Written 24 June 2022
It’s now six years since the UK voted to leave the EU. I voted to leave, despite not because of the Leave and Remain campaigns, and I have absolutely no regrets in voting the way I did. I was a bit floaty on the day, the campaign was really boring but also hysterical but in the event I put my cross in the leave box because I could do no other.
I was a member of the Labour Party and delivered leaflets for it in Slough in the 1983 general election, when leaving the (then) EEC was in its manifesto. My uneasiness with the EU grew from the early 1990s when I saw the effects of dumping its agricultural surpluses on the Egyptian economy. I also had a close look at international agencies operating there. Returning to the UK in 1998 I thought the country seemed to have declined but knew I was in a minority on that; there was simply no edge in our political life at all. It was all house prices and Cool Britannia, I found it pretty boring even as the Brown boom really took off. The global financial crisis brought home the disaster of the Euro and I thought the way Greece was treated was frankly sickening. All the above contributed, but my main motive was that I just don’t think the future lies in ever bigger and more centralised governance that encompasses more and more of what should be decisions for smaller, more accountable units. Diversity, genuine diversity, is something that is valuable in itself and engenders dynamism. Overarching treaties foster conformity and ultimately stagnation. I think the EU really does stand as a totem for the Blobism that is at the heart of our political and economic malaise, and our politicians have almost without exception played along for a long time.
I am more convinced now than when I voted that the correct decision was made, and a large part of this has been seeing the behaviour of our Remain elites (for want of a better term) since June 2016. I have found it incredible to witness the total failure of nearly all politicians on the Remain side to engage in good faith or with any imagination whatsoever with the result of the referendum. The EU behaved professionally but entirely cynically of course and worked in the background to stop departure rather than manage a good process. I am sure it must now regret some of its decision making. The whole episode has provided the surest moment of real clarity in politics in my lifetime.
Anyway, that’s all by way of background and I am not interested in relitigating the question of whether we were correct to vote as we did in 2016. My prompt is a speech made by David Lammy to the think tank UK in a Changing Europe earlier this week. David Lammy has been (to put it politely) one of the harshest critics of the decision to leave and was a leading light in the campaign for a second referendum. I’m not a fan of his to put it mildly but I come to give him faint praise rather than condemn.
Are the Labour Party finally, finally catching up with political reality? There was no real insight in his speech but it does seem to be part of an effort to swing the Labour Party behind an approach to the EU that is based on an acceptance that we will not be rejoining the EU, or indeed the single market, any time soon and that the way to proceed is to build on the (very basic and unsatisfactory) relationship set out in the TCA negotiated by Boris Johnson. The TCA and mode of exit from the EU are of course both partly products of the dysfunctional approach adopted by Lammy and his allies between 2016 and 2019 but that’s now water under the bridge. The TCA does at least incorporate reviews (the next in 2026) and the option, if not expectation, that it will be added to. Improvements are certainly possible and to be welcomed. Labour has said in the past that it accepts that we have left the EU, could it be that they are finally beginning to digest the fact? Well, one swallow doesn’t make a summer, and there are likely thousands of Labour activists up and down the country feeling rather ill, but I’m a glass half full sort of guy.
The infantile behaviour and bad faith of our politicians on both sides between 2016 and 2019 means we lost years in leaving the EU and ended with a threadbare trade deal. You play stupid games you win stupid prizes. Our politics needs to move on: the idea that EU membership is an inevitable end for the UK was always an illusion. In his political game playing and complete inability to imagine anything else we saw Lammy for the dull sloganeer he is, but that’s Westminster party politics. I doubt our current crop of politicians and civil servants are really capable of negotiating at a high level with the EU, but we will get better at this as time goes on and friction recedes. David Lammy might even be involved after 2024 in these negotiations, who knows: he’d hate it of course but he’s not paid to like it.
Nothing really speaks to the total imaginative collapse of much of our establishment than the idea that we can somehow wipe out the last six years and simply rejoin the EU. It may be a comforting fantasy and when combined with a few flags on Twitter it’s a handy slogan. Any process to rejoin would mean negotiations over a number of years with an EU that is itself in a state of flux even should an electoral mandate be granted here to start talking and the Labour Party will not go into the general election in 2024 with the manifesto commitment necessary. If the realistic prospect of EU membership does indeed return to UK politics it will be as a different country joining a different EU in a different world in a different decade. Whether EU membership will retain its potency in the UK as a cultural signifier in a decade or more is an open question. Whether the EU will want to enter negotiations with a future UK government is open to doubt; any negotiations would span two or more UK Parliaments and EU Commissions and require a referendum at the end and in the meantime history has returned with a bit of a vengeance. Both the UK and the EU might have much bigger fish to fry and be looking in different directions in all sorts of ways anyway. There are going to be lots of twists and turns between now and then. Rejoiners in the UK have a childish view of the EU, their fellow citizens and politics; they’re not going to give up but the price they pay for that is that they will also make little difference. The future lies in a new relationship that is cooperative but with the UK not a member of the EU or of the single market. It’s long past time for our politicians to start thinking about what that might look like and just perhaps David Lammy’s speech provides a glimmer of hope.