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Brexit books: Is it time for a reappraisal of Britain’s place in Europe?

Pro-Brexit demonstration in London. Photograph: NurPhoto. - Credit: SIPA USA/PA Images

George Walden reviews recent books on Brexit and finds himself asking who can truly consider themselves patriots.

Feelings about the European Union tend to be personal, and in the early years mine were positive. When the UK joined the Common Market in 1972 I was Soviet desk officer in the Foreign Office, working on the Helsinki Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) as our delegate on human rights. EU solidarity was a key element in the successful Helsinki Accords, signed in 1975 and seen in retrospect as a factor in the downfall of Soviet communism.

Later, as Principal Private Secretary to David Owen and Lord Carrington, I saw how closely Britain worked with its French and German counterparts in concerting EU foreign policy, sometimes as an unacknowledged troika, meeting unofficially. But I also sensed the frictions generated by the Brussels bureaucracy and its swelling ambitions.

As a Conservative MP I was tempted to vote against the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, which, like the euro itself, took the EU too far towards closer union for its own good. If I reluctantly voted in favour, it was because those against were a motley band of europhobes, and because the Prime Minister, John Major, warned me that if I and a couple of others joined them then the government could fall.

In the 2016 EU referendum, by which time I had given up my seat and belonged to no party, I voted Remain. I warned some City folk I was advising that Brexit could squeak through by 51%. I was out by 1%. My reason was the depth of popular resentment I had sensed over mass immigration during a tour of the North and Midlands in 2007, which I wrote up in a book called Time To Emigrate? In it I warned against a bubble economy, and that, on immigration, ‘over-abrupt changes could evoke an extreme response’.

Three disheartening themes emerge from the current crop of books on Brexit: virtually no one writes honestly about how the UK got here, few can see a way out, and the EU itself faces a faltering future. The best one, After Europe by Ivan Krastev, a Bulgarian, is the most truthful.

Krastev speaks of ‘the inability and unwillingness of liberal elites to discuss migration and contend with its consequences’, and sees the new Europe as ‘a world of disconnections’. The risk of disintegration, he writes, should force us to recognize that the refugee crisis has dramatically changed the nature of democratic politics on the national level and what we are witnessing in Europe is not simply a populist riot against the establishment but a voters’ rebellion against the meritocratic elites, best symbolized by hard-working, competent officials in Brussels who are nonetheless out of touch with the societies they are supposed to represent and serve.

Meritocrats or otherwise, Nick Clegg (How To Stop Brexit) and Robert Peston (WTF) are elite figures. While I agree with them that Brexit is a momentous mistake, their books evade the truth about immigration, at times genteelly, at others through mendacity by omission. Clegg appears honourably contrite when he writes that ‘in hindsight it was clearly a mistake to open our borders’ in 2004 to the ten newly acceding states of the EU, though Brexit voters will not be appeased to learn that the consequent flood ‘happened by accident rather than design’.

The notorious estimate of 13,000 immigrants annually, which dissuaded Tony Blair from imposing the optional seven-year brake on free movement, was based on the understanding that other EU countries would open up too, which most of them did not. The mendacious omission follows. Clegg rightly claims that on the eve of the referendum sensitivities were heightened by the Mediterranean crisis of 2015 and by concerns over terrorists posing as refugees. Yet at no point does he admit that similar concerns had been bubbling up over many years since the easing of controls on non-EU immigration after 1997. By 2016, 14% of people living in the UK were born abroad. Only 3.5 million were from the EU, compared to 5.6 million from non-EU countries. Of these 5.6 million, over three million were Muslims (Office for National Statistics), mainly from Pakistan and Bangladesh. Our personal views on these huge and rapid transformations are of little importance.

What matters in the Brexit context is that politicians, the media and academics acknowledge that far more non-EU immigrants have entered the UK in the past 20 years than Europeans, that some can be harder to assimilate than others, and that the sudden spike in non-EU numbers must have featured in the minds and experience of many a Brexit voter, alongside any grievances they held about European immigrants.

Peston, too, serves up a misleading mea culpa. At a BBC meeting in 2010 he realised: that the BBC’s coverage of immigration – or should I say almost total news blackout about it – was a serious dereliction of duty to report on what really mattered to viewers and listeners. Simply telling them, as we did, that immigration was great for growth was an insult. And the BBC was in this case a proxy for the entire liberal establishment.

Whether real per capita growth was so great remains debatable. Like Clegg, Peston also avoids any suggestion that certain non-EU immigrants might have been more prominent in the popular mind than Polish plumbers. In this he remains a member of Krastev’s liberal elite, unable and unwilling to discuss frankly migration’s disastrous implication for the EU referendum. Instead he prefers the more comforting explanation that the vote ‘was simply a ‘f**kyou’ to the entire ruling class’. Remainers like Peston and Clegg are unlikely to get far in persuading the country to reconsider if they do not recognize the depth of the problem of immigration from all sources, and suggest how to fix it.

Meanwhile, new figures confirm that, as a result of Brexit, while the numbers from Europe decline, those from non-EU countries, mostly

Asian ones, are increasing. Whether Brexiteers voted for this is a legitimate question, though too ‘incorrect’ for Remainers to ask. For Jacob Rees-Mogg, Conservative backbench leader of the eurosceptic European Research Group, there is no problem: the United States and the

Commonwealth, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, etc., should, he recently stated, be prioritised ‘against people from the

EU with whom we have no connection’.

Does this lack of connections include cultural, historical and religious ones? It is not just liberals: on migration a shifty evasion is there across the party spectrum, rather like Victorians discussing sex. Characterising the views of Boris Johnson, a man who scribbles in quick-fading ink and speaks in gaudy, evanescent bubbles, is hard, but like others in his tribe he has insisted that Brexit voters’ motives were racially impeccable – this was not about immigration but reclaiming sovereignty, taking control, and the rest.

Following the thinking of Jeremy Corbyn is also difficult, owing to its apparent absence, but from the leader himself down to militant

Guardian columnists the anti-migration sentiments of voters are denied, played down, or avoided. The purity of the working-class ethic, left-wing internationalism and anti-racist principles proscribe such attitudes, so it cannot have happened. Tory austerity and neo-liberal economics were to blame – which in parts of the country they undoubtedly were, to a degree. Yet to deny the importance of non-EU immigration, as Nigel Farage will cheerfully confirm, is self-delusion.

In February, a ‘brains for Brexit’ movement challenged the notion that academics are invariably Remainers, but with it a new form of evasion has appeared. Arguing for exit may be fine – though accusing your opponents of contempt for the intelligence of the electorate is in this case ill-advised. The ‘brains for Brexit’ camp voiced little or no concern over immigration, a silence that impugned the judgement of the voting masses. Playing the populist defender while being sniffy about popular thinking is an inglorious intellectual posture.

Interestingly, some of the frankest Remainers have been non-white. Trevor Phillips’s Channel 4 programme What British Muslims Really Think was an example. Warning against the development of a nation within a nation, the former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission called for greater efforts at integration.

Zadie Smith, though a vehement Remainer, showed understanding for some Brexit voters in the New York Review of Books, writing that she was sorry for not having displayed more sympathy for the problems of the white working class who lived cheek-by-jowl with recent immigrants and struggled for resources. But these are rare voices.

One wonders what Krastev makes of all this chicanery, but he devotes understandably little attention to Britain. To outsiders Brexit must resemble a poorly performed tragic farce. Corbyn in his Lenin cap, Jacob Rees-Mogg affecting Edwardian togs, or a crossgartered John Redwood (somehow it fits) assuring us, as he really did, that British wine and cheeses were as good as anything the French could produce. And a foreign secretary down-dressed in running gear jogging the world, a globally failing entertainer.

Nor will the performance of Conservative eggheads have inspired much interest or respect. An excitable Michael Gove talked of Brexit liberating Europe by smashing the EU, an aim he shares with Vladimir Putin and Marine Le Pen. Tory intellectuals love to condemn la trahison des clercs, yet here was one denouncing expert knowledge. And it is hard to forget the embarrassment of seeing him yapping away puppyishly in his Times interview with Donald Trump. More recently we have had Rees-Mogg’s suavely cynical parliamentary question to Johnson, asking him to ‘carry on his Palmerston-like approach to defending British subjects’. It was a squalid instance of Brexit brotherhood trumping the welfare of a British citizen, an Iranian captive whose plight had been deepened by Johnson’s patrician nonchalance. (Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe remains in prison.) Or listen to the entertaining chunter of the pro-Brexit historian Andrew Roberts, writing in the Daily Telegraph: Of all the many splendid opportunities provided by the British people’s heroic Brexit vote, perhaps the greatest is the resuscitation of the idea of a CANZUK Union [the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand]. Winston Churchill’s great dream of a Western alliance based on three separate blocs might one day live again, thanks to Brexit.

It is sad to find Sir Roger Scruton, a more distinguished intellect, in this galère, yet that is where his latest book, Where We Are: The state of Britain now, lands him. A kind of mystical Brexiteer, Scruton insists that British patriots respect the patriotism of other countries. Why should they? His book argues that the British variety is innately superior, being unconstrained by European institutions, seen by our ‘ordinary citizens’ as ‘deeply suspicious’.

Normally Scruton is a defender of elites rather than ordinary folk. So where does this leave the doctor, academic, MP, writer, artist, businessman or aristocrat who happens to admire certain aspects of, say, France: a country burdened by an over-mighty state and top-down institutions that nevertheless enjoys an enviable road, rail and airport system, independent shops and vibrant small-town life about whose absence here Scruton is so wistful, and a respect for culture in its more discriminating forms. And that leaves aside a high-quality, state-regulated wine industry, which in his guise as a wine critic Scruton has been known to praise.

As for French pride in la patrie, how can that exist at all, the French in their majority (i.e. excluding supporters of the anti-EU, pro-Putin, neo-fascist Front National) claiming to be simultaneously supporters of their state and a supranational body run from Brussels? And what of British anti-Brexiteers? When Scruton writes that patriots ‘are simply those who identify with their country, and recognize the need to make sacrifices for the common good’, he unwittingly defines a patriotic Remainer, ordinary or not. For them EU membership, with its opt-outs and ‘so far but no further’ stance, is a very British, patchwork way of promoting the economic, security and international welfare of the country through an association of like-minded states, while abandoning transcendental, sentimental, or neo-nationalist notions of patriotism to the mists of a bloody past.

Geoffrey Evans and Anand Menon’s Brexit and British Politics takes us back to migration. The authors admit that the referendum was ‘largely, but not entirely, about reducing immigration’, though they, too, concentrate on anti-EU grudges, as if pre-existing racial or cultural fears and resentments played no part in the vote. Yet there were voters who assumed that Brexit would help evict Somali, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi Muslims along with Poles, Romanians and others. To their shame, Gove, Johnson and Penny Mordaunt happily connived with Farage’s propaganda in this direction, not least in their untruths over the imminence of the entry into the EU of largely Muslim Turkey.

The book’s profiles of Leave voters are depressingly convincing: three-quarters of those who back capital punishment voted Out, the Brains for Brexit movement should note; and whereas the elderly, the poorly educated and the not too well off tend to be risk-averse, they were the mostly likely to vote Leave. A revealing moment comes when the authors explain the danger of Brexit reducing UK GDP to a woman in Newcastle, who yelled back ‘That’s your bloody GDP, not mine!’ It was an understandable reflex, considering how City folk were all for mass immigration while suffering none of its disadvantages.

The authors’ warning that the cost to British democracy could be severe if Brexit does not deliver is well taken, though their hope that a shake-up of politics and Corbynite radicalism could prove beneficial is questionable. If Brexit is ‘largely’ about immigration, by refusing to respond clearly to public concern, surely Corbyn has also increased the cost to British democracy. In 2017 he fought two contradictory campaigns, implying to Northern voters that Labour might incline towards a stronger stance on immigration while reassuring Southerners that it still upheld its internationalist ideals. Today such cynical fence-straddling remains at the heart of the party’s Brexit strategy. And it is the Brexit crisis that could help bring Corbyn – himself a lifelong Brexiteer – to power.

Once there, his radicalism and inexperience could provoke an economic crisis too. Compare the stark truths of Krastev: ‘Fear of

Islamic terrorism and a general anxiety over the unfamiliar are at the core of Europe’s moral panic. Not a ‘lack of solidarity’, as pious Brussels puts it, but a clash of solidarities – national, ethnic, and religious’. In his view the post-Cold War world is being replaced by a second phase of decolonisation, in which the colonised demand the right of entry to the colonisers’ metropolis. First they sought European-style self-government; now they assert a Western human right to be welcomed in Europe itself.

In a world of hyper-globalisation and self-determination, it appears that democracy does not work. ‘The people will not follow their leaders, and demand the unattainable. In the new populism the voters are consumers and their leaders waiters who hurry to satisfy their demands.’ (Baudelaire, who spoke of ministers as the domestic servants of the public, put it better.)

Krastev pointedly recalls a YouGov survey comparing a selected group of political junkies with youngsters who actively participated in the Big Brother reality show, revealing that the latter felt better represented in the Big Brother house. Peter Bazalgette, enriched by the series, was to be knighted under David Cameron, himself a former PR man in downmarket TV. Cultural levels matter. In referendums you reap what you sow. It takes a Bulgarian, it seems, to spot the real Britain.

For Krastev, Europe is criss-crossed with crises. The euro is in danger, for the usual reasons, and to complement the North–South divide there is an East–West one too, as Poland, Hungary and others suffer a compassion deficit on migration. Brexiteers will welcome his intimations of European doom, while failing to see how they themselves could be threatened, or that in Krastev there are intimations of hope. After the shock of Trump and Brexit, he thinks, and with Macron’s and Merkel’s victories, 2018 looks better. Survival should be the aim, and the spirit of compromise could help.

The fact that Europe’s post-nationalism, secularism and postmodernism (supposedly signalling the end of history) seem less likely to become a global model is a reason to preserve it, he believes, while leaving behind naive hopes. Well-protected borders will be needed, and a recognition that free trade is not a win-win game.

There are gaps in Krastev’s wisdom. ‘The geopolitical rationale for European unity’, he writes, ‘vanished with the Soviet Union’s collapse.’ On the contrary, the threat is now as great or greater. With its cautious collective leadership the late USSR would never have sent troops beyond its European borders, yet in Ukraine Russia has done just that, partly in opposition to the EU. Now we have a crisis over polonium and nerve agents. This is another field where Brexiteers are behind the game. They saw the EU as an outmoded political construct, but a warmer version of the Cold War is back. With my Helsinki experience in the 1970s, for me the irony is dismal: having worked successfully on Russia with Europe on entry we are now beseeching the EU for solidarity against Moscow, just as we are waving goodbye.

Brexiteers (and Trump supporters) will find plenty to cheer, too, in Coralie Delaume and David Cayla’s La Fin de L’Union Européenne. ‘In 2019, after two years of negotiation, will there still be a Europe to leave?’ (my translation). Germany is the authors’ bugbear, which they accuse of unbalancing commercial relations, so that by generating deficits in other countries the EU has participated ‘in the economic disorganisation of the planet’. The euro, they believe, has no future, any more than the ‘zealots of authoritarian integration’, and instead of co-operation Brussels promotes competition, regardless of geography, history and demography. Worse, Brexit could bring a new push towards German-dominated integration.

Yet here again there are bleak streaks of light. Airbus and nuclear research at CERN are models of Commission-free co-operation, and though the authors’ final goal is unclear, they favour a non-supranational Europe with enhanced social co-operation. On Brexit they are understanding, though ‘it is easier to leave somewhere you have never entered’.

Loukas Tsoukalis’s In Defence of Europe seeks to be positive about the EU’s future, not easy for a Greek. While Tsoukalis believes the EU has a strong survival instinct, he also remains gloomy on the euro, and though in favour of a degree of fiscal union to keep it afloat, he does not see that happening ‘for a very long time to come’. Nor does he believe that free movement can survive. The emphasis throughout is on the long haul, though to survive it we need more convincing arguments about how the euro can be reconfigured – ways the tablecloth can be removed while leaving the financial china intact.

How will Brexit proceed? Brexiteers swear by the market, though the market of world opinion seems unimpressed. The majority of countries, many the UK’s allies, watch the country with dismay and disbelief. Those in favour of leaving come down to Putin and Trump. What more is there to say? If the Labour moderate and Times columnist Philip Collins, who says our current political class is ‘the lowest in living memory’, is correct (and he often is), it would be reasonable to be worried. A celebrity-diseased country in which Johnson and Corbyn (and Rees-Mogg) can become serious political figures is in danger of serious self-harm. So much about Brexit is so un-British that the country’s super-patriots risk undermining the United Kingdom itself, whether in Scotland or Northern Ireland.

What of British prudence, pragmatism, moderation and scepticism about ideologies? Instead we have an increasingly venomous, dogmatic, chauvinist right-wing press. The hounding of Philip Hammond, who is being set up as a scapegoat for Brexit failures, is a Pravda-scented disgrace. And as with communism, if calamity ensues, the Right will say that Brexit was never really tried.

‘Selling Britain short’ or ‘gloom-mongering’ are the country’s cant phrases for questioning assumptions of past, present, or future glory, or for worrying about Brexit’s price: the diminishment of the UK’s international influence and the country’s obeisance before Donald Trump, the withdrawal of British-based EU institutions, the shrinking, apprehensive pound, stagnant living standards, or banking jobs leaving the City for safer climes.

The spectacle of such a talented yet leaderless nation stumbling blindly towards an unmapped future, tapping its stick fearfully as it goes, inspires sadness, shame and pity. As penury and not so splendid isolation loom, the question becomes, who are the patriots now?

George Walden is a former diplomat and was a Conservative MP from 1983 to 1997; he served as Minister for Higher Education from 1985 to 87. This article first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement


After Europe

Ivan Krastev (University of Pennsylvania Press, £15.99)

How To Stop Brexit (And make Britain great again)

Nick Clegg (Bodley Head, £8.99)

WTF: What have we done? Why did it happen? How do we take back control?

Robert Peston (Hodder and Stoughton, £20)

Where We Are: The State of Britain Now

Roger Scruton (Bloomsbury. £16.99)

Brexit and British Politics

Geoffrey Evans and Anand Menon (Polity, £40)

La fin de l’Union européenne

Coralie Delaume and David Cayla (Michalon, 19 euros)

In Defence of Europe

Loukas Tsoukalis (Oxford University Press, £18.99)

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