Explaining the background to the Brexit farce and how politicians of all sides mischaracterised the European Union ever since Britain joined... with disastrous consequences.
Political leadership since the Referendum has been weaker and more inept — even at the basic level of administrative competence — for a more sustained period than at any time in modern British history. This applies most obviously to David Cameron blithely walking away from the mess he created and of course to Theresa May. As catalogued on this blog, her numerous mis-steps include a complete failure to seek and develop an even vaguely consensual approach to Brexit, a refusal to be honest with the public and perhaps herself about the choices and consequences entailed by Brexit, and the botched General Election in which, amongst other things, she refused to discuss Brexit in any serious or detailed way. Most egregiously, as almost all sides of the Brexit debate agree, the manner and timing of her triggering of the Article 50 process was probably the worst political decision of any British Prime Minister since the Second World War.
Nor does the buck stop with the Prime Minister. Tory Cabinet Ministers and backbenchers have signally failed to provide the kind of collective leadership which the gravity of the situation demands, and many of them persist in pursuing fantastical and nonsensical ideas. Those most committed to Brexit, having been given by May the largest part of what they wanted, have done all they can to undermine her. That partly reflects her own failure to recognize that they could never be placated, but also their refusal to take responsibility for their own policy. The Labour Party has been just as poor, failing to define a clear position, riven by internal conflict and with a leader who seems barely interested in, and supremely uninformed about, Brexit and what it means. And if invoking Article 50 was a mistake of historic proportions, let’s not forget that Parliament — having been given the chance through the heroic efforts of
However, what has happened since 2016 should be understood as just the latest manifestation of decades of failed leadership in Britain with respect to its EU membership. That could probably be traced back as far as the 1950s, but certainly to the 1975 Referendum confirming Britain’s membership. That vote was overwhelming and as a 10 year old primary school pupil at the time I remember it being greeted with a kind of joy by our — in every conceivable meaning of the term — conservative head mistress. We wrote our ‘summer project’ on the wonders of the EEC*, and even sang a song about the ‘European dream’ at the end of year pageant devoted, that year, to Britain’s European membership. In what was, generally, a rather dismal political decade it was a rare moment of optimism.
It was certainly not the case, as Eurosceptics later claimed, that the British people had been deceived into joining a political project having been told it was only an economic one of ‘the common market’. That is easily confirmed by reference to documents and speeches from the time. Yet it is true that, almost from that time, virtually no attempt was made by British political leaders to build deep support for, or understanding of, what the EU meant in itself, or for Britain in particular.
The Labour Party at the time were deeply split on Europe — this, indeed, was why the 1975 Referendum was held — and so were hardly likely to engage in such an effort. At the 1983 General Election Labour’s policy was actually to leave the EU. By then, the Tory Party although far more united in favour of the EU — how strange, now, to write those words — was in full post-Falklands, Union Jack waving mode. So no narrative of Britain in Europe was going to be built by them, since what it would really have amounted to would have been a fundamental re-appraisal of Britain’s place in the world post-War and post-Empire.
Thus in those crucial years, there was a complete failure of leadership from pro-EU politicians to develop any kind of narrative of the sort that existed, and exists, in other member states which was positive, let alone enthusiastic, about membership. Instead, and especially after the botched joining of the ERM and the Black Wednesday fiasco, what developed was an entirely transactional, grudging and often sour approach to Europe. The British media, so enthusiastic for European membership in 1975, rarely reported on European politics and, when it did, the reporting was almost invariably negative. The Sun’s 1990 ‘Up yours Delors’ headline, if not typical, was archetypical.
From about that time, the Tory Party began to change in its approach to Europe. That can perhaps be dated from Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech in 1988 — although reading that text now one cannot fail to be struck by how far it is from the Euroscepticism of those who became Brexiters (e.g. “Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community”). At all events, the Maastricht turmoil of the 1990s began the long civil war within the party that continues to convulse it to this day and which, in very large part, explains the present, parlous situation of Brexit.
The Labour Party also changed, in the opposite direction, partly because of the fall of the Berlin Wall but mainly because British social democrats began to see that the EU offered protection from the excesses of Thatcherism. Tony Blair was undoubtedly the most pro-European Prime Minister since Heath but, even so, did not really use the 1997 moment to recast the British narrative about the EU. And whilst the Blair governments did successfully promote eastwards expansion of the EU they never really communicated what a triumph that was, both for Europe and for British strategic interests. Moreover, largely because of
Perhaps the most damaging effect of the failure to build and communicate a positive narrative about EU membership was in relation to freedom of movement. The reasons for that are complex, relating to the wider issue of immigration, which in turn relates to that of Britain’s changed place in the world and its confusion about its post-Empire role. At all events, immigration was invariably configured in, at best, economic terms, and freedom of movement was subsumed within immigration in ways quite different to how it is understood within the rest of the EU.
This was alluded to by Sir Ivan Rogers in his February 2017 evidence (p.10) to the House of Commons Exiting the EU Committee:
“They [the rest of the EU] genuinely do not understand a UK debate in which the two are conflated at all. They do not understand why a Government would have a migration target covering migration from within the European Union, which for other people is not migration. They do not call it migration; they do not call it immigration. They call it free movement... [they] said, "But one is migration, which is external to the European Union, and the other is free movement of people, which is not at all the same thing."”
Indeed, within a single market it makes no more sense to talk about immigration between member countries than it does to do so between counties in Britain. And free movement embodies much more than the transactional economic cost-benefit analysis found on both sides of the Brexit debate, for all that ending it will, indeed, entail massive economic problems for Britain. Rather, it connotes a much broader set of cultural and social possibilities. Moreover, these possibilities also exist for British nationals, who also acquired and will now lose rights of free movement, something occluded when it is only thought of in terms of ‘immigration’.
The issue, then, is not the habitual cliché of the political Right that ‘we aren’t allowed to talk about immigration’. For as long as I can remember the British have talked constantly about it. The point is that the terms of that talk were always negative whether explicitly (it is undesirable) or implicitly (it is a necessary evil to be borne for economic reasons or, semi-jokingly, for culinary diversity). Absent was any appreciation of the possibilities, excitements and joys that freedom of movement brought, something now vividly and poignantly illustrated by the In Limbo testimonies of EU nationals in Brexit Britain**.
The economistic narrative about immigration and freedom of movement has as its counterpart a fundamental misunderstanding about the single market, ironically since Britain was in large part its architect. The core of that misunderstanding is to regard the single market as an economic entity or international trade area whereas, in fact, it is more precisely a regulatory entity and area. It is this which has enabled the EU to dismantle non-tariff barriers to trade, including trade in services, in a way that goes beyond anything that exists anywhere else in the world. But, inevitably, this entails a shared legal and political infrastructure. How else can market-wide rules and regulations be made and enforced? The failure to understand this basic definitional fact, allied with the ‘in 1975 we were told it was just a trade bloc’ myth, gave rise to all of the ‘bendy banana’ type stories that ended up with the ‘take back control’ slogan of 2016.
So in all of these ways, political leaders since 1975 failed to undertake perhaps the key task of leadership: the provision of a coherent and compelling story of what is being done and why. Overall, there was no attempt to develop an account of Britain’s changing place in the world and how EU membership facilitated and allowed it. Within that, there was no narrative about how Britain was, through the EU, facilitating a post-Soviet Europe; a pan-European regulatory space; and a new set of freedoms and rights for British people along with all other Europeans. Nor was there a narrative explaining how, both in shaping the EU and securing its numerous exemptions, Britain was getting exactly the kind of European Union and exactly the kind of membership that it wanted. Instead, a wholly negative view of Britain as put upon by the EU, and a wholly transactional view of its membership, was able to take root almost unchallenged.
Thus by the time of the 2016 Referendum it was far too late to offer anything other than a transactional argument for continued membership. It was an argument epitomised by the supposed (though who would have known it?) leader of the official Remain campaign, businessman Stuart Rose. Politicians like David Cameron and George Osborne, who for years had had little positive to say about the EU could hardly be expected to wax lyrical about it now. And Labour’s erstwhile commitment to the EU was blunted by having a leader whose views on Europe were forged in the heyday of 1970s Bennite Euroscepticism and who had joined the Maastricht rebels in the votes of the early 1990s.
As for the substance of the issues, the terms of debate had already been set in the ways described above. Immigration, the leitmotif of the Leave campaign, had only ever been defended as a distasteful economic necessity. The single market had never been explained as anything different to a trade area, and, as such, could supposedly easily be replaced by some kind of trade agreement and discussed almost entirely in terms of tariffs, which are almost entirely irrelevant. Britain’s place in the world had never been the subject of a proper public conversation, and so pre-industrial fantasies of Buccaneering Britain and post-imperial fantasies of Commonwealth links could be put forward as plausible futures.
More than anything else, it was firmly established in the public mind that the EU was in some way an external, antagonistic constraint upon Britain rather than an entity of which Britain was not only a member but a dominant member, and through that dominance had secured both the kind of membership and the kind of Europe that it wanted. Indeed, all of these same tropes have been evident since the Referendum, most obviously in the suspicious, paranoid and often hostile way that politicians — and the pro-Brexit media — have approached the negotiations. That has been apparent in everything from the early, ludicrous talk of how Britain could go to war with Spain over Gibraltar right through to the latest row about the EU supposedly ‘excluding’ Britain from the Galileo project.
Thus for forty years pro-EU politicians (whether ardent Europhiles or pragmatic Euro-realists) almost completely failed to provide the political leadership which would have cemented Britain’s EU membership in the aftermath of the 1975 Referendum. If only by default, they, along with the wider political class, allowed Eurosceptics to define what that membership meant. But those Eurosceptics — or, as we would now say, Brexiters — themselves conspicuously failed to provide any kind of leadership at all as to what Britain outside the EU would look like. Indeed, it is becoming ever-clearer that most of them preferred the comfort zone of complaint about the EU, and would be much happier had they lost the vote.
Like many things that come as a surprise, the vote to leave the EU now seems to have been almost inevitable. The longstanding failures of leadership from which it grew mean that even if Theresa May was the greatest political leader of all time — which she most certainly is not — she would face an almost impossible task in undertaking Brexit. But they also have huge importance for those who would seek to reverse Brexit. Leaving aside all of the procedural and political complexities of such a reversal, it would require, in very short order, the emergence of political leadership (meaning not just a person, but an entire movement) which could transform these decades of neglect and failure.
That is obviously the case just in terms of domestic politics; it is also the case, it seems to me, if there is to be any chance of the EU welcoming a reversal of Brexit. After all, suppose, for the sake of argument, there was another Referendum reversing that of 2016 by a narrow margin with a vociferous, resentful and revivified Brexiter movement sworn to seeking yet another vote. What kind of membership would that be for an EU which has, in large part, now moved on from the initial shock of 2016?
Perhaps a different way of putting this is that remainers should not have as their aim or expectation winding the clock back to 23 June 2016. At best, that would only be to recreate what happened on 24 June. Instead, unlikely as it presently seems, it will be necessary to recapture the mood in which, in the summer of 1975, my school mates and I wrote our projects on the bright, new European future before us. We could not know then that our political leaders were going to abdicate all responsibility for making that future secure.🔷
**Remigi, E. et al (eds) In Limbo. Brexit testimonies from EU Citizens in the UK..
(This piece was originally published on The Brexit Blog.)