Richard North, 24/12/2018  

As we move towards Christmas eve, and the last Christmas before we leave the EU, the news agenda has all but dried up as people have rightly turned to better things – friends, family and peace and goodwill to all men and women.

It struck me however, that of the many things missing from the Brexit debate, goodwill has to rank amongst the highest. Over the two years and six months since the referendum, there has rarely been a more prolonged and rancorous debate, where there is no middle ground and no meeting of minds.

We may just see a temporary cessation of hostilities over Christmas day, rather in the manner of the temporary truces on the Western Front during the First World War, but it will be back to normal the day after. And even if we avoid the catastrophe of a "no deal" Brexit, the ruptures that we have seen in UK politics will fester long after Brexit day.

From a personal perspective, what is telling about the whole affair is that it has revealed the ugly side of Euroscepticism, where so many of the people supporting our exit are on the other side of a growing divide.

That there should even be a divide is bizarre. The very reason why we should leave the EU is also the reason why we cannot leave it quickly and should not even try. That reason is the one articulated by Lord Denning in 1974 when he likened the (then) single European treaty to "an incoming tide", which "flows into the estuaries and up the rivers".

This was with integration at a fraction of its current levels, with the Single European Act, Maastricht and Lisbon yet to come, and the Master of the Rolls was already saying that, in matters with a European element, Parliament had decreed that the Treaty was henceforward to be part of our law, equal in force to any statute. It cannot, he said, be held back.

In fact, Denning understated the situation. Far from being equal in force to any statute, European law was superior to any statute passed by parliament and even the highest court in the land has, in European matters, been rendered subordinate to the European Court of Justice.

But the very fact that the EU had become so intertwined with UK law, to the degree that it was often impossible to tell where EU law started and UK law ended, was the very reason why we could not extract ourselves quickly. If it had taken over forty years to get us to this state, then decoupling was going to be an equally lengthy affair.

For those who want to do it quickly, there is an inherent inconsistency. The very suggestion that we could extract the "incoming tide" so easily belies the very fact that the degree of integration has reached the level that it has. It suggests a far more superficial relationship which challenges the very notion that Brexit is so important.

In my piece written on the eve of the referendum and published on the same day that we went to the polls, I offered an image of the Brexit process.

Instead of us all travelling on one train to a single destination, we would become multiple trains, but initially travelling in the same direction on roughly parallel tracks. But each would be free to travel at its own speed and to stop at stations of their choice. Some may share the same destination, others may not, I wrote. Still more may share part of the journey, diverging only as they travel on to reach their final destinations.

In the nature of nations, though, we never actually reach a destination. History is a continuum. Relations ebb and flow, at times stronger and at other times weaker, and at other times descending to outright hostility.

It is rather remarkable, in that respect, that the year 2016 marked the 100th anniversary of the battle of Verdun (picture). But even more significantly, on 23 June the Germans, after an attack launched the day before, reached the furthest point in their offensive, before being finally turned back. And, on 24 June, the preliminary Anglo-French bombardment began on the Somme.

Had both Eurosceptics and Europhiles a grasp of the history of the European Union, untainted by the Union hagiography, they might have a better understanding of the significance of this, as it was the battle of Verdun which laid the intellectual foundation of the Coal and Steel Community which was to become the EEC and eventually the EU.

The core thinking was that, in the industrialised conflict that World War I represented, neither side could sustain a campaign without the industrial means to provide the weapons of war, and the ammunition and supplies to keep it going,

Thus the theory of interdependence emerged, where Salter and Monnet reasoned that, if the industrial capacities of the protagonists were combined and under the control of a separate, independent authority, no one nation would have the capability to support a prolonged conflict, and wars of the nature of the Great War would be abolished.

Contemporary commentators often like to project the European Union as a force for the liberalisation of trade, and as a means of managing relations between the countries of Europe, but that was never the principal object.

Rather, after the initial failure to agree a constitution for Europe and a single European Army, back in 1950, Monnet chose a more surreptitious route to achieving his objective, using economic integration, in the form of the Common Market – to achieve political ends.

Essentially, that set the Community on its path to deception, where the trade agenda was one of false pretences. And when the Common Market morphed into the Single Market, trade facilitation was never the end but merely the means to an end.

What we then sought to do with Brexit was to split the political integration agenda from trade, thence allowing the remaining EU Member States to continue with their own ambitions, while we continued with the development of trade cooperation on a Europe-wide basis.

Even before we joined the EEC, trade with Europe accounted for a third of our international trade, so there should never have been an argument for cutting off our trade with Europe and replacing it with increased trade from our global partners.

The obsessive, "Global Britain" free trade agenda is, in fact, a later development and one largely pursued by a narrow faction within the Tory Right, mostly based on the creations of an English-speaking "Anglosphere" which puts us in equal partnership with the United States and predominantly white Commonwealth states.

To that extent, the Tory Right has hijacked Brexit, so much so that the likes of Will Hutton can claim that "Brexit is a project by the right for the right".

In fact, it was not until Delors sold the EU's social agenda to the Union Barons, under threat from Thatcher's labour reforms, that the Labour Party changed from its traditional opposition to European integration, to supporting it. Yet, perversely, Nordic opposition to the EU stems from the belief that it is a capitalist free-trade ramp, which is holding back the development of the Nordic social model.

For that reason, sentiment on Brexit should not be split on party lines, and the pressure on Corbyn to position Labour as a "remain" party is simply another ploy by unreformed Europhiles to overturn the result of the 2016 referendum.

What thus we need to do is to reclaim Brexit. This is not the property of the Right, and neither is this about left-right politics. It is about the right of the UK to govern itself in the areas that matter, while cooperating freely on trade issues with our partners in Europe.

What I published on 23 June 2016, therefore, is as pertinent now as it was then. Leaving, in itself, I wrote, achieves nothing and gives us nothing. It is not an end but a means to an end – a change in our status which enables us to make better and different decisions if we choose to do so. It does not guarantee that we will make those decisions or, necessarily, secure us better outcomes.

To leave, therefore, is to open up new opportunities for ourselves as a nation – it is an investment in a future, a better future than can be achieved as members of the European Union. It is an expression of faith and confidence in ourselves.

And that is now what we need: faith and confidence in ourselves.

comments powered by Disqus

Brexit - the first year - New e-book by Richard North
Brexit - the first year - New e-book by Richard North
Buy Now

Log in

Sign THA
Think Defence

The Many, Not the Few