Come back, Mrs. May – all is forgiven!

STUART MILLSON says the much-maligned Theresa had Brexit about right

The ousting of Boris Johnson’s close political adviser, Dominic Cummings – architect of the Vote Leave victory in 2016, and (at the time of writing) the continued impasse over a final Brexit deal, have brought our relations with the EU into sharp focus once again.

Since the referendum, a moment in our history which confirmed an end to one of the most significant parts of the post-war consensus – that Britain should root itself within a European sphere of influence – the defeated pro-Remain side in Britain has tried, time and again, to reverse, or dilute, the result. Their efforts reached a zenith during the days of Theresa May’s premiership: her Government’s small majority in the House of Commons (reinforced by Unionist votes, which in the end dematerialised) making it impossible to bring EU exit legislation successfully through its many stages.

Unable to enact the will of the people as expressed in the Vote Leave result, Mrs May’s position became untenable – the only way forward for Brexit being a bonfire of the vanities: a General Election which would sweep away the entrenched Remainish majority in the Commons – removing all those MPs who famously put their own eloquence and ideology before Brexit. And it should not be forgotten that one of those MPs, in those uneasy days, was none other than Boris Johnson: a figure who could be counted upon to vote against his Prime Minister and party. As one backbencher smirkingly remarked, it was indeed strange to see the Brexit purists marching through the same Division lobbies as the SNP and the second-referendum brigade, leaving Mrs. May with just the tatters of her policy.

Yet the former Prime Minister – whose instinct was always to strike a compromise – did set out with the highest hopes for Brexit – and a final settlement which whilst not, perhaps, embodying everything for which we Brexiteers had hoped, nonetheless set our country on a course of independence – but sustaining immediate economic contacts with the bloc to which we formerly belonged as a political member. Put very simply, Mrs. May’s idea was that United Kingdom should leave the political institutions of the European Union (institutions which no longer serve any European citizen) but remain within, or alongside, all the practical economic arrangements, which allow life to continue as normal: lorries and coaches driving on and off ferries or Eurotunnel services; goods and services freely flowing – and the English middle class still able to visit and settle in Normandy at the drop of a three-cornered hat. But more than that, Mrs. May – the pragmatist, the careful Whitehall moderator – saw her deal in more than just ‘foreign policy’ terms. For this Prime Minister, an heir to Chamberlainite ideals of a united, social-democratic, communitarian Tory Britain, her Brexit deal was a visionary attempt to honour the entire result of the referendum, in a fusion of moderate-Leave and moderate-Remain ideals. The result: social cohesion, acceptance, domestic harmony.

She reasoned as follows: the majority of Remain voters, though obviously believing that we should stay within the Euro-club, were by no means part of the much-mocked ‘Remainiac’ rump, which seemed – each day, to parade itself across the news bulletins, with Euro-banner demonstrations outside Parliament and yet more legal and parliamentary challenges to the Government’s legislation. (Readers will recall international businesswoman, Gina Miller and her offshore backers’ resolve to stop ministerial invocation of Article 50 – the EU treaty’s leaving mechanism – in the Supreme Court.)

Furthermore, went the thinking, that most ‘Remain’ supporters also tended to take the view that, (a) Britain had been a member of the European project for over 40 years, and (b) that much of our trade is conducted with our continental partners, so why ‘rock the boat’ – why unravel complicated arrangements beneficial to industries and workers, just for the sake of a political point? Sharing also, perhaps, the tabloids’ and Telegraph suspicion, or dislike of the ‘Brussels bureaucrats’ (rather than the European Community itself), the middle-of-the-road Remainers, nevertheless constituted a large segment of the British electorate – an electoral element Mrs May did not wish to alienate. If the May  Government could appeal to this part of middle-England, counting on their sense of fair play to respect the majority Brexit vote, then the extreme and influential pro-EU faction could be isolated – portrayed as anti-democrats whose instincts were simply unreasonable, even hostile to the nation-state, yet adulatory of foreign banners and bureaucrats.

With a consensus achieved, the country could then begin to repair the divisions which flared up and began to cast a gloomy atmosphere over Britain in the months following the referendum: Brexit would be generous and consensual – and pro-Europeans would still have some of the cultural links they craved. But the ideal – first propounded by Mrs May in her famous Chatham House speech, setting out the aim of a sovereign Britain linked to many international bodies – was not to be. With a Corbynite Labour Party (excited about another election) scenting fear – and blood – from its Tory opponents; and with a ‘Brexit party’ at work on the Tory backbenches, tripping up the Government at every opportunity, the consensus Prime Minister could no longer continue her mission.

As we survey the Brexit landscape at the end of our transition year to full independence, we might ponder the notion that Mrs. May did, in fact, get it right: with a path that would have steered us away from over-dependence upon either the United States or Europe – a sensible insurance policy, given the change of administration now underway in Washington and a less sympathetic view of Brexit from the new President-Elect. And with Britain now demoralised through Covid,  fragmenting at the edges, too, as devolved UK assemblies chart their own path through the crisis, Mrs. May’s hope for a re-uniting of people of goodwill – non-ideological Brexiteers and realistic Remainers – could have given us the cohesion required to take us on the next step of our national journey.

Why two tribes went to war – Brexit’s background

KEN BELL reads a useful analysis of what led to the 2016 vote

Brexitland, Maria Sobelewska and Robert Ford, Cambridge University Press, 2020, 408 pages, £11.99

Porfirio Díaz, the man who dominated Mexican politics for a generation until his downfall in 1910, once remarked that nothing ever happened in his country until it happened. What he meant was that there has always been an enormous time lag between cause and effect in Mexican politics, and in Brexitland, Maria Sobolewska and Robert Ford show that the same is true of Britain.

In doing so, they have also managed to demolish the myth that is now an article of faith in Guardian-reading circles that nobody was bothered about the EU until a couple of years before the 2016 referendum. What the authors demonstrate rather well is that many issues that were of importance to the population were suppressed by the main political parties from just after the Second World War. Viewed in that light, Brexit is about more than just leaving the European Union; it is shorthand for a lot of long-standing factors that have led to a new political division in Britain.

Immigration, of course, is the most important factor and for that reason several chapters of Brexitland are devoted to it. Starting in 1948 when the great and the good created a nationality act which allowed Commonwealth citizens to settle freely in the UK, the aim was to tie the fully independent white Commonwealth states to their mother country and to create an Anglosphere long before that word was even coined. What nobody realised was that New Commonwealth people would take advantage of this liberalism, even though since most of their countries were not independent at that time they did not need this legislation. As Sobolewska and Ford point out, both parties supported immigration even when it became obvious that many of their traditional supporters did not.

The opposition to that policy, begun in places like Smethwick in 1964, continuing on via Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968 and culminating, possibly, with Margaret Thatcher’s 1978 comment about people being afraid of being ‘swamped’ by new Commonwealth immigrants certainly helped the Tories acquire a reputation in the public mind as the party that was sounder on immigration than Labour. However, as Edward Heath proved when he decided to allow around 30,000 Ugandan Asians to enter the country, that soundness was often more in word than deed. As the country moved into the 21st century, with Labour allowing a major influx of eastern Europeans – many of them settling in areas that had no previous experience of immigration –people woke up to the fact that neither party was prepared to speak for them on that issue, so they began to support Nigel Farage and UKIP.

Other factors were in play, such as the growth of the university sector, which led to many inner city areas becoming home to students and graduates, who often made common cause with ethnic minorities to create a new voting core for Labour. That new core strategy was based on the gamble that the party’s traditional, collectivist, industrial working class voters would stay onside as they had nowhere else to go, but UKIP proved the flaw in that argument. As the authors also make clear, the new core was not as tribally loyal as the old one had been and was quite willing to dump Labour if they disagreed with particular party policies.

Out of all this churning, new identities were created, and a new political division was created. The referendum campaign, with its binary choice, forced people to choose one side or the other – and having made their choice they often found that they had more in common with people on their side of the referendum debate than they had with the parties with which they had once identified. Leading on from that, as the authors do, we can see that the referendum campaign made people aware of this new division, as well as helping to shape it. At the end of it, Britain had “two new tribes aware of who they were, what they stood for and what they opposed”.

A good example of this in action is not included in Brexitland, probably because it happened too late for inclusion. During the European election campaign in 2019, Featherstone Working Men’s Club (near Wakefield) played host to a Brexit Party rally. One of the main speakers was Anne Widdecombe, arguably one of Thatcher’s more ghoulish ministers, who was nicknamed “Doris Karloff” back in the day. The club’s members, men who had stood on the picket lines during the miners’ strike of 1984/85, cheered her to the echo, to the utter disgust of the Guardian.

 The 2016 referendum was very much the victory of one identity, which was the geographically rooted, socially conservative, but often economically radical section of the population against the Metropolitan, white-collar graduate element. Although the authors do not quote Theresa May, she may have had a point when she spoke about people from somewhere clashing with people from nowhere. Brexitland is a heavyweight, academic text that should be essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand this new political alignment in Britain and how it came about.