BONNIE GREER on the conviction that you can have your cake and eat it
Like all questions that history deems to have ultimately been about a nation’s identity, its very soul, Brexit has quickly become a measure of more than itself. The pro-EU march on Westminster last weekend turned out Middle England, that bellwether of the nation’s pulse. Instead of the usual ‘too young to know better’, assorted ‘crazies’ and raving ‘lefties’ beloved of the tabloids, there marched suburban Britain, Hammer of the Polls. Something was afoot.
At the end of August, during a panel discussion on Brexit that I sat on, chaired by the journalist Steve Richards, the political scientist John Curtice said that he detected ‘a slight shift towards Remain’. This is a significant observation. Its significance lies in the fact that Professor Curtice has called both general elections and the EU referendum correctly.
I will never forget being in the airport lounge-like hospitality room of ITV when the results from Theresa May’s snap election came in. Surrounded by Conservatives and balloons and waiters with drinks, I felt the merry atmosphere dissolve as Curtice announced on the big TV screens surrounding the room that there would be a hung parliament. The Conservatives had become a party that had lost its majority and were now merely the one with the most seats.
Before the election Curtice had warned that Theresa May was taking an enormous risk in calling the election. But under the auspices of Lynton Crosby, the Australian polling expert known as ‘The Lizard Of Oz’ and knighted by David Cameron for his ‘public service’, May continued Cameron’s template of ‘just scare the hell out of the them. That’ll work’. Professor Curtice, through his polling and research, must have detected that something had changed. The Tory-supporting, anti-Brexit press – in other words the majority – used the old tropes about Labour and Corbyn and the left in general in order to watch her back. They failed.
Now – as what posterity will label them, – the Party of Brexit, many Conservatives are resorting to the ‘gaslighting’ techniques of the most rabid Brexiteers. They displace their own flaws and fear on to their opponent. Remainers are ‘remoaners’; ‘hysterical’. The opposition parties are in ‘disarray’ etc. Like Trump’s tweets, their attacks have now become a kind of mirror of themselves and their own angst.
The Conservatives, their leader, and this parliament have already entered the history books for allowing a Second Reading of a Bill whose powers, many say, were not even granted during wartime. The explanation for this is that the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill allows the UK to meet the deadline under Article 50. Unless the EU27 and their parliaments agree, the UK is out in March 2019 without a trade or any other deal.
What is now known as ‘cakeism’ – the idea that the UK can have everything it wants merely because it wants it – is becoming, like climate-change denial, the subject of rational discussion. Brexit has made us members of the unique and dreadful club of those who sit in the psychiatrist’s chair of nations: the United States, North Korea, Russia and the Philippines.
Why did good old British common sense suddenly go on a hike as the Commons met after midnight to strip itself of its own authority? If the statue of Cromwell could turn around and storm back inside yelling once again: ‘You are no Parliament! I say you are no Parliament!’, it would have done so after midnight on September 12, 2017.
But this is melodrama.
Brexit and its core supporters are much deeper than that.
It can be said that Brexit is the latest battle in a war begun at least 24 years ago. Some of its ancient combatants are still with us. Just as the Trump presidency is an incarnation of ‘Steve Bannon World’, a man most Americans outside of Hollywood had never heard of before last year, you might call Brexit, ‘Sir Bill Cash World’. This is a man who set up an organisation years ago to challenge his own party in government in relation to Europe.
Never let it be said that hard work does not pay off.
By 1993, one of John Major’s stated aims was to keep the United Kingdom ‘at the very heart of Europe’. He had successfully negotiated a Social Chapter and Single Currency opt-out of the Maastricht Treaty, a great feat. He had also managed to get the term ‘federal’ out of the Treaty, and to make foreign and defence policy matters of co-operation.
To his surprise, instead of being met with praise, he was attacked by members of his own party. On July 22, 1993, John Major’s government was defeated, aided and abetted by his own side. Euroscepticism is a dainty, even intellectual, term for what happened. This was the result of a drive by zealots.
In 1993, Cash had founded the European Foundation, which calls him ‘the leader of the Maastricht Rebellion’ on its website. There, he states, almost tenderly for such a ferocious anti-EU campaigner: ‘We went into the European Community with hope, and I voted ‘yes’ in the 1975 referendum because I wanted to see whether it could work. My 30 years in the European Scrutiny Committee have proven absolutely that it does not.’
It is difficult to imagine how ‘it could work’ would have been defined by Cash, but it is important to understand the lay of the land of euroscepticism and why it makes Brexit a hard wall to breach. That he would risk a Conservative government losing a vote of no confidence, and therefore triggering an election, is the threat that Theresa May is facing. Because Cash has form.
He is also the author of an acclaimed biography of John Bright, a man Cash greatly admires. A magnificent orator, Bright fought for the repeal of the Corn Laws which, between 1815 and 1846, imposed restrictions and tariffs on imported grain, ‘corn’. These were created to keep prices high to benefit domestic producers, which in turn benefited land owners. This raised food prices and the cost of living for ordinary people. Urban Britain rose in revolt against rural Britain, which was supported by much of the Tory Party.
I haven’t read Cash’s book, but it would be interesting if he mentioned that Karl Marx, that noted internationalist, supported Bright and his partner in the fight, Richard Cobden. Marx saw that fight as the beginning of a workers’ revolt. A revolt which had no national boundaries.
And there is another thing which may or may not be in Cash’s biography. In 1859 Bright suggested, in Parliament, that instead of fighting France, there should be a way to trade and cooperate. Michel Chevalier, a French economist, heard about this. While Cobden was visiting Paris for family reasons, Chevalier invited him, as Bright’s co-battler against the Corn Laws, to meet Napoleon III.
Napoleon informed Cobden that the French made revolutions, not reforms, but if there was a treaty, he could make trade happen.
A treaty was duly created which reduced French duty on the majority of British manufactured goods, and reduced British duty on wine and brandy. The value of British exports to France doubled, and the importation of French wine into Britain doubled.
The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill takes our laws, made in Parliament, and puts them at the mercy of the pens of people for whom leaving the EU is a mission and an obsession. That is why Michel Barnier and his associates can find no coherence. Coherence does not exist within a dream.