Unmasking the guilty men (and one woman) of Brexit

PUBLISHED: 12:04 11 July 2017

"Britain needs not only a change of policy but a complete purification"


Shortly after the outbreak of WW2, a polemic was published identifying the “guilty men” who had led Britain to such a moment of weakness and peril. Now, following Brexit, a new version has been released.

It’s a curious case of the dog that didn’t bark. Not only was it silent during the entire Brexit referendum campaign; not a whimper was heard from it before, and it has remained docile ever since.

I mean the UK’s membership of NATO. Very curious indeed, because NATO membership involves a pooling of sovereignty as great as – in many ways more than – membership of the EU. There is the integrated command structure, which was too much for de Gaulle. And the unqualified commitment to mutual defence in Article 5, which is precisely the obligation to intervene in “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing“ which Neville Chamberlain baulked at in the Munich crisis of 1938.

This is no weak or hypothetical pledge. At this moment NATO troops, with a substantial British contingent, are exercising in the far-away Baltic states, by their Russian borders, where tensions are high. Putin has already invaded one sovereign neighbour and is massing on the borders of others. Yet as Britain turns ever more inwards in its aversion to “Europe”, NATO never features in the debate. Tellingly, NATO makes not a single appearance in this magisterial denunciation by “Cato the Younger” of the “guilty men” responsible for Brexit.

Why does exiting the European Union not mean exiting from NATO? And how does one explain the contradiction between wanting to “take back control” from Brussels while being all too willing to subordinate control of our defence capability to – of all people – Donald Trump?

This is a question barely asked in the debate on Brexit, yet it is begged by Cato because his indictment of the “guilty men of Brexit” is modelled on his grandfather’s (or rather, Michael Foot’s) denunciation of the “guilty men of Munich” published in 1940. The one thing that the Brexiteers have not put in immediate danger is the military defence of the realm; indeed, the most hawkish Brexiteers are also mostly the most hawkish defence-mongers. Farage, with his love of Putin, is an exception; but his Russophilia does not extend to a scintilla of criticism of the NATO or the Atlantic alliance under the leadership of his friend Trump. I think the apparent contradiction is the explanation, or at least a good part of it.

Because when Remainers argue that Britain is endangered by leaving “Europe”, in truth Britain is only partly leaving Europe – the economic part, not the defence part. The bedrock of NATO and the Atlantic alliance means that the Brexiteers are never endangering the UK in the sense of putting the defence of the realm in immediate peril. On the contrary, they argue that Britain’s importance to European “security” – a word they use a lot, without any hint that it goes alongside significant pooling of sovereignty – will ultimately oblige France and Germany to come to a decent deal on Brexit.

This, in turn, goes to the heart of a problem and peculiarity of the EU, dating back to its foundation – its lack of a defence component, which makes it almost unique among confederations. Most such entities are either founded on defence and foreign policy unions or rapidly forge them, as with the American colonies. The EU was founded as an economic union, and apart from a few fitful forays into the security space, it has never sought to usurp NATO as a defence union. Hence George Washington is the founder of the US; Jean Monnet, an economic technocrat, the EU.

The politics of the late 1940s and 1950s, and the continuing US commitment to European defence, largely explain this peculiarity. Attempts at forging a Franco-German defence union, supported in the early post-war years by the US, foundered on de Gaulle’s refusal to participate. Britain’s policy of standing apart from the emerging EU while remaining at the heart of NATO exacerbated the bifurcation. Had Europe followed Churchill’s advice (when he was in opposition to Attlee) and formed a genuine “United States”, and had Britain been in the lead, then such a union might have started with defence and foreign policy, not with coal and steel. But it was not to be.

The bifurcation has been bad for Britain and bad for Europe. For Britain, it has encouraged delusions of international grandeur, founded on a weak economy, reaching the most absurd level of posturing in Liam Fox and David Davis’s latest quest for “Empire 2.0”, founded on a post-imperial “Commonwealth” which now accounts for a tiny fraction of our trade and even less of our defence capability. For the Continental Europeans, conversely, the British and American nuclear and defence umbrella have excused all but cursory engagement in serious defence capability, with the exception of France which manages to stand proudly aloof from much of NATO and therefore fails to act as a reliable bridge.

To the extent that it remains at the heart of NATO, Britain has learnt from the “Men of Munich”, as Cato demonstrates with poignant historical resonance. But how does Britain learn from the mistakes of the post-war era – a weak economy outside London and the south-east, and woefully underskilled workforce, which believes that the world owes it a living because of its past glory and continuing military presence?

Not with the leaders who got us into this mess. Cato excoriates the men (plus one woman) involved, and simply to list the names – Thatcher, Dacre, Murdoch, Tebbit, Farage, Johnson – is to summon up a house of horrors when allied to the word “Europe”.

David Cameron is a special case. He was in some ways the most responsible, with his disastrous decision to call the in/out referendum; yet his policy of trying to hold the ring between competing factions within a long-running Tory civil war essentially continued the policy and strategy of John Major, the previous Tory prime minister, and it had worked then. Like Chamberlain and Major, he was a decent man in indecent times.

More debatable is Cato’s indictment of pretty well the entire European elite of the past generation, including Mitterrand, Kohl and Merkel, for proceeding too rapidly with EU integration and failing (in Merkel’s case) to do enough to appease Britain. I find these among the accused “not guilty”. It is hard enough, as a political leader, to run your own country effectively, and do your bit for the international common weal. I don’t think you can reasonably be expected to run another one too, when that country is Britain – an international and democratic adult which ought to behave like one.

But one’s verdict does not affect the brilliance of the prosecution, and I cannot recommend Cato’s Guilty Men too highly for an understanding of our present discontents. His – or is it her? – denunciation of the individuals is excelled only by a contempt for the “sins” of the Brexiteers: deceit, distortion, personal gain, failures of leadership, gloating, hubris, and frivolity. In Cato’s baleful eye, Britain needs not only a change of policy but a complete purification. Let’s hope it is not too painful.

Lord Adonis is chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission. He served in the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, holding posts including Transport Secretary and Schools Minister

Guilty Men, by ‘Cato the Younger’, is published by Biteback

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