THE poster of a large Bulldog outside Parliament summed up the Brexit campaign. “Lost, British Bulldog spirit; as seen in 1944 and 1982.” Ann Widdecombe, launching her campaign as a Brexit Euro-candidate, echoed the same sentiment: “We survived the last war, and we can survive this.”
Nigel Farage, when challenged by Andrew Marr over statements he had made in the referendum campaign less than three years ago, complained about the BBC concentrating on the past.
But the Brexit campaign has been all about the past. The tough survivors of the invasion of Normandy in 1944 are in their 90s. Only the over-40s remember the Falklands invasion of 1982.
Hence the question we should be asking, in the short European elections campaign, is what sort of country we want our children to inherit, not whether we can return to the world our parents grew up in.
The Brexit stalemate has paralysed British politics. The Prime Minister has understood that leaving the EU without a negotiated agreement on a close future relationship would be a disaster for our security, economy and foreign policy. Jeremy Corbyn seems not to have understood this, but the rest of the Labour leadership have and are struggling to balance the outcome of the 2016 referendum with the long-term interests of the areas they represent.
The right wing of the Conservative Party, successors to the League of Empire Loyalists who resisted Harold Macmillan’s efforts 60 years ago to join the European Community, are demanding a hard break with the European continent and closer alignment with the USA and the Anglo-Saxon Commonwealth.
Yet neither the Leave campaign, nor the Remainers, had thought through what to do if the 2016 referendum voted for Brexit.
David Cameron left office rather than attempt to provide the necessary political leadership to translate the referendum result into detailed policy. Theresa May then made the mistake of setting out red lines tougher than the Leave campaign had demanded, and has been trapped by her own hard right ever since.
Neither Cameron, nor May, nor Corbyn have dared to explain that the restoration of sovereignty which Leavers dream of is a fantasy. The British Empire could resist others telling us what to do; but we emerged from the last war deep in debt to both the US and the Commonwealth, and have had to adapt to an increasingly integrated world. If you think Britain outside the EU would be entirely sovereign, drive past RAF Menwith Hill one evening and watch American servicemen lowering the British and American flags. That’s an outpost of American territory on Yorkshire soil – and there are several other US bases, under Washington’s command, across the UK.
Margaret Thatcher’s deregulation of the British economy made us more prosperous, but also more dependent on the outside world. British companies collapsed, or were taken over by foreign owners, and new investors were welcomed in, from Japan, Germany, and later from India and even China and Russia.
The Leave campaign promised that global free trade would be open to us as soon as we left the EU. Instead we face a protectionist US president launching a trade war with China, a confrontation with Iran and a stand-off with Germany. We face a more dangerous world in which to carve out a role for ‘Global Britain’ than many people thought three years ago.
Brexit is a failed project. The Government has not been able to deliver any coherent version because it could not reconcile the contradictions between the promises of the Leave campaign, the dreams of the Tory right-wing, the needs of our economy and the expectations of other governments. There’s been much talk of a ‘corrupt’ elite betraying the wishes of the people.
But much of that rhetoric has come from rich, privately-educated elitists, like Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and Nigel Farage. Many of those who promised us that Brexit would be an easy path to liberation from Europe also told us that climate change was a socialist myth. I was doubtful about climate change when I first learned about the subject, but like many others, I’ve been convinced by the accumulation of evidence, and I’ve changed my mind. Britain cannot prosper, or be secure, on its own.
Our neighbours on the European continent are our natural allies, in a world where authoritarian China and Russia, and a conflict-ridden Middle East, threaten us all. Leaving the EU may well end up with Scotland and Ulster leaving the UK, and a diminished England counting for less in the world. The Brexit Party is promising you a better yesterday. Now that the evidence is clearer and the pitfalls of leaving starker, I hope that you, like others, may change your mind.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Lib Dem peer and was a junior minister in the 2010-15 coalition government.