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What are we to make of Christopher Booker, the veteran Sunday Telegraph columnist who for decades led the Fleet Street charge against British membership of the EU? Booker campaigned loudly on everything that he said was un-British and undemocratic about Europe, from the tyranny of the Court of Justice to the survival of the English oak and the London double-decker bus.
He was the patron saint of Leave, a one-time John the Baptist who, from being a voice crying in the wilderness, had ended up centre-stage.
According to his bestselling 2003 study, The Great Deception: Can the European Union Survive?, written with his long-time collaborator Richard North, remaining in the EU threatened Britain with confusion and chaos. The European Project had overreached itself and was a gamble doomed to failure. Thirteen years on, in his preface to the updated “referendum edition” of his monograph, Booker wrote witheringly of the ongoing crisis of the euro, which, he said, “had reduced large parts of the EU to misery and penury”.
For 43 years, he went on (and on), Britain had been ruled by an anonymous and amorphous system of government centred on the Berlaymont Building in Brussels. To add to everything else, there was now “the great migration catastrophe,” as millions of refugees flooded into Europe from the Middle East and Africa. Politicians in the UK had shown themselves ignorant of how the European Union actually worked, what its rules were, what the core principles were that drove it – “let alone how, if it came to the crunch, we could in any practical sense manage to extricate ourselves from it.”
The Great Deception was preceded by Castle of Lies: Why Britain Must Get out of Europe, published in 1997. In this dark polemic, again written with Richard North, Britain’s political class were represented as helpless puppets. The “Euro-system,” the authors assured readers, was by now inflicting so much damage on Britain “that the only course is to leave the EU”.
Booker’s message was a weekly drumbeat that won him enthusiastic support across the Tory world. In his columns in the lead-up to the June 23 referendum, he was almost beside himself in his condemnation of Brussels. “Global governance” had made the EU irrelevant, he snorted. And just to rub it in, Theresa May had used Europe to smuggle gay marriage onto the statute books. The solution was obvious. We had to leave. His only concern was that the “catalogue of horrors” that was Project Fear – the attempt by Cameron and Osborne to portray Article 50 as a suicide note – would win the day for Remain.
Yet come the blessed morn, come the result, Booker was less than exultant. “The cards of Britain’s future seem suddenly to have been scattered in all directions,” he wrote. “Now Humpty Dumpty has fallen so unexpectedly off his wall, where are all the king’s men to put him together again?”
As he saw it, the last people to decide how Britain should proceed were the leaders of the Vote Leave campaign, who he feared would lose us the battle by their refusal to offer a properly worked-out “exit” plan – one that could neutralise Project Fear by allowing the UK, like Norway, to continue trading inside the Single Market.
Three weeks later, indulging in a fit of historical guilt, he reminded his readers of how, in 1972, Britain had betrayed its friends in the Commonwealth by joining a customs union that would “devastate” their exports – the very same customs union, as it happens, that he now considers essential to Britain’s economic survival. But time, like guilt, moves on, it seems. By the time the Prime Minister announced her intention to go for a hard Brexit, Booker had come to the view that Tory Leavers were “hubristic, ignorant and laughable”.
His peculiar odyssey was almost at journey’s end. In his most recent column, beneath the headline “The dangerous Brexit ultras are pushing Theresa May towards catastrophe”, he went the whole hog, lining up with no less than Michel Barnier, head of the EU’s Brexit negotiating team, who, in addition to insisting that Britain would have to pay as much as £60 billion as its entry fee to more substantive talks, warned of 12,000 British trucks stuck each day between London and Dover as they attempted to gain admission to the European market.
So much for the confusion and chaos of remaining.
“If it had been honestly explained last summer that leaving the EU would mean not just saying goodbye to all the political stuff [you know, the stuff he had been banging on about for years], but also the sight of trucks backing up from Dover to London, and thousands of exporters finding it impossible to continue trading with the EU at all, a hefty majority would have voted to Remain.”
Well, cut my legs off and call me Shorty!
To be fair, Booker had long argued for remaining in the Single Market. It’s just that his particular preference for rejoining the European Economic Area (requiring us, among other things, to accept freedom of movement) got lost behind a relentless outpouring of anti-European bile. What he wanted out of had very little, it turned out, in common with the central demand of the great majority of his readers, who in the main were motivated by nationalism and anti-immigrant bias. They wanted a clampdown on foreigners. He wanted shot of all those irritating statutory instruments imposed by the European Commission (many of them related to the growth of the Single Market), along with the impertinent rulings of the Luxembourg court, the servitude allegedly imposed on us by the European Arrest Warrant and the prospect of further bouts of Ever Closer Union.
The fact that Britain already had long-established opt-outs from the euro and the Schengen Agreement and that we continued to benefit from Mrs Thatcher’s budget rebate while still enjoying membership of the Single Market and Customs Union was not enough to persuade him that the Commission and Court – with their pesky rules on buses and trees and the geometry of vegetables – were not a direct threat to the British way of life. Not even Cameron’s last-ditch addition to our list of agreed opt-outs of the freedom not to accept Ever Closer Union did the trick. Either we made up 100 per cent of our own laws and regulations or, goddammit, Europe could stick it where the sun don’t shine.
Well, he is now hoist by his own petard. His model of a bespoke Brexit lies in ruins. In 2015, he accused Remainers of spreading the propaganda “that if we left the EU we would be disastrously shut out from trading with its Single Market”. Instead, of course, it is the Leavers, led by Mrs May and David Davis, who have voluntarily opted to shut us out, causing him to denounce them as blinkered buffoons. No wonder the trolls who once hailed Booker as the one who would prepare the way for a new beginning are turning on him as a traitor to the cause.