparently a matter of no account. We’ll deal with that when we get to it. In the meantime, in the true spirit of revolution, nothing will change. The only difference will be that the red tape will in future be red, white and blue tape.
The truth is, we have always gone along with 99 per cent of European regulations. We helped enact them. British ministers, British commissioners and British fonctionnaires were in there along with the rest. The only reason there weren’t more of us is that most of us can’t speak foreign languages and wouldn’t know what was going on half the time. More to the point, when we couldn’t get along with the big stuff, like the single currency and the Schengen Agreement on open borders, we were granted opt-outs. Margaret Thatcher’s rebate was an example less of Europe giving way grudgingly as of EU generosity to a member state that – largely through its reluctance to take full advantage of the Common Agricultural Policy – was paying more than it should into the budget. But were we grateful? Were we, hell! “Give us back our money!” we cried, even after we had lodged the cheque.
On trade, we like to pretend that a whole new world is opening up to us that was previously hidden behind some kind of European curtain. This, too, is nonsense. It’s exactly the same world as it was yesterday and the day before. The idea that Canada, Australia and New Zealand are desperate to offer us free trade is rubbish. These countries, which we callously ditched in 1972, have long since grown up and are leading lives of their own. Moreover, their total population of 60 million is less than that of France (now the fifth largest economy in the world), and they are on opposite sides of the world.
Someone else on Question Time spoke of getting India and China on board with trade deals. Do Leavers have any appreciation of the sheer size and complexity of these countries, some of whose lesser states and provinces are larger than the UK? The way to do business with India and China is not to show them your buccaneering spirit, it is to make goods they might want to buy. Germany has done this for years. It sells five times more to China than we do. It also sells more to India than we do, as does Belgium. EU membership does not ensure access to our one-time jewel in the crown, but it doesn’t prevent it either. Buccaneers don’t hide behind imaginary red tape.
Never fear, though. At least we will have the City of London, the blessed Square Mile that in terms of its importance to the UK economy might as well stretch over the entire South East of England. Leavers say that revocation of the city’s “passporting” rights into the Eurozone will not be a problem. It will be an opportunity, if anything, they say. London will become more dominant on the world stage, not less. Well, we’ll see.
The way I view it, the world’s big banks and other financial institutions will not be beating new paths to our door any time soon. The money trap we invented in 1973 was the best there is, and from now on there will be slow leaching away of jobs and cash to other capitals in the U.S, Europe and Asia – a process already underway. At the very least, there will be a slow-down and a tortuous rebalancing. But, hey, that doesn’t matter because, as Leavers are always telling us, we are getting out of the EU for the sakes of our children and our grandhildren, not ourselves. The fact that 70 per cent of voters under the age of 24 opted to Remain is neither here nor there. What do they know? They should listen to the greybeards.
Which brings me to my final thought. Can the European Union survive? Is it about to fall apart under the weight of its contradictions? Will Britain look to have been uniquely prescient as an institutional neutron bomb causes the entire edifice to implode and disappear up its own black hole? That is what Leavers would have us think. More than that, they are counting on it. For if the 27, as I believe, recover their nerve, rebuild and go forward as a force in the world, we are going to look pretty damned stupid.
There! I’ve said it. Quitting the European Union is a disaster that will unfold gradually over the next ten years. But ten years is nothing in the life of a nation. We will get over it. We will recover. The UK, or what is left of it, will not vanish off the face of the Earth. With our devalued currency, London gasping for air, Scotland on the brink and Ireland united, but with our pride intact, we will sail off into the sunset to strike great deals with India and China, two countries that owe us so much.
Now I really must stop remoaning and look to the future. Go Dave! Go Theresa! Go, er, Liam Fox (though not yet)! The world will be our lobster.