CHESTER BIZ CLUB.BREXIT AND BEYOND.
On Sunday Len Deighton book SS GB comes to our TV screens. The premise is that we lost the war in 1940 and were occupied by the Nazis.
But we weren’t. Most of Europe has experienced Nazi or Soviet occupation and in the post war years Greece,Spain and Portugal were under military or neo fascist governments.
For them the EU is a political project,a badge of democratic honour, a resolve never to tear the continent apart again. The single market,Euro and freedom of movement are important but fundamentally it is their experience of the past that drives the project forward.
We have not experienced direct conquest for 1000 years. We don’t need to cleanse ourselves from the experience of occupation.Indeed our narrow escape in 1940 left us with a proud self confidence in our own identity that when others buckled we stood strong.
But fighting WW2 weakened us, we lost an empire and by the sixties we were looking for a role. As our economy weakened, the emerging Common Market was bringing prosperity to the war ravaged economies of Europe. Europe was an attractive proposition for our economy but nothing more. No need for it to remove the shame of the past, no need for the vision thing of an ever closer union, no need to get involved in the Euro or Shengen and by the way we want our rebate.
At its heart that has been the problem with our tortuous relationship with Europe that I have seen played out during my 40 years in journalism when I have met many of the players in the drama. I want to tell that story and weave in some of my anecdotes as we go along.
I didn’t start in journalism until 1974 and much had happened already in the story of the UK and Europe.
In 1946, with Europe still in ruins Winston Churchill spoke of a United States of Europe SPONSORED by the UK. Much controversy about whether he saw us in it.I read it this week to prepare for this speech and it is clear to me that he did not.
And that posture of the UK standing on the sidelines prevailed as Germany and France first formed the coal and steel community and then the Common Market. The Treaty of Rome celebrates its 60th anniversary next month.
It is difficult now when Europe is never out of the news to think of Britain’s total indifference to the development of the Common Market in the 1950s.We had recovered from the war,indeed we were told we had never had it so good at the 1959 election won by Harold Macmillan.
But the dawn of the new decade brought a change of heart and a belief that we should be in.However events of WW2 still cast a shadow in the shape of President De Gaulle. In 1963 and 1967 he vetoed our application perhaps because of tensions with Churchill when De Gaulle elected himself as leader of the Free French or because he saw that in our hearts we looked to the open sea rather than Europe.
So we come to the 1970 General Election,a highly significant date in our story because it was this vote by the British people that saw us enter the European Community. The Conservatives were elected on this manifesto pledge
The issue immediately split the parties, then as now. One of the leading Tories opposed to us joining the Common Market was a man called Enoch Powell.He was one of the most formidable politicians I encountered with his piercing eyes and formidable intellect. He offered some interesting advice on how to make a good speech. Do it on a full bladder. It would be too much detail for you to know if I have taken that advice today. Powell failed to block the bill as there were enough Conservatives and pro European Labour MPs to put the European Communities Act on the statute book and we joined in January 1973.
However within 15 months the architect of our entry Ted Heath was out of office and Britain was immediately faced with a referendum called by the Labour leader Harold Wilson. Why did he call a referendum? Because of a passionate desire to consult the people. No but because of internal party divsions. 1975 and 2016 no difference. Wilson and Cameron abandoning representative democracy for plebiscites.
In 1975 our membership was confirmed (DIMBLEBY) with the new leader of the Tory Party, I forget her name now, enthusiastically campaigning to remain with a jumper with the flags of Europe all over it.
Labour was the party opposed to Europe at this time,campaigning for withdrawal in 1983 under the influence of Tony Benn. He was one of the most formidable speakers I ever heard and a real challenge to interview.He was highly suspicious of the press.Indeed his paranoia could be compared to Donald Trump. He had some great lines. He said there were two kinds of politicians, weathercocks and signposts. Weathercock politicians turn this way and that, doing what’s popular at the time or what the whips tell them to do.The signpost politicians were ones who had a clear vision and stuck to it.
It was in the mid eightees that the 2 main parties began their major shifts. Labour slowly came to back the social and workers benefits of the EU. Mrs Thatcher, whilst approving the single European Act made herself unpopular by demanding a British rebate. This was followed by the arrival of Jacques Delors as President of the European Commission and his project of a federal Europe and single currency.
Up Your Delors said the Sun and Mrs Thatcher echoed the same sentiments in less colourful language in a famous speech in Bruges.
Margaret Thatcher was the dominant figure in the first part of my broadcasting career and whenever I interviewed her you could tell that she enjoyed the cut and thrust of the interview. Once when she was privatising the water industry I asserted that the new companies would be purely motivated by profits.She pointed her finger encased in a black glove at me and said “Profits Profits.Aren’t Granada Television interested in making profits. Her press officer apologised saying she had had a stressful day.I assured him that it was fine because I had got a great revealing quote.
In October 1990 Mrs Thatcher told the Commons she rejected Mr Delours plan for the future of Europe with the European Parliament as the democratic body,the Commission as the executive and the council of ministers as the senate. No,no no she said. But it was the answer to those who say the EU is undemocratic.
Within a month she was out leaving John Major in charge. It was a shock when he won the 1992 election after he turned round a failing campaign by bringing out his soap box in this very city and challenging an overconfident Neil Kinnock who had been telling his supporters “we’re alright we’re alright”. Almost immediately Major was engaged in a titanic battle with his Euro sceptic rebels over the Maastrict Treaty which involved large transfers of power to the EU. The struggle nearly destroyed the Tory Party heralding 13 years of Labour ascendancy where calls for a referendum were fended off while eastern Europe freed from the Soviet Union joined. Blair was oblivious to the immigration time bomb that it created.But he shares some responsibility for the Leave vote which this very day he is seeking to reverse. Towards the end of his premiership I met him in his 2005 General Election campaign bus.When my interview was over I quoted Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar “if we meet again we’ll smile,if not this parting was well made”. Look what happened to him snapped the Prime Minister no doubt with Brutus Brown in mind.
After Brown was defeated no referendum followed for a further 5 years because of the Lib Dem presence in the Coalition government.
But pressure was growing for a vote on our European membership.In 1973 the European project was the bright alternative to a failing British economy.By 2015 the EU was associated with a failing Euro Zone, uncontrolled migration and a centralised inflexibility under the leadership of Jean Claude Juncker. Britain’s economy was doing relatively well and was a huge magnet for people from Eastern.UKIP had won the 2014 European elections a charismatic leader who aided by an increasingly Eurosceptic Tory Party spooked Cameron into promising an in/out referendum if he won with an outright majority. He didn’t expect to have to redeem his promise but as I forecast as soon as the promise was made the EU would’nt give him enough consessions, fed up with our half in half out approach down the years The referendum became a lightening rod for millions of peoples grievances where they could vote FREE of party loyalty.
The Remain campaign lacked the courage to put the positive case for Europe with joy and enthusiasm concentrating instead on excessive doommongering. This contrasted with a very effective “take back control” message from the leavers. Added to this was years of hostile coverage in much of the press and we voted Leave.
Despite a narrow result hard line Brexiteers are in charge with Remainers in total disarray over how to get the small majority to respect the wishes of the 48% who wanted to remain. This is partly because the economy did not suffer a meltdown in the immediate months after the vote
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.
It is important to realise that when we trigger Article 50 we have to leave the EU. I can’t see how the Lib Dem idea of a second referendum can happen, despite the merits of giving people a vote over the terms.
I have a feeling that Mrs May and the hard line Brexiteers are at their zenith now. The Lords may huff and puff but will trigger Article 50. Then the tough negotiations will begin against a potentially darkening economic position. We are currently fuelling growth by credit with personal debt on the rise
Brexit has devalued the pound and the price consequences of that are starting to feed through. The former Business Secretary Vince Cable warned the other day that business decisions are stalling and concerns about the future in key industries like cars, aerospace and pharaceuticals are growing. The future of the Vauxhall plant at Ellesmere Port will be an early test of whether not being in the Single Market matters. It surely can’t help with pressure from the German and French governments to consolidate car production on the continent.There are fears that migration controls could cause skill shortages and wage inflation just at a time when we want to launch a major programme of infrastructure building.
But we must acknowledge there is an alternative vision.Britain thrived on global partnerships before and may be able to do so again
Brexit will mean that we can intervene to protect our industries if the UK government is minded to do so.We certainly won’t be able to blame Europe anymore. We may be able to prevent hostile foreign takeovers like the one from Pfizer that nearly succeeded with Astrazeneca.
We will be free to alter things like the working time directive and environmental controls.But they have been put in place for good reason and we will see how much appetite there is amongst the British people to scrap them.
If it goes wrong my worry is that those areas that voted to Leave bear the brunt of our departure whilst the Remain voting London carries on unscathed.
We need to remember we are entering divorce proceedings.It is important to look at it from the 27s point of view.Remember what I said at the beginning.For them it is a much bigger project than a trade deal. We have destabalised a 5 year budget and encouraged forces in France and the Netherlands who want to undermine the EU.
They could present us with a bill of 40-50 billion withdrawal bill. We will almost certainly have to pay something for the deal we agree on.
The deal has to be negotiated with 27 members and some regions (remember Wallonia and the Canadian Treaty) with at least 20 approving. Then it comes back to Westminster where MPs will have the choice of approving it or exiting with no deal and world trade organisation terms.
Finally it goes to the European Parliament who will be determined that the deal is worse than that enjoyed by continuing members of the EU. How could it be otherwise? Members inside the Chester Business Club enjoy the benefits of membership not available outside.
The 2016 referendum was in a true sense historic.
We are apparently more comfortable ploughing our own furrow on the global stage aware of our proud history of independence. The vision of full partnership with a more European future that flared briefly in the 1970’s has faded. Let’s hope we made the right choice.